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Alexis Gritchenko. Amphitheatre (detail), 1921. BF277. © 2021 Alexis Gritchenko Foundation

About Research Notes

Did you know that we are always trying to learn more about our art collection? The Barnes has a team of curators, scholars, conservators, and archivists who actively research the treasured works on view in our galleries. We work continually to link collection objects to their original histories, and almost every day we uncover something new—from small details like when a piece entered the collection, to larger discoveries like unknown sketches on the backs of two Cézannes!

We also study our own history as an institution. The Barnes archives, with material dating back to 1902, is a wealth of information about works in the collection—and about the ideas and people that formed it.

Barnes Research Notes presents some of our most recent discoveries and interpretations. Read the newest entry below, and keep scrolling for past notes.

Alexis Gritchenko at the Barnes Foundation

By Amy Gillette, Collections Research Associate
July 2021

On January 5, 1923, Dr. Albert C. Barnes acquired a stash of paintings by avant-garde artists during a milestone collecting expedition in Paris.¹ Most of the artists were young immigrants championed by the dealer Paul Guillaume, whom Dr. Barnes had appointed as his “foreign secretary.” Of special note were works by Chaïm Soutine (1893–1943) and Alexis Gritchenko (1883–1977), both artists from the western reaches of the recently dissolved Russian Empire (Lithuania and Ukraine, respectively).

Dr. Barnes bought 14 landscapes by Gritchenko—a series of Mediterranean settings that twined tradition and profound personal expression. Later that month, Guillaume included all 14 paintings in Exhibition of Works Destined for the Barnes Foundation (Galerie Paul Guillaume, Paris, January 22–February 3, 1923). Ten of these canvases appeared again, all with the title Landscape, in the version of the show presented at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in April–May 1923. Guillaume gifted the artist a catalogue from the PAFA exhibition, inscribed: “To Alexis Gritchenko, the Slav from Attica, this salvo of praise for the magnificent, thrice-great artist. May 4, 1923.”²

Fig. 1: Alexis Gritchenko. Mistra, 1921. BF415. © 2021 Alexis Gritchenko Foundation

Fig. 2: Alexis Gritchenko. Amphitheatre, 1921. BF277. © 2021 Alexis Gritchenko Foundation

Of the 14 Gritchenko landscapes purchased in 1923, seven are still in the Barnes collection today. All are scenes of Greece and Crete rendered in gouache and/or oil on paperboard, signed by the artist, and dated 1921.

When these paintings entered the collection, their titles simply described the subject matter—Agitated Landscape: Greens and Browns, for example—giving no hint to the specific locations depicted. Happily, new research has allowed us to identify several of the sites. They include the Byzantine city Mystras in the Peloponnese region of Greece, neighboring ancient Sparta, the classical amphitheater at Epidaurus, the gulf and mountains of Corinth, and the bay of Heraklion, Crete (Figs. 1–4).

Fig. 3: Alexis Gritchenko. Mountains with Two Figures, 1921. BF2066. © 2021 Alexis Gritchenko Foundation

Fig. 4: Alexis Gritchenko. Sailboats, Crete, 1921. BF2541. © 2021 Alexis Gritchenko Foundation

Gritchenko’s path to painting Hellenic landscapes was meandering. He started his studies at the seminary of Chernihiv in Ukraine (1900–1904)—and though he ultimately didn’t pursue holy orders, he sustained a love and sensitivity for holy icons. He subsequently earned degrees in philology and biology at the universities of St. Petersburg (1904–6), Kiev (1906–8), and Moscow (1908–13). While at the University of Moscow, Gritchenko took painting classes at the Russian Doctors’ Society and from there quickly immersed himself in the history and theory of art. He spent part of 1911 in Paris, learning French at the Sorbonne and copying famous works at the Louvre, and in 1913,³ he visited 28 cities in Italy by foot!⁴

Back in Moscow, he taught at the State Art Studios, served on the Commission for the Preservation of Historic Monuments, and, maybe most importantly, built formative relationships with mogul collectors Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov. Both had amassed troves of art by the Nabis, impressionists, symbolists, postimpressionists, Fauves, and cubists—Gritchenko found works by Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso particularly stimulating. Morozov also held a rich collection of Byzantine and Russian icons, which Gritchenko catalogued for him.⁵

During these years, the substance and style of Gritchenko’s work took shape from the harmonies he discerned between Byzantine and Russian icons, early Italian painting, and modern art. He wrote two treatises on the topic: Russian Painting and Its Ties with Byzantium and the West (1913), and The Ancient Rus Icon as the Art of Painting (1917).⁶ The former begins with the medieval period and culminates in a comparison of Picasso’s 1912 painting Le Violin to an icon. Gritchenko argues that Picasso had built a “new whole” from the instrument’s fragments, deepening the relationship between the subject and its plastic form, and thereby revealing the violin’s “inner life.” This sense of animation, he said, was critical to holy icons, to show they are “ensouled” with the archetype depicted (the person of Christ or the Virgin Mary, for instance).

