The Basilevsky Collection

The Basilevsky Collection

Alexander Petrovich Basilevsky (1829–ca. 1885?) was one of the foremost collectors of medieval and Renaissance art in the nineteenth century. His support of the Parisian Expositions Universelles and of various learned societies, design schools and museums in Paris and Russia contributed greatly to the promotion of medieval and Renaissance arts among other collectors, emerging artists, and the public at large. 

Although his father had fallen out of favor with the Russian tsar and moved the family to Paris around 1850, Basilevsky graduated from university in Moscow and subsequently held a number of high-level posts for the Russian government. As a young man, Basilevsky travelled extensively in the Far East and Europe, both for pleasure and for official business on behalf of the tsar. During trips to China and India, he began to collect eastern armor and weaponry. Throughout his life, however, his passion for collecting was focused primarily on objects that represented the history of Christianity from antiquity through the Renaissance.

In the mid-1860s, he settled with his wife and child in Paris, and there he became devoted to art collecting and patronage. A few years before, he had purchased objects from the Debruge-Dumenil collection (see HOLLIS no. 5919323), the Solitkoff collection, and the famous collection of Count Portales. Throughout the next three decades, he bought objects at an astonishing rate, occasionally selling off or donating parts of his collection but always maintaining one of the largest known to European society.

 In 1874, his friend and adviser Alfred Darcel (1818–1893), himself a curator at the Louvre and later Director of the Musée de Cluny, worked with Basilevsky to publish a catalog of the collection. It features 561 objects, including metalwork, ivories, glass, faience, ceramics, and enamels, grouped by media. 38 objects are identified as “Byzantine,” but most have since been reattributed to other cultures. The objects which are still recognized as “Byzantine” include a few of the ivories and the enameled icon of St. Theodore Stratelates. The icon was one of the objects Basilevsky purchased from Count Portales’ collection and had been reproduced in Labarte’s study.

In 1883, rumors that the collection would be put up for sale began to circulate, but, thanks to private negotiations between representatives of Tsar Alexander III and friends of Basilevsky, the whole of the collection (at that point 762 objects) were purchased for the Hermitage in 1885. With its acquisition, the museum established the Department of Medieval and Renaissance Art. Mikhail Botkin was asked to assist with arrangements to house and display the collection, and the museum appointed Nikolas Kondakov the department’s first curator. In an 1891 catalog (HOLLIS no. 4440445), Kondakov boasts that the Basilevsky collection raised the prestige of the Hermitage to the level of other major European museums. Some of the items were later sold off by the Soviet government, including the Carolingian Chalice of Grimfridus, which is now in the Dumbarton Oaks collection (acc. no. 33.4).

 
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