Japanese prints of the XVIII –XIX century from the collection of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts







The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow has one of the largest collections of Japanese art in Russia, as well as one of the earliest to be assembled in that country. It consists of approximately 300 late Edo and early Meiji-period paintings, more than 500 illustrated books and albums, and several thousand woodblock prints, including works by the ukiyo-e masters Kitagawa Utamaro, Katsushika Hokusai, Utagawa Hiroshige, Utagawa Kunisada, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, and others.

The bulk of the Museum's Japanese collection once belonged to the Russian naval officer Sergei Nicholaevich Kitaev (b. 1864), a native of the Ryazan region1. Kitaev entered the Naval College in St. Petersburg in 1878 and went into active duty upon graduating in 1881. He was nominated for navigation abroad in 1885, and for more than ten years served on ships that sailed near Japanese -shores, including the clipper Vestnik, the frigate Vladimir Monomach, and the cruiser Admiral Kornilov. Kitaev was promoted to the rank of colonel in 1909 for his brilliant service and was granted the highest military honors. He remained affiliated with the navy after returning to St. Petersburg until his resignation around 1912 due to failing health.

The most detailed information concerning Kitaev's activities as an art collector comes from correspondence with his friend, the painter P. Pavlinov (1881-1966), who had served together with Kitaev in the navy2. Reminiscing about Kitaev, Pavlinov later wrote:

. . . Sergei Nicholaevich was a widely educated person who disposed of large sums of money and who was interested in the fine arts from his youth; he himself painted with watercolors and made drawings. When he went to Japan he became acquainted with Japanese art, and during his journeys began to collect. The works he bought were often in poor condition so he arranged to have them restored in Japan. While on his ship he kept the works in hermetically sealed metal cylinder boxes to protect them from the dampness. Upon returning to Russia, Kitaev continued to pursue his interest in art by meeting with painters and constantly thought about his collection's future.

It is interesting to note that Kitaev collected not for commercial or investment reasons but for the noble purpose of introducing Russians to Japanese art. In a letter to Pavlinov he wrote:

Personally I am in love with it [the collection] and I am not interested in selling it quickly; I only regret that it is not public property which would enable it to bring pleasure to people interested in art . . 3.

Similar concerns about the future of the collection appear in Kitaev's letter to I. Tsvetaev (1847 - 1913), the founder of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts. Kitaev wrote:

I would like to remind you about the Japanese collection. Would it not be suitable for the museum? As you know, Japanese art is presently very influential on European art, and the major cities there have taken care to secure examples. My collection is still in Moscow in metal boxes. I do not want it to be transferred abroad and am jealously keeping it for Russia, but regretfully there is no possibility to donate it free of charge. As you may recall, its cost is 15,000 rubles4.

The museum did not purchase the collection then, nor later in 1916, when Kitaev proposed that the government buy it at the increased price of 150,000 rubles. According to Pavlinov, "The war was going on and there were no such sums of money available."

Upon retiring from the navy because of illness in 1916, Kitaev decided to go abroad for treatment. At that time he arranged to store his collection at the Rumyantsev Museum in Moscow, and from there it was transferred to the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in 1924. By this time Japanese art was already being collected by European and American museums. It is known that the first Japanese prints reached Europe after the death in 1812 of Isaak Titsing, who had been chief of the Dutch trading station on Dejima Island in Nagasaki. But it was not until the middle of the 19th century that the passion for Japanese art in the West began. At that time Japan was in the active process of modernization following the Meiji Restoration, and through its growing contacts with the West many foreigners were introduced to Japanese culture.

Early publications about Japanese art appeared simultaneously in England5 and in Russia, the latter represented by A. Visheslavtsev's Essays by Pen and Pencil from the World Tour (St. Petersburg, 1862). Serving as a physician on a ship that toured the world from 1857 to 1859, Visheslavtsev brought back to Russia Japanese paintings and albums of sketches. All of these works were transferred to the Society for Encouraging Arts in St. Petersburg.

