Goncharova Self-Portrait
Natal’ia Sergeevna Goncharova (Russian, 1881–1962), Self-Portrait, ca. 1907. Oil on canvas mounted on board. Gift of Thomas P. Whitney (Class of 1937), 2001.11.

Thomas Porter Whitney (1917–2007), a 1937 graduate of Amherst College, went to Moscow as a member of the US diplomatic corps during the Second World War. He married a Russian woman and soon became a connoisseur of the riches of Russian art and culture behind the public facade of the Soviet regime. When the couple relocated to the United States, in 1953, they were not allowed to export many cultural goods. Whitney began to collect rare books, manuscripts, and artworks in a systematic way only in the 1960s.

By the end of the 1980s Whitney had amassed over six hundred paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures by some 170 artists, most from the first half of the twentieth century. The collection he ultimately assembled represents the creative life of Russian cultural elites who, under the Soviet regime, were forced either to emigrate or to go underground to avoid persecution. Many of the artworks were purchased from émigrés who sold their possessions in times of financial need. The most significant works, however—including those on view in this exhibition—came from trusted galleries and auction houses.

Through the purchases he made, Whitney not only captured major trends in Russian art, but paid tribute to the multifaceted artistic currents—including sacred art, book illustration, geometrical abstraction, stage design, and the manifold treatments of representational motifs—that shaped twentieth-century Russian art. This exhibition presents highlights from Whitney’s collection, most of which he gave, toward the end of the century and near the end of his life, to his alma mater. 

Organized by Bettina Jungen, Thomas P. Whitney, Class of 1937, Curator of Russian Art. Presented with generous support from the Julia A. Whitney Fund for Russian Art and Faye DeWitt.