Times Staff Writer

J. Carter Brown, the director of the National Gallery of Art, was disappointed when the Soviet Union would not permit Henri Matisse’s large canvas “Harmony in Red” to be included in its exchange of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings being sent to the United States.

He didn’t stop asking for the painting, even after the Soviets agreed to lend another large Matisse work called “The Conversation” with its intense blue background.

When Brown visited the Soviet Union several weeks ago for the opening of the exhibition of 40 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings on loan from the National Gallery, he tried again. This time he succeeded.

Monday morning, crews were busily cleaning the glass on the painting, also known as “Red Room” (La Chambre Rouge), and drilling holes to hang what is considered one of Matisse’s masterpieces (the artist first painted it green and then blue before choosing red) at the entry to the exhibition of 41 paintings that opens here today and then moves to Los Angeles and New York.


“It’s a small show but very intense,” said Brown, adding that the exhibition includes “some of the finest examples of Impressionist to early modern painting anywhere.”

The show, arranged here in three rooms, is the first major art exchange to result from the cultural agreement signed by the United States and the Soviet Union at the Geneva Summit last November. Of the paintings, 34 works are being shown in the United States for the first time.

The paintings are from the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, whose collections of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early modern paintings were acquired primarily by two Russian businessmen who collected art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The works in the exhibition “are among the greatest masterpieces” created by the artists who include Cezanne, Gauguin, Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Renoir and Van Gogh, the gallery catalogue says.

But whether “Harmony in Red” goes to Los Angeles and New York remains to be seen. The Soviets have said the painting is scheduled for other exhibitions in Europe. As a result, the agreement Brown worked out, with the approval of the other museums on the tour, was to show the painting only in Washington.


At a preview Monday, however, industrialist Armand Hammer said he will pursue, in private talks with the Soviets, the possibility of keeping the painting with the rest of the tour. “I haven’t given up hope,” he said, adding that he learned the painting is not needed in France until October.

Hammer, who is credited with playing a pivotal role in arranging this exchange, also provided 127 paintings and drawings from his own collection to be shown in the Soviet Union this year.

He said the new exhibition of the Soviet-owned French paintings is especially memorable “because of the quality of the paintings and the timing of their showing at such a critical period in the history of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. relations.”

To be sure, it was Hammer who helped arrange the first U.S. tour of French paintings from the Soviet Union in 1973. He first approached the Soviet Union about the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings in 1961, but it was just after the American U-2 spy plane was shot down in 1960 and “I got nowhere,” he said.


Several years later Hammer asked again and thought his chances were improved when a new cultural minister asked him “Can you get me Grandma Moses?” In exchange, however, she offered a work depicting Russian Cossack singers, not the Impressionists. Hammer rejected that and settled instead for works by another Russian artist who painted mostly monks.

In 1972, after Nixon’s first summit meeting with Brezhnev, Hammer tried again, this time with success. The next year, the National Gallery opened its doors to the first exhibition of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings from the Soviet Union. Since then, several other paintings have traveled here.

Meanwhile, Hammer said, “The Russians realized that their greatest treasure as far as the West was concerned was their Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings.”

As a result, the paintings have become a medium for exchange all over the world. “That’s why it was so difficult for us to get ‘Red Room’ and ‘Conversation’ because they have been out of the country so long,” he added.


The show will be at the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art from June 26 through Aug. 12 and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from Aug. 22 to Oct. 5.