Interest in Japanese art increased after the world expositions in London (1863) and in Paris (1867). Accordingly, the occasional purchases by sailors and travelers were supplanted by the serious collecting and study of Japanese art by scholars and diplomats knowledgeable about the country. In this connection, Kitaev wrote:

. . . Following the abolishment of the feudal system the learned samurai class was shattered ... art treasures that had been collected by many generations came on the market, in part voluntarily and in part not. Resourceful Europeans, especially the educated ones invited by the Japanese government to develop the various sciences and Western-style art, managed from 1860 to collect many wonderful examples of Japanese art. Moreover, after returning to Europe and America they began to introduce these arts to their fellow countrymen . . . But Russian diplomats . . . were not interested in art . . .

In contrast to the above-mentioned Russian diplomats, Kitaev was captivated by Japanese art and at that time collected a considerable number of artworks. He wrote that the works were bought "... in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Yokohama, Kobe and many other cities and villages; in the space of several years my agents probably traveled all over Japan ..." Kitaev also visited some Japanese artists and their families, such as Ogata Gekkō. Particularly interesting are his contacts with the descendants of Kishi Ganku. Kitaev wrote:

His [Ganku's] huge tiger ... as well as other works done by him and his pupils were bought by me from his descendants living near Ōtsu. I went [to Ōtsu] especially for these works, having heard about them from one of my agents . . . There is a law in Japan now . . . that original works by some artists cannot be exported, but my Kōrin, Ōkyo, Seishu, Hanabusa Itchō, Yamamoto Baiitsu, Rosetsu, Kikuchi Yōsai, Sosen, and Ganku slipped through before this law . . .

Concerning the merit of his collection in comparison with others in the West, Kitaev wrote:

I visited all of the European countries except Spain, Portugal, and the Balkan peninsula, examining museum and private collections. In London in 1910 I saw a treasure trove of ancient Japanese art that was exported according to a special decree of the Mikado on the occasion of the Japan-British Exhibition (the only time during Japanese history), to show the King, the highest dignitaries, and members of the British-Japanese [Society] and the French-Japanese Society, the latter of which was invited from Paris. It was not open to the general public . . . From what I have noted above, I am certain that my collection occupies the second place in Europe in terms of quality and quantity. The first place will always be held by the engraver Chiossone's collection, which according to his will was given to Genoa.

Although modern research may not support Kitaev's assessment of his collection, American ukiyo-e specialist Roger Keyes confirmed that it is one of the largest in Europe though yielding to some in quality. The range in quality resulted from the fact that Kitaev bought widely, gathering together works of art by artists of different schools in order to acquaint Russians with this little-known field. The most obvious shortcoming of his collection is the fact that many of the illustrated books and albums are not in their original format, i.e. Kitaev had some of his purchases (prints as well as drawings) trimmed and pasted into albums in Japan. Moreover, some parts of the collection were probably lost or destroyed. Kitaev wrote:

. . . being a bridegroom and wanting to spare the feelings of my bride7 who would later see the collection, I discreetly gave away a large group of erotic pictures (shunga) to the person who was with me on the cruise. If I remember correctly it was Lieutenant S. Hmeleff, who may have died in the battle at Tsushima.

Nevertheless, Kitaev's collection has many merits, one of which is the fact that it is one of the earliest collections assembled by a Westerner within Japan itself, often purchased directly from Japanese painters. Kitaev was led not only "by his taste and the eye of an amateur painter," but he also received advice from collectors and connoisseurs of Japanese art. Concerning his contacts with Japanese art connoisseurs Kitaev wrote:

... In addition to my three friends, some Japanese specialists visited me in order to admire the artworks. [Among them was] the famous actor Ichikawa Danjurō (portrayed in many prints by different artists), who was wealthy and the owner of a beautiful art collection. But the most meaningful for me was the visit of Mr. Okakura, Director of the Tokyo Academy of Art . . . and Professor of the History of Eastern Art, who lectured on this subject at the Academy. He was appointed to this post by the late Mikado himself. In preparation for his lectures, he [Okakura] visited Japanese collections and also traveled around China (which was the fountain-head of Japanese art). We looked for a long time at examples [from my collection] and I listened to his opinions. He approved and praised many of them and, as a farewell, invited me to visit the Academy.

Foremost in Kitaev's collection are the ukiyo-e prints and illustrated books and albums by famous artists of the 18th and 19th centuries. Among them are some unpublished prints and rare surimono by Hanabusa Itchō, Kubo Shunman, Torii Kiyonaga, as well as triptychs by Kikukawa Eizan, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, and others. Kitaev was especially fond of Hokusai and wrote to Pavlinov:

... I was in love with him more than the others during my first acquaintance with Japanese art, so much that I made a pilgrimage to his grave . . . I'll show you the pictures and the watercolor I made of his monument and the cemetary where he is buried. His relatives were not alive . . . Later on I found more powerful painters so now I have many favorites, but his [Hokusai's] art is all-encompassing. Hokusai is truly remarkable . . . There was no better treat for me than to receive an album of sketches or drawings or to find an illustrated book of this "Japanese Dore."* My friend Araki-san in Nagasaki had them carefully trimmed and pasted. His [Hokusai's] contemporaries (not to mention the craftsmen to whom he was indebted) did not especially approve of him and found it difficult to accept his touches of Westernization. He had at his disposal Dutch engravings, and he was one of the first Japanese painters to study anatomy from life . . . Moreover, he was a drunkard ... As a result of all of these things he lived as a pauper, but now his works of art . . . amass millions.

There are some rare books and prints by Hokusai in the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, including five tanzaku prints such as Horses under a Blossoming Cherry Tree, some prints from an early Tokaido series; and a landscape printed in blue (aizuri). Also interesting are an early surimono from around 1800 as well as examples representing his mature period from the Genroku kasen kai awase series. According to Matthi Forrer and Roger Keyes, Kogai from Hokusai's Genroku kasen kai awase surimono series in the Pushkin Museum is lacking in the most famous Japanese collections8.

The first exhibition of Kitaev's collection opened in St. Petersburg in 1896. After being displayed there in the Academy of Art, the exhibition was shown in Moscow in 1897 at the Historical Museum, where Kitaev delivered several lectures on Japanese art. In the winter of 1905 - 1906, after the Portsmouth Peace Treaty was signed, a third exhibition was held at the Rerich's Society in St. Petersburg. The first catalogue listing of the collection was published in 1896, and reissued in 1905.

The study and popularization of the collection initiated by Kitaev continues today. Exhibitions of prints, accompanied by catalogues, were held at the Pushkin Museum in 1956, 1972, and 1989, and some works have been included in traveling exhibitions to other parts of the country. In addition, books and articles based on the exhibited works have been published, and a comprehensive scholarly catalogue of 2000 works has been prepared. Thus, in a way, Kitaev's dream has been realized, for he assembled this collection for his nation and dreamed about its "... becoming public property." His collection is now the property and the pride of our country. Since he introduced Japanese art to Russia and therefore enriched our country's culture, it is possible to compare Kitaev with such famous Russian collectors as P. Tretyakov, the founder of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, or S. Schukin and M. Morosov, whose collections of Western European art are now in the Pushkin Museum.


1 Much of the information concerning Kitaev's life in this essay came from the State Naval Military Archives of the USSR, Dossier No. 1777.

2 Pavlinov gave several letters he had received from Kitaev to the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts on 17 April, 1959.

3 From letter dated 7 July, 1916 from Kitaev to V. Gor-shanov, staff member at the Rumyantsev Museum and later the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts.

4 Letter dated 15 March, 1898 from Kitaev to I. Tsvetaev. Archive of Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Dossier 1475.

5 K. Corwollis, London, 1856 and S. Osborn, London, 1861.

6 The quotations in this paragraph were excerpted from Kitaev's letters to Pavlinov dated 15 and 20 of August, 1916, and from a letter to V. Gorshanov dated 7 December, 1916.

7 Kitaev married Anna Zamyatina, the daughter of a guild merchant, and had a son Innokentii.

8 M. Forrer and R. Keyes, "Very Like a Whale ?," A Sheaf of Japanese Papers in Tribute to Heinz Kaempfer on His 75th Birthday (The Hague: Society for Japanese Arts and Crafts, 1979).

* Gustave Dore (1832 - 1883) was a French artist known for his fantasylike paintings and woodcuts, many of which are extant.


Published after: Catalogue of Japanese Art in The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts \ Report of Japanese Art Abroad Research Project, Vol 1.\The International Research Center for Japanese Studies. Nichibuken Japanese Studies Series 1. - 1993