The Other Side of Sergei Tretyakov

When the Museum of Private Collections opened in January, its mission was to highlight the roles that patrons of the arts and other collectors have played in Russia's cultural scene over the years. The Pasternak family, for instance, had an extensive assemblage of art, as did the children of avant-garde painter David Shteremberg.

Pavel and Sergei Tretyakov hardly need a boost in that sense. Their memorial gallery has existed in Moscow in one form or another for more than 90 years, and has become the premier museum of Russian painting. Nevertheless, there is an aspect to Sergei, the younger of the two brothers, that has been overlooked as time passed. He adored and collected 18th- and 19th-century French art.

The museum's fine exhibit of Tretyakov's considerable assemblage of works marks the first time since 1925 that the collector's Russian and French paintings have been displayed together. The result is a compelling show comprised of some 60 paintings, photos, letters and other documents.

Tretyakov, who died in 1892 at age 58, had a keen eye for Russian art and a soft spot for the French realists of the Barbizon School. Despite living in Paris during the birth of impressionism, that movement did not grab him much, so he turned to the more conservative work of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Th?odore Rousseau. The most famous canvas in the collection is probably Rousseau's "In Fontainebleau Forest," a dark, delicate, wooded landscape that Tretyakov bought from the writer Ivan Turgenev. Paintings by G?ricault, David and Delacroix round out the French part of the show.

Like philanthropists such as Savva Mamontov -- who actually built a colony where artists could work in peace outside of Moscow -- Tretyakov was concerned with the creative trials of Russian painters. He turned his home at 6 Gogolevsky Bulvar into an open house where painters could come to study his collection. Valentin Serov, a tremendously talented contemporary of Repin and Vrubel, became close with Tretyakov, and his portrait of the collector is the centerpiece of the exhibit.

The interesting thing about this superb portrait is that Serov painted it from photos and, to some extent, memory almost 20 years after Tretyakov died.

Tretyakov served as Moscow's mayor in the late 1870s and early 1880s, and there is no doubt of his civic vision. When he died, he left his entire collection to the city. In 1925, the French canvases were moved to the Pushkin Museum in order to make the Tretyakov Gallery a solely Russian museum. A commendable idea, but it ruined the continuity of Sergei Tretyakov's personal collection.

That is where the Museum of Private Collections comes in. Its specialty is giving space to art that has been out of public view -- either in museum storage or in private homes. After the Tretyakov exhibit, for example, there will be a display of the art collection of Alexander Rodchenko's family. Rodchenko was one of the leading Russian constructivists who excelled in painting, sculpture, industrial design and photography.

Not everyone gives high marks to the museum, which is an affiliate and next-door neighbor of the Pushkin Museum. Alexei Kovalyov, who writes about art for the daily Segodnya, thinks that the museum appeared too late. Although the Tretyakovs donated their treasures to the city, many later artists' families had to fight to keep their creative property from being confiscated by Soviet authorities.

"Before, private collectors needed to be protected," he said at the gala opening last January. Now Russia has lost much of its artistic property, because "many found a way to sell their art abroad. Now the museum is only important as a new building, and I think it looks like the offices of a big business firm."

Regardless, for the first time in 70 years, the artistic taste of one of Moscow's most prominent citizens can be seen in its entirety. Don't miss the opportunity.

Sergei Tretyakov's collection is currently on view at the Museum of Private Collections, located at 14 Ulitsa Volkhonka. The museum is open Wednesday to Sunday from 1 to 6 P.M. Tel. 203-9578. Nearest metro: Kropotkinskaya