The State Museum of Art was established in 1920 with the initial aim of supporting and popularizing national art. Right from its beginnings, history determined that a collection of foreign art which was carefully added to over time, joined the works of Latvian art at the museum.
A law on the State Museum of Art as an independent institution was adopted on the 7th November 1924 and was ratified by the President of Latvia at the time, Jānis Čakste. Its mission was stated in the first section of the law: “The task of the State Museum of Art is: to collect, store and exhibit national art treasures, as well as those of other nations, and to facilitate the popularization of the best works of art.”1
The origins of the primary direction for the State Museum of Art collection can be found in the period which is notionally called the “museum before the museum”. In winding up the state protected repository of artworks at the Riga Stock Exchange’s Business School, the museum received a sizable collection of foreign artworks at its moment of establishment in early 1920, but the collection of Latvian art had to be developed completely from scratch. This is why Museum Director Burkards Dzenis purposefully invited the transfer of works of art acquired by the Latvian Art Promotional Society to the new institution in the autumn of 1921. In order to gain support, Dzenis, as a former co-creator of the society and the collection, emphasized the idea of succession: “The museum is maintained by the Latvian state, and in its aims, albeit impossible to realise in full because of the current difficult financial situation, it may nevertheless be regarded as the same national art museum, that the serious Latvian Art Promotional Society had at one time suggested.”2
With the establishment of the State Museum of Art and the development of its collection, parallelism and competition with the Riga City Art Museum inescapably appeared. In the view of Māra Lāce, the current Director of the Latvian National Museum of Art: “Both museums differed in their ownership, traditions, size and nature of collections but they were united by the aim of their directors to commence the assembly of a collection of Latvian art from scratch. [...] both museum directors, Burkards Dzenis at the State Museum of Art and Vilhelms Purvītis at the City Art Museum, had set themselves a highly ambitious aim, difficult to achieve given the particular historical situation and circumstances – to form collections of Latvian national art at both museums that would be comprehensive and of a high artistic quality.”3
In the preface to the first summarizing publication Vadonis pa Latvijas Valsts mākslas muzeju [Guidebook to the Latvian State Museum of Art] Museum secretary Dāvids Vecaukums concluded: “Up until 1st April 1926 […] 559 items of art have been obtained for the Latvian State Museum of Art and exhibited within it. The majority, 437 of these items, are testimony to the creative spirit of Latvian artists. In terms of eras, the majority of these works were created in the first quarter of the 20th century, i.e. from 1900–1925. Works from earlier eras come from the last five decades of the 19th century. [..] Looking at it chronologically, currently the oldest work in the museum is Portrait of Miss H. Cimze painted by J. Roze, which was created in 1851. In a similar way, J. Roze is also the oldest Latvian artist found in the museum (born in 1823). Following on from him, there are academic Kārlis Hūns (born in 1830), academic Jūlijs Feders (born in 1838), Ādams Alksnis (born in 1864), Arturs Baumanis (born in 1866) and Janis Rozentāls (born in 1866).”4
In systematically collecting Latvian art history, the State Museum of Art’s collection was regularly supplemented with the creative heritage of artists from earlier periods in the form of purchases, gifts or bequests, which were provided by private collectors, relatives of artists and other persons or institutions. Contemporary artefacts were mainly obtained from interwar-era art institutions, and often the artists themselves encouraged the purchase of their own achievements. Individuals living in Latvia and elsewhere supported the creation of the collection with valuable bequests of Eastern and Western items of art. With a change in budget financing and purchasing policy, the works for the State Museum of Art’s collection were selected by a committee, which always contained Director Burkards Dzenis and at different times Konrāds Ubāns, Jūlijs Madernieks, Teodors Zaļkalns, Valdemārs Tone, Jānis Kuga, Ernests Brastiņš, Jānis Roberts Tillbergs and Kārlis Miesnieks.
Reports provided regularly by the Ministry of Education clearly reveal the growth of the State Museum of Art – initially its activities were confined to “five rooms” at Riga Castle, but by the end of 1938, works of art for viewing by the public were already being exhibited in eighteen rooms. The following were listed in the Latvian and foreign art collections owned by the museum: “1506 paintings, graphics and drawings, 790 sculptures and other works of art, and 1,160 books about art.”5
1 Valdības Vēstnesis, 1924, No. 254, 7th Nov.
2 LSA, 1659. f. