Rembrandts for Tractors: Soviet Art Export and the Creation of the U.S. National Gallery of Art


At the end of the 1920s, the Soviet Union started industrialization with no gold and currency reserves. The government feverishly sought gold to pay tremendous foreign debts acquired as a result of purchases of foreign equipment, raw materials, aid of specialists, and technologies. Export of art became one of the means to finance the Soviet industrial leap forward. This case study encourages readers to think about the extraordinary ways a government can raise money to finance its ambitious projects, and the implications that such state strategies might have for national cultural heritage and international cultural exchange. In this particular case, the 21 masterpieces of Western art from the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) sold by Stalin’s government to the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, formed a core of the famous National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

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The Hermitage Paintings Sold by the Soviet Government to Andrew Mellon, 1930–1931
  • Man in Oriental Costume by Rembrandt van Rijn and Workshop (Probably Govaert Flinck), c. 1635. At the time of sales to Mellon, the painting was called Turk and was considered a work by Rembrandt. Doubts about the authorship were first expressed in the late 1980s. Restoration of the painting in the 1990s allowed the National Gallery of Art (NGA) experts to claim that the lower part of the torso and arm, that are not finished, belong to Rembrandt’s hand. It turns out that Rembrandt’s usual practice was to sketch a composition, leaving it to his assistants to work on details. In this case, turban, face, and shoulders were finished by the master’s assistant, probably Govaert Flinck. Over the past decades, hundreds of paintings in the world’s leading museums and private collections, including four of those sold to Mellon, lost Rembrandt’s authorship. Image:
  • Joseph Accused by Potiphar’s Wife by Rembrandt Workshop, 1655. In the Hermitage, this was considered a work by Rembrandt. In the 1990s, the NGA experts declared it to be work by one of Rembrandt’s pupils. The painting was restored in the 1980s. Image:
  • A Woman Holding a Pink by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1656. In 1994, Rembrandt’s authorship was questioned, the NGA experts expressed an opinion that the painting is by an artist in Rembrandt’s workshop. Image:
  • A Girl with a Broom by Rembrandt Workshop (possibly Carel Fabritius), probably begun between 1646 and 1648 and completed 1651. At the time of purchase by Mellon, the painting was considered to be by Rembrandt. The authorship was first questioned in 1969. Restoration work performed in NGA in 1992 confirmed the doubts. Image:
  • A Polish Nobleman by Rembrandt, 1637. The only picture among the Hermitage Rembrandts sold to Mellon where authorship is not in doubt. It is still considered the first-class work of the master. Historians argue about who is depicted on this beautiful canvas. Image available:
  • Henry, Duke of Gloucester by Adriaen Hanneman, c. 1653. At the time of sale to Mellon, the painting was considered to be a portrait of William II of Orange by Van Dyck. In 1977, as a result of research, the NGA experts changed the attribution. Image:
  • The Finding of Moses by Paolo Veronese, c. 1581/1582. Image:
  • Portrait of Isabella Brant by Anthony van Dyck, 1621. In the Hermitage the painting was considered Peter Paul Rubens’ work. In 1991, the NGA experts changed the attribution. Image:
  • Portrait of a Flemish Lady by Anthony van Dyck, probably 1618. Image:
  • Susanna Fourment and Her Daughter by Anthony van Dyck, 1621. Until the end of the 19th century, van Dyck’s authorship was not questioned. Subsequently, several scholars began to attribute it to Rubens. Mellon bought this painting as Ruben’s work. Soon after the NGA received the painting, its experts restored van Dyck’s authorship. Image:
  • Philip, Lord Wharton by Anthony van Dyck,1632. Image:
  • Saint George and the Dragon by Raphael, c. 1506. Image:
  • The Alba Madonna by Raphael, c. 1510. One of the best works of the great master. In September 2002, both Raphaels (see also 12., above) that had been sold to Mellon, The Alba Madonna and Saint George, returned to their former home, the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, as part of a temporary exhibition of the world masterpieces. It is not difficult to imagine how the Russians felt while looking at these great canvases, now forever lost for Russia. Image:
  • Portrait of a Member of the Haarlem Civic Guard by Frans Hals, c. 1636/1638. Image:
  • Portrait of a Young Man by Frans Hals, 1646/1648. Image:
  • The House of Cards by Jean Siméon Chardin, probably 1737. In autumn 2007–winter 2008, this charming picture briefly returned to its former home, the Hermitage, to the exhibition of the world masterpieces. Image:
  • Pope Innocent X, Circle of Diego Velázquez, anonymous artist, c. 1650. In the Hermitage, the painting was considered a work of Velázquez, although some doubts were expressed. Melon bought this painting as Velázquez’s work. The attribution was changed in 1989 by the NGA experts after studying the painting. Rejection of Velasquez’s authorship disappointed many fans of this canvas (including the author of this case), as evidenced by letters of gallery visitors preserved in the NGA archives. An X-ray analysis of the picture showed that the portrait was painted over a portrait of a young man. Image:
  • The Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1478/148. Image:
  • Venus With a Mirror by Titian, c. 1555. Image: The X-rays of this painting taken by the NGA in the early 1970s produced a sensation. Two more images were revealed under the image of Venus. First, the artist painted a horizontal double portrait of a man and a woman. Probably, he could not sell the portrait and decided to ‘recycle’ the canvas. Turning it vertically, over the double portrait Titian depicted Venus, similar to the final image, but wearing a white tunic. He preserved part of the man’s costume from the original portrait—a red corduroy drape with a fur edge—to cover the lower part of Venus’ body. Only in the last and final depiction of Venus, did Titian eliminate the tunic, presenting Venus as the true goddess. Image:
  • The Annunciation by Jan van Eyck, c. 1434/1436. In 1997, this painting was shown at an exhibition in its former home, the Hermitage. Image:
  • The Crucifixion with the Virgin, Saint John, Saint Jerome, and Saint Mary Magdalene by Pietro Perugino, c. 1482/1485. Image:
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