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Voyage Pittoresque Aux Etats-unis De L’amÉrique.
Not all Russian diplomats in America have had ice water in their veins and a ready “Nyet” upon their lips. One of the first of them left an illustrated record, subsequently “lost” for more than a century, which pictured a people he liked and a land he admired
February 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 2
The first Russian to publish an eyewitness report of the American scene was Paul Svinin, a graduate member of the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg and a widely travelled polyglot in his country’s foreign service. During his stay of twenty months in the United States, from the autumn of 1811 to the late summer of 1813, Svinin compiled a portfolio of fifty-two water colors of American subjects. In 1814, as he paused in London en route to Russia, Svinin received “advantageous offers” to publish his sketches together with an account of his experiences in the new republic. But the outspoken anti-American bias of the English publisher was so completely contrary to the Russian artist’s own sentiments that he rejected the proposal. Rather, he averred, his own fatherland should “reap the first fruits of my labors.” His Picturesque Voyage in North America was in fact published in St. Petersburg in 1815, almost immediately after his return to Russia, and he wrote other reports in subsequent years. Of the water colors, however, only a very few were reproduced in his own lifetime—in Russia—and upon his death in 1839 the portfolio disappeared from view for almost a century. So to all intents did the published accounts of his American experiences, which apparently remained completely unknown in this country.
In the early 1920’s the water colors returned to the United States in the luggage of an American Red Cross worker who had purchased them while serving in Russia during the agonizing days that followed the Bolshevist revolution. They entered the collection of R. T. Haines Halsey, an American collector, who recognized them as a unique and unheard-of graphic account of our republic in its early years. By an unparalleled coincidence, at almost the same time Avrahm Yarmolinsky and H. M. Lydenburg of the New York Public Library, on a buying trip in Russia, stumbled across a copy of Svinin’s published report on America in which six of the water colors were rather poorly reproduced. A reference to the “lost” portfolio turned up in another of Svinin’s books, and while Dr. Yarmolinsky from the New York library canvassed the museums of Russia to locate the portfolio, Halsey, not far from Yarmolinsky’s base in New York, was making equally determined efforts to identify and fill in the background of the hitherto unknown artist.
Inevitably the two men met, and the separate halves of the story were pieced together. Almost everything that is known of Svinin was brought to light by Dr. Yarmolinsky; most of the quotations in the accompanying article are from his published translations of Svinin’s writings. The Russian diplomat’s charming water colors are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York.