The latter treatise evolved from Gritchenko’s work with Morozov’s icon collection and a trip to Italy, where he discovered “a ‘Cubist’ resolution of space and color” in 13th- and 14th-century frescoes and panel paintings by Duccio, Cimabue, and Giotto. Additionally, emergent scholarship on late Byzantine architecture by Gabriel Millet and Charles Diehl prompted Gritchenko to refine his ideas by seeking common sources for Russian and Italian art in the mosaics and frescoes of famous sites, like the Kariye Camii (Chora Monastery) in Istanbul and its aesthetic successors in the monuments of Mystras.⁷ It’s worth noting that these publications register a perceived need to legitimize the art of Byzantium through that of Italy.


Fig. 5: Rear view of the Kariye Camii (Chora Monastery), Istanbul, 2007. Public Domain.

In February and October of 1917—the same year Gritchenko published The Ancient Rus Icon as the Art of Painting—political revolutions radically altered cultural life in Moscow, resulting in the seizure and nationalization of Shchukin’s and Morozov’s art collections.⁸ Gritchenko fled Russia in fall of 1917 and evidently set about manifesting in his own paintings the theories he’d expressed in his treatises. He settled initially in Constantinople, Byzantium’s historical heart and the seat of the Ottoman Empire from 1453 to 1922.⁹ Here, the artist created scores of watercolors and gouaches of sacred spaces and street scenes.¹⁰

Thanks partly to reading Millet and Diehl, he was enraptured with the Kariye Camii, a 14th-century church and chapel designed by the eccentric scholar-statesman Theodore Metochites, in apparent accord with his own mannered literary style (Fig. 5).¹¹ The jangled planes of this Gritchenko watercolor animate its undulating domes, multicolor masonry, enormous flying buttress, and Ottoman minaret; the four patchy clouds seem to share the building’s spirit. The Byzantine architectural scholar Robert Ousterhout has described the Kariye as “a series of interlocking spaces in which architectural forms and decoration fit together. . . . We are led—personally, experientially, from one space to the next by narrative, gestural, and architectural connections”; it is perhaps no wonder that Gritchenko formed a personal bond with the building that surpassed its scholarly acclaim.¹² Be that as it may, his friendships with Byzantinists were only beginning. In 1920, 66 of Gritchenko’s Constantinople watercolors were purchased by Thomas Whittemore, the American archaeologist and collector in charge of restoring Hagia Sophia.¹³

Fig. 6: View of Mystras, Greece. Photograph by Ed89, distributed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

Fig. 7: Pantanassa Monastery, Mystras, Greece, 2017. Photography by Meltedrainbow, distributed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Gritchenko used proceeds from the Whittemore sale to travel to Greece and Crete in 1921, the period in which he created the paintings acquired by Dr. Barnes. It seems that the site of Mystras moved him to integrate the expressive, cosmopolitan aesthetic of late Byzantine fresco painting with the modernist analytical approach he’d already mastered.¹⁴

Mystras was first settled around 1250 by the crusader William II de Villehardouin, ruler of the Frankish principality of Achaea (Fig. 6). After the brief period of Crusader rule, it became the capital of the Byzantine Despotate of the Morea, governed by members of the Byzantine imperial family; the building visible on the ridge of the hill in Mistra is the Palace of the Despots. The city became a major center, linked culturally and economically to Constantinople and the Mediterranean sphere and linked, through intermarriage, with the courts of Western Europe, until its takeover in 1460 by the Ottoman Empire.

In 1921, Gritchenko—echoing his absorption in the Kariye—now immersed himself in the 15th-century church of the Pantanassa Monastery, home to a community of nuns who to this day offer hospitality for visitors and colony of cats (Fig. 7). His watercolor simultaneously integrates the church into Mystras and makes it the dominant feature. The church reads as a microcosm of the city’s visual culture, between the Italianate bell tower, the Gothic-style festoons and lancet window frames embellishing the apse wall, and the exquisite late Byzantine fresco program.¹⁵ Gritchenko wrote to Whittemore, “Every morning I went to [the Pantanassa] for an hour, worked, enjoyed myself in solitude, and made copies of the frescoes. I’d climb the ladder and examine fresco after fresco on the high pilasters.”¹⁶ He added that the nuns scolded him for this practice.

