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Refining the Russian Collection

When I arrived at the Brooklyn Museum in the spring of 2010, I began a careful review of the Russian holdings and within months my colleagues and I identified a core group of avant-garde paintings from 1860-1930, which led to the current installation Russian Modern. During this time, we also identified a painting by Vasily Vereshchagin—one of three in the collection—for deaccession: A Crucifixion in the Time of the Romans.

Vasily Vereshchagin. A Crucifixion in the Time of the Romans

Vasily Vereshchagin, (Russian, 1842-1904). A Crucifixion in the Time of the Romans, 1887. Oil on canvas, 116 x 156 in. (294.6 x 396.2 cm).

Crucifixion by the Romans is a wonderful example of Vereshchagin’s passion for late 19th-century European academic painting. Theatrically staged in 1st-century A.D. Jerusalem, the picture is typical of the dramatic historical spectacles—here of capital punishment under the Roman Empire—that wowed period audiences across Europe and America. Today the painting continues to impress the viewer with its monumentality and academic exoticism or Orientalism, which Vereshchagin learned firsthand in Paris from the style’s principal exponent, Jean-Léon Gérôme. In preparation for the painting, Vereshchagin completed a series of architectural and ethnographic studies on site in Palestine; this endowed his work with an awesome sense of realism.

Crucifixion is not, however, an example of Russian avant-garde painting—the focus of Brooklyn’s collection— which in Vereshchagin’s own lifetime meant critical depictions of modern Russian society or Critical Realism. (The Museum owns two iconic Critical Realist paintings by Vereshchagin of the Russo-Turkish War, A Resting Place of Prisoners and The Road of the War Prisoners, both now on view in Russian Modern.)  Crucifixion by the Romans is a powerful expression of Vereshchagin’s foray into Orientalism, and as such it merits greater study and exposure than it could get here, where it was last on view in 1932.

Vasily Vereshchagin. The Road of the War Prisoners

Vasily Vereshchagin (Russian, 1842-1904). The Road of the War Prisoners, 1878-1879. Oil on canvas, 71 1/2 x 110 1/2 in. (181.6 x 280.7 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mrs. Lilla Brown in memory of her husband John W. Brown , 06.46

Cultural institutions are evolving, thanks to the constant examination, reassessment, and ultimately refinement of their holdings. When an object enters a museum collection, it is officially accessioned and registered and “deaccessioning” is art-world speak for officially removing an object from the collection. After an object is deaccessioned, it is normally disposed of, most often by transfer to another institution, sale, or trade. This is a normal and, frankly, healthy part of collection management; it allows an institution’s scarce resources to be concentrated on the care of remaining works that continue to fulfill their original purpose to the collection. According to the professional practice guidelines of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), “deaccessioning and disposal can be a legitimate part of the formation and care of a collection and, if practiced, should be intended to refine and improve the quality and appropriateness of the collection.”

Brooklyn’s Russian collection is first and foremost avant-garde. In evaluating and reconfirming this collection strength, it was determined that Vereshchagin’s Crucifixion was not appropriate for the focus of our holdings. However, only our Board of Trustees can make the decision to deaccession a work from the collection. The Board does this on the recommendation of our Collections Committee, who in turn is presented with a recommendation from the curators and Director. The curator’s recommendation is informed by a careful study of the object in question and its relationship to the collection as a whole. Discussions with scholars, curators, and collectors, in this case of 19th-century Russian painting, further inform the curatorial recommendation. By complying with this rigorous process of checks and balances, we avoid exposing ourselves to unnecessary risk and mismanagement of the collection.

All three Brooklyn paintings by Vereshchagin were included in the artist’s landmark 1891 sale in New York, and all three entered the Museum’s collection in 1906 as gifts—without restrictions—from Mrs. Lilla Brown, who donated them in memory of her husband John W. Brown.  In keeping with standard US museum guidelines for deaccessioning, Mr. and Mrs. Brown will be acknowledged on the credit line of any artwork purchased with the proceeds from its sale. At this time the Brooklyn Museum has not identified a specific work of art for acquisition. The decision to sell Crucifixion by the Romans is based principally on the painting’s incongruity with the Museum’s avant-garde Russian holdings.

I welcome your questions about the Museum’s decision to sell this painting.