Art Collection as a Manifesto
C.T. von Neff and his Art Collections at Piira and Muuga Manor Houses
Estonian Institute
Tiina Abel
C.T.Neff The life of the Baltic German artist Carl Timoleon von Neff from Estonia (1804-1876, according to the Old Calendar) had dash and sweep. Born at the Pčssi manor as an illegitimate son of a French governess, Neff's career as a court painter, academic and professor spanned the reigns of Tsars Nikolai I and Alexander II. In St. Petersburg's high society, Neff was primarily known as a portraitist and painter of extremely popular bathers and nymphs. However, the artist received official recognition, titles and orders for religious paintings for Russian Orthodox churches. The geographical grasp of Neff's creative activities is reflected in paintings in St. Isaac's Cathedral, memorial churches in Wiesbaden and Nice, a Helsinki cathedral, the now restored Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer, and dozens of St. Petersburg houses of worship. The income for these commissioned works enabled Neff, despite his enormous workload, to travel, lead a princely life and collect art. His life exhibited the high voltage that accompanies creative challenges and whips up the imagination; to maintain this level of energy, it was necessary to establish an inspiring environment around the artist - the Italian palazzo at Muuga, which resembles a museum, and the park and interiors of Piira, which abound in works of art. Timeless lofty beauty and great ideas had to frame an everyday life full of hard work.


Piira The most impressive part of the artist's collection was made up of copies of famous sculptures, in expensive materials, from different periods, such as the Venus de Milo, the so-called Borges centaur, the Crouching Venus, 16th century sculptor Giambologna's Rape of the Sabine Women, August Kiss' Amazon (original 1839-1843) on the stairs of the Berlin Old Museum, etc. Copies of Antonio Canova's lions at the tomb of Pope Clemens XIII located at St. Peter's in Rome, as well as St. Mary with Child by sculptor Giovanni Vitali, who took part in building St. Isaac's Cathedral, can now be seen at their original place in the Muuga manor. The above-mentioned works of art were gradually supplemented by items of applied art and furniture in neo-styles, and over 70 paintings, the bulk of which were copies of the works of famous artists such as Raphael, Correggio, Poussin, Albani, Rubens, Rembrandt, etc., painted by the Neff himself.


Muuga Neff was obviously a talented painter and a fascinating person, whose status as an illegitimate child shaped not only his chances in the rigid Baltic German social realm, but also his nature. Having been born out of wedlock, Neff was not able to rely on the elaborate system of social connections, and his progress, from the very start, was dependent on the goodwill of others and, primarily, on his own efforts. This banal inevitability seemed, either consciously or unconsciously, to direct Neff's way of thinking and increase his ambitions. At twenty, while a student at the Dresden Art Academy, Neff confessed in a letter to a friend written in December 1824: 'I cannot bear the thought that together with my remains, also my fame and my name will rot away and fall into oblivion. I thus possess some pride, even more than necessary, I fear.' A young artist who is still establishing himself, behaves like someone who, in the apt words of Juri Lotman, has a right to a biography. In the case of Neff it is especially obvious how a set of chance events was filtered through cultural codes into a programme that then directed his behaviour. Writing a biography did not mean choosing a mask, but assumed an inner development, creation of a life in the direct sense of the word, and intellectual and spiritual serenity. Neff's developing perception of life left a miraculously lucid imprint on the art collections at the Piira and Muuga manorial houses. That is why they should be seen above all as a manifesto, a grandiose manner of self-expansion of his personality, presenting a world-view and conquering the past. Creating such a collection was never urged on by a smallminded cult of things. The idea of a work of art, its beautiful form and impeccable realisation, were the most significant factors. Neff knew that the art works around him told more about their collector than about art, revealing not only the owner's wealth but also his ambitions and imagination, familial ties and the spirit of the era.


Copy of Raphael Neff's art collection, especially the nature of the collection and location in the isolation of the two manor houses, reflect how the artist, successfully operating in the everyday, i.e. horizontal, dimension, felt a need for another, vertical, axis. 'He who decides to dedicate himself to art, will be plagued with the same gloom and misery as lovers: cries of joy reaching the skies, and melancholy for life,' claimed Neff. Elsewhere he expressed the conditions necessary for creating art: 'You have to be peaceful to paint, happy to paint well, and inspired to produce something truly extraordinary.' Neff's biographical selfconstruction, alas, carried with it a dramatic paradox: desiring immortality, he did not, nevertheless, quite manage, as we now know, to surmount the wall of obscurity. His biography was too autobiographical, 'written' by the artist himself, shaped without the intervention of outside energies that refresh collective memory. It is surprisingly autobiographical, in fact, considering his connection with Estonia and his successful career in St. Petersburg.