Fig. 8: Ensemble view, Room 20, south wall (detail), Philadelphia. © The Barnes Foundation

Fig. 9: Ensemble view, Room 22, north wall (detail), Philadelphia. © The Barnes Foundation

When looking at Gritchenko’s paintings at the Barnes, we might notice first that his softly jagged, fractured geometries resemble Cézanne’s views of Provence. In Room 20, Dr. Barnes’s ensemble brings attention to artists’ shared focus on the skeleton of things, the construction of space through geometric shapes, and the pressing of spatial distances onto the frontal plane (Fig. 8).¹⁷

Likewise, in Room 22, he highlighted Gritchenko’s adaption of cubism by placing Mistra and Fortified Town (another view of Mystras) next to Roger de la Fresnaye’s Married Life (1913) (Fig. 9). But Room 22 is also full of art that Dr. Barnes considered Gothic or Byzantine in style, such as a Hugh Mesibov pastel that he named Byzantine Figure (BF2073) (Fig. 10). A look at these paintings alongside Gritchenko’s favorite Byzantine monuments reveals another layer of the artist’s devotion to facture and “inner force.” For example, his scumbled brushwork asserts the materiality of his paint, which appears to glimmer in candlelight, like an icon during an evening service. (Fig. 11). Perhaps, then, his paintings should be considered cubist “icons” of sacred historic sites, imaging forth their living presences as Gritchenko experienced and interpreted them.

Fig. 10: Hugh Mesibov. Byzantine Figure, 1945–1946. BF2073.

Fig. 11: Detail of brushwork in Gritchenko's Mistra.

Gritchenko once proclaimed that “to purge the ghost of retrospectivism, aestheticism, and decorative pollution” from painting, artists must “review the entire arsenal of painting and disclose the sum of their experience upon a single plane positioned between the artist and the viewer.” His creative blend of tradition and personal idiom appealed to Dr. Barnes both aesthetically and pedagogically.

In January 1923, when Dr. Barnes was in Paris for his watershed purchase of Gritchenkos, Soutines, and other works, he had his new foundation in mind and its goal to “establish a reaction between the qualities common to all human beings” as manifest in “a collection of works of old and modern art” shown side-by-side.¹⁸ A note to Gritchenko from Violette de Mazia, the Barnes’s education director from 1951 to 1987, affirms that Gritchenko’s paintings were good for teaching:¹⁹ It is a unique gift that as Gritchenko embedded his experiences of historical sites in his paintings, Dr. Barnes and his colleagues embedded these works within the new syntax of the galleries, so that we as viewers and students may continue to build new bridges with the paintings through our own encounters here.


Past Research Notes

May 2021

From Thebes to Philadelphia: Tracing the Provenance of an Egyptian Relief

See how a chance discovery allowed us to trace a Barnes relief back to its original context in an Egyptian temple and to uncover more details of the object’s history.

December 2020

de Chirico’s Alexandros

Alexandros marked a stylistic departure for painter Giorgio de Chirico, who was largely known for his metaphysical works. Is there more beneath the surface of this seemingly straightforward scene?

Giorgio de Chirico. Alexandros, 1935. BF960. © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome

September 2020

Egyptomania and the Barnes Collection

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Egyptomania swept the nation—and had a major effect on Dr. Barnes’s collection.

Egyptian. Relief from the Tomb of Khay, 1279–1213 BCE. A107. Public Domain.

May 2020

Violette before Barnes

Thanks to newspaper accounts, materials in our archives, and her own writings, Violette de Mazia’s impact and legacy are clear. But who was Violette before the Barnes?

Unidentified photographer. Violette de Mazia, Angelo Pinto, and others under Seated Riffian (detail). c. 1930s. Violette de Mazia Collection. Barnes Foundation Archives

March 2020

de Chirico’s The Mysterious Swan

A close look at this enigmatic painting by the prolific Italian artist reveals both a pastiche of childhood memories and his philosophy of metaphysics.

January 2020

Early American Glass in the Barnes Collection

Though sometimes overlooked, the glass objects within the Pennsylvania German cupboard in Room 19 are examples of one of America’s earliest craft forms

November 2019

Dr. Barnes’s Pretzel Tankard

Probably used for beer or cider, the tankard bears the emblem of the bakers’ guild and the inscription: “May God in Heaven bless the field / Bake big bread so that we may make a little money.”

September 2019

Dr. Barnes, Joan Miró, and the Spanish Civil War

If Miró's imagery seems to emerge from the realm of the unconscious, it is at the same time very connected to real-world events.

July 2019

Demuth’s Count Muffat’s First View of Nana at the Theatre

A newspaper critic noted that “whoever enjoys a whimsical imagination will revel in Mr. Demuth’s illustrations of Zola’s Nana... The man who obtains this group of illustrations will be a lucky man.” In March 1922, Dr. Barnes was that lucky man.

May 2019

Tall Case Clock

The sheer number of clocks collected by Dr. Barnes suggests he had an interest beyond timekeeping.

March 2019

Veronese's Baptism of Christ

The Carnegie Museum wanted to know: Did this painting once belong to the Earl of Northbrook's collection of Italian, Dutch, Flemish, and French old masters?

January 2019

Starnina’s Head of an Angel

How did art historians piece together the mystery behind this panel? A quasi-forensic search spanning decades was involved.

October 2018

de Chirico’s Horses of Tragedy

The painting, which depicts a group of horses in a mysterious architectural landscape, is most likely related to images of the Christian apocalypse, which de Chirico may have seen as connected to the rise of fascism after World War I.