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Anatole Demidoff (1812-1870)

A journey to Russia in the 19th century

Between Art and Diplomacy

« Acta non verba »

"Deeds, not words"

Demidoff's Motto

Karl Brioullov (1799-1852), Portrait équestre d'Anatole Demidoff, 1831, Huile sur toile, 314 x 227 cm, Florence, Galerie des Offices

© Collections du Palais Pitti, Florence - Gabinetto Fotografico delle Gallerie degli Uffizi


The illustrious Demidoff dynasty, a family of industrialists, has shaped the history of Russia for nearly 300 years. Their exclusive exploitation of iron mines, dedicated in part to weapons manufacturing and railway construction, contributed to establishing their influence and power in Russia and Europe. They also owned silver and semi-precious stone mines in the Urals and Siberia. The discovery and exploitation of rich malachite deposits on their lands from 1835 onwards further increased their immense wealth. Throughout their history, the Demidoffs demonstrated benevolence as a virtue, constantly aiding the less fortunate. As benefactors and patrons of the arts, their collection remains one of the most prestigious in art history. The family was ennobled by Peter the Great in 1720.

In 1828, upon the death of his father, Anatole Demidoff inherited the fabulous fortune and collection of artworks amassed over the previous hundred years by his family, who were masters of ironworks and suppliers of arms to the imperial armies, greatly augmented by the exploitation of silver mines in the Urals, and since 1835, by the discovery of rich malachite deposits on their lands.

Count Nikolai Demidoff was born in Saint Petersburg in 1773. He married Elisabeth Alexandrovna Stroganoff, with whom he had two sons, Paul and Anatole. Moving between Paris, Italy, and Russia, Nikolai Demidoff distinguished himself through his political involvement and eclectic taste for the arts. As a private advisor and Chamberlain to the Tsar, he was appointed Commander of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. In 1812, at his own expense, he led and raised a regiment of Cossacks to combat the advance of Napoleon I in the Battle of Borodino, earning recognition from Tsar Alexander I.

Salvatore Toci (1756-1844), Nicolas Demidoff, non daté, Saint Pétersbourg, Musée russe

© CC - Justelipse

As a great patron of the arts, in 1814, he purchased the San Donato monastery from the Roman Catholic Church, which encompassed 42 hectares of marshy land north of Florence. In the 17th century, the San Donato estate belonged to the Regular Canons of St. Augustine Portuense, who had built a chapel that later became the Church of San Donato de Paulverosa. In the 18th century, it passed to the Confraternity of Umiliati, and then to the nuns of Santa Maria Maddalena delle Convertite. It was secularized in 1809 by order of the French government, and Alessandro Melchior was appointed as the curator of San Donato.

In 1822, Count Nikolai Demidoff, after multiple journeys between Europe and Russia, became the Russian ambassador and settled permanently in Florence at San Donato. Giovan Battista Silvestri, the architect of the Uffizi Palace in Florence, was commissioned to construct the Palazzo San Donato, which began in 1822 and was completed in 1831. This palace drew significant inspiration from Palladian villas and was accompanied by an estate featuring rivers, lakes, farms, silk mills, a zoo, a hippodrome, gardens, greenhouses, a railway, hospitals, charitable institutions, and churches, including the Demidoff Orthodox Chapel. Nikolai Demidoff established numerous hospitals and charitable foundations in the malaria-infested regions surrounding Florence.

In 1827, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Leopold II, was sufficiently impressed by these grand projects to appoint him Count of San Donato, and in 1840, his younger son, Anatole Demidoff, was granted the title of Prince of San Donato.


In 1828, Nicolas Demidoff passed away and left behind two orphaned children. Anatole Demidoff, born in 1812, was then sixteen years old. From a young age, he followed in his father's footsteps by embarking on a diplomatic career. Initially serving as a diplomatic attaché for the Russian embassy in Paris and Vienna in the 1830s, he represented Tsar Nicholas I at the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837. During the Crimean War (1853-1856), he financed the Russian war effort. A pioneer in humanitarian work, he established an international committee in Constantinople in 1854 to provide assistance to prisoners of war, laying the foundation for the Red Cross, which continues to support and visit victims of armed conflicts worldwide to this day.

Anonyme, Portrait d'Anatole Demidoff

At the death of his father, Anatole Demidoff inherited the villa of San Donato along with the museum located within the estate. It housed paintings, sculptures, minerals, armor, and a library with nearly 40,000 volumes. Among the remarkable paintings in this collection, Nicolas Demidoff had acquired eleven paintings by François Boucher and twenty-three signed by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, as well as Jean-Honoré Fragonard's "La Fontaine d'Amour" (now preserved at the Wallace Collection in London).

Count Paul Nicolaievitch Demidoff (1798-1840), eldest son of Count Nicolas N. Demidoff and brother of Count Anatole Nicolaievitch Demidoff, was also an art enthusiast. He saved what remained of the Villa Medici in Pratolino by moving into the outbuildings and making it his residence.

After his father's death, Anatole Demidoff continued the construction of the Villa San Donato. In 1840, he married Mathilde Bonaparte (1841-1904), daughter of Jérôme Bonaparte and Catherine de Wurtemberg. Their relationship was tumultuous, and they divorced by decision of Tsar Nicholas I in 1847.

Edouard Dubufe (1819-1883), Portrait de la princesse Mathilde, 1861, Huile sur toile, 240x155 cm, Versailles, Musée du château et des Trianon

Anatole Demidoff had a taste for eclecticism, appreciating Old Masters of the Dutch school, decorative arts from 18th-century France, objects of virtue or historical value, as well as romantic paintings depicting ancient history. He had a special affinity for Eugène Delacroix, who painted a portrait of the count in a work from 1833, commissioned by Charles de Mornay but destroyed in 1914, titled "Portrait of Charles de Mornay and Anatole Demidoff." In 1838, the count commissioned another painting from the master, "Christopher Columbus and His Son at La Rabida," currently preserved at the Washington National Gallery of Art.

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), Christophe Colomb et son fils à La Rabida, 1838, Huile sur toile, 90,3x118cm, Washington, National Gallery of Art © Chester Dale Collection

Politically, Anatole Demidoff was ethousiastic about Napoleon's ideas, which never wavered. In 1851, he had a museum built near the former residence of Napoleon in San Martino on the island of Elba, which he had acquired from the Napoleon family. The museum was intended to display his memories and objects that had belonged to the Emperor. On this occasion, he arranged for a Mass to be sung in honor of the former Emperor, a tradition that is still celebrated every May 5th in Portoferraio.


Anatole Demidoff organized and financed an exploration and mineralogical survey campaign of the coalfields in the Donets Basin, Crimea, and southern Russia, led by the scientist and economist Frédéric Le Play. Demidoff and Le Play contributed to the development of a prosperous new center of civilization known as the "New Russia," assimilating the Greek, Serbian, and Armenian peoples. The first expedition was organized in 1837, followed by a second one launched the following year.

To document these research efforts in the newly acquired Russian territories, Anatole Demidoff authored a book titled "Voyage dans la Russie méridionale et la Crimée, par la Hongrie, la Valachie et la Moldavie" (Journey through Southern Russia and Crimea, via Hungary, Wallachia, and Moldavia), which was published in 1839. The success of this scientific contribution was followed a few months later by another expedition composed of French artists and scholars, providing a detailed depiction of Russian society and its heritage.

André Durand and Auguste Raffet, both friends and protégés of Demidoff, lent their artistic talents to this journey. The vast and inexhaustible empire of Russia fascinated and captivated the European elites. Demidoff made it his mission to challenge the preconceived notions that France held towards his country, offering an unprecedented ethnographic vision for the time. Departing from Le Havre and passing through Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, and more, the team under his patronage embarked on a voyage along unexplored Russian territories, where monuments and landscapes had never undergone serious investigation. The enigmatic riches of Russian Orient unfolded through the study of a multicultural heritage, where Mongol, Scythian, and Caucasian influences intertwined with Byzantine art. Domes, houses, fortresses, and palaces were meticulously depicted, showcasing their centuries-old architecture. Concerned for the welfare of the working class and an advocate for the abolition of serfdom, Demidoff also sought to portray the everyday lives of the underrepresented rural population in all their diversity. Following the publication of the illustrated account of this expedition, titled "Voyage pittoresque et archéologique en Russie," featuring 100 illustrated plates, a frontispiece, and a dedication to his wife, Princess Mathilde Bonaparte, He earned recognition from the scientific community, and most importantly, from the new Tsar, Alexander II.

Letter from Anatole Demidoff addressed to Her Royal Highness Madame Mathilde Bonaparte, Princess of Montfort

"August 25, 1840

My dear Mathilde,

This swift journey through the central regions of Russia was closely linked in my mind to the overall plan of my studies on this vast Empire. It connected the work I have already accomplished in the south with the more significant endeavors that I intend to undertake towards the north. Serving as a picturesque link between these two serious undertakings, this sketch seemed to hold some value to me.

You, dear friend, have truly bestowed upon it a real value in my eyes by graciously accepting its dedication on the day you accepted me as your husband, on August 25, 1840."


Multiple auctions were organized to disperse the Demidoff collection in 1861, 1863, 1869, and 1870, the year of Anatole's death. In 1880, Paul Pavlovitch Demidoff, Anatole's nephew and heir, parted ways with the Villa San Donato. On March 15, the first major sale of the furnishings and collections from the Palace commenced, followed by nine more sales. Among the sold works, we can mention a version of Ary Scheffer's painting, "Francesca da Rimini" (1835, London, Wallace Collection).

Ary Scheffer (1795-1858), Francesca da Rimini, 1835, Huile sur toile, 166,5x234 cm, cadre probablement réalisé par Félicie de Fauveau, Londres, Wallace Collection © The Wallace Collection

Russian version of the video:


Prices on request

We are showcasing an exceptional collection of 93 drawings, created by André Durand and Auguste Raffet during Anatole Demidoff's second expedition and reproduced in the album "Voyage pittoresque et archéologique en Russie," published under the guidance of the Russian Count and Prince.

André Durand was born in 1807 in Seine-Maritime. He became a student at the Municipal School of Drawing and Painting in Rouen and exhibited his works at the Salon from 1833 to 1864 in the category of "Architecture." In 1841, he notably exhibited three subjects from the picturesque and archaeological expedition in Russia led by Prince Anatole Demidoff. During this expedition, he created several views of religious monuments, combining the magnificent Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed in Moscow with a wooden village church.

Thanks to his work, Durand was appointed a correspondent of the Comité des travaux historiques et scientifiques. He went on to collaborate on other archaeological and ethnographic publications, such as the "Excursion pittoresque et archéologique en Russie," published in 1848 by the Gihaut brothers, which featured 100 plates by Durand, as well as numerous archaeological notices in the Journal de Rouen. In the introduction of a "Notice historique et archéologique sur Gaillefontaine et ses dépendances," he expressed his vision of archaeology: "If one considers archaeology as shedding light on history and making the interpretation of our annals and related popular traditions easier through the study of monuments, it can be affirmed that it has already rendered immense services. Indeed, this science encompasses, in its vast horizon, the study of antiquity and the Middle Ages."

During the journey, Auguste Raffet was responsible for depicting the figures. Born in Paris in 1804, he provided models for the National Manufacture of Sèvres before entering the Swiss Academy and the School of Fine Arts in Paris. His body of work is particularly rich and eclectic, reflecting his taste for travel and the representation of distant lands. He also portrayed the history of Napoleon's conquest on several occasions, including his painting "Le maréchal Ney à la redoute de Kovno," which is now housed at the Louvre Museum in Paris. Raffet passed away in 1860 during a stay in Genoa.

Collection of 93 studies for the album "Voyage pittoresque et archéologique en Russie."

The cities depicted include Le Havre, Hamburg, Lubeck, Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Yaroslavl, and Kazan.

The work is directed by Prince Anatole Demidoff.

The drawings are done from life by André Durand (1807-1867), and the figures are illustrated by Auguste Raffet (1804-1860).


Collection de dessins montrée dans l'exposition, "Anatole Demidoff. Un voyage en Russie au XIXe siècle entre art et diplomatie", [Paris, Centre spirituel et culturel orthodoxe russe, 26 septembre au 13 octobre 2017].

Articles liés à l'exposition :

- "On en parle", La Gazette Drouot, n°32, 17 septembre 2017, p. 182.

- Elsa Cau, "Anatole Demidoff et ses "Voyages Pittoresques" au Centre culturel russe", Connaissance des arts [en ligne], 6 octobre 2017.


- BNF, 5 Rue Vivienne, ? Paris

Département estampe et gravure, microfilm ref UB254FOL (R056499 à R056601)

- Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, 1 rue de Sully, 75004 Paris

Ref BR47304, 8 pages de tables

- Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal

Ref BR47304

- Anatole Demidoff, sous pseudonyme, Lettres sur l'Empire de Russie publiées dans Le Journal des Débats entre 1838 et 1839, Paris : Béthune et Plon, 1840

- Le Citoyen Vindex, La Fille, Mathilde Bonaparte, Femme Demidoff, Librairie Martinon, 14 Rue Jean Jacques Rousseau, Paris, 1870.

- Francis Haskell, L'Amateur d’Art, Librairie générale Française, 1997, page 222.

- Villa San Donato

Antiquités Rodriguez Décoration

Direction artistique : Roxane Rodriguez

Coordinatrice : Déborah Lalaudière

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