Portrait of wife Although self-portraiture is one of the key elements in Neff's collection, his activity contains typical features of the entire practice of 19th century collecting. In 1851 a huge exhibition of private collections took place at the St. Petersburg Art Academy, which ended the era of aristocratic collectors. It was a traditional collection of a nobleman, which contained the obligatory portrait gallery, a library of French-language books, West-European painting, and occasional items of applied art and furniture, amassed over several generations. Such a collection formed an environment of items of a conservative family life, the value of which was not measured by their artistic quality, but by cherished memories. The new type of collector who emerged during the period of change - Neff was a typical example - accumulated his collection rapidly and expertly and, in the process, established himself.


Bithynia Beside collectors who followed clearly formulated principles of collecting, Neff was a dilettante both in his selection of motifs and his limited resources. On the other hand, the lack of resemblance to a nouveau riche private collector reveals a great deal about Neff's personality. For Neff, acquiring works of art was not a pastime, but a lifestyle, an organised passion, in which free choice revealed man's true nature, turning collecting into a form of relating to the surrounding world. Things allegedly have their own biography and career in culture, and in that sense a collector's mind and heart work in close cooperation with works of art that have the strength to respond to the voice of his mind and heart.
Neff regarded his collection as a manifestation of his artistic ideals. Every work of art at Muuga and Piira acquired the status of a symbol, and related to the artist's own field of creation. Significant notions for the painter Neff, such as Italy, the Renaissance, antiques, and Raphael, found their embodiment through the activities of the collector Neff, in copies of Raphael's Madonna della Sedia, the Venus de Milo or Renaissance furniture. 'For him, works of art were always the expression of the soul, and that explains the essence of his own work as well,' wrote Mary von Grčnewald in her memoirs about her father. Items belonging to the collection convey the sense that the linguistic level and tone of object-related speech are most significant. There is no doubt that the collection of Neff speaks in a lofty style.



Giovanni da Bologna Neff differs from the newly rich collectors of his time in another aspect as well. Works of art were usually bought for the house, rather than a house being built for art, although new collectors all over Europe set up buildings to function as both living quarters and museum. They often took, as did Neff at Muuga, Renaissance style as their model. Precisely in such an art palace historical styles and Historicism as a world view smoothly blended into one. The onerous appearance of the Muuga manor confirms that Neff built it first of all as an art temple or a museum, the most important function seeming to be drawing the line between two areas: interior and exterior space. The mere comparison between the bustling St. Petersburg and a house erected for works of art in the middle of a marshy nowhere deepens the image that Neff saw the latter as a convent-type refuge for meditation. The essential task of the refuge was to be an idea-laden, intellectually enlightened place. It was perhaps also an illusion of freedom from what lay outside its walls. The place where Neff placed his art works can be seen as a construed space full of yearning for identity. When we regard an Estonian manor as a biological residence of the Baltic Germans, and interpret it as a landscape of resistance, the mansion and its interior belong among the essential elements of the design of its landscape. Works of art that surrounded Neff were able to transcend personal experience and connect with the outside world, and connect social experience with the personal world; they blended into the texture of human life, relating to the present and the past. Although things continue to live via interpretations, the things themselves alone have the strength to physically carry the past into the present. An art collection as an assemblage of items that acquired the flavour of new cultural contexts, turned out to be orally very effective in the space that, figuratively speaking, lay between Neff and the things he owned. Neff extended his self-image into that room: there took place a dialogue between the individual and the general, and the fruit of the conversation gave birth to self-declaration.

Tiina Abel

(1951), art historian, Vice Director of the Art Museum of Estonia. In 2003 curated the exhibition
The Artist and His Home: The Art Collection of Carl Timoleon von Neff from Piira and Muuga manors at Kadriorg Art Museum.



| Estonian Art 1/04 (14) | Published by the Estonian Institute 2004 | ISSN 1406-5711 (Online) | ISSN 1406-3549 (Printed version) | einst@einst.ee | tel: (372) 631 43 55 | fax: (372) 631 43 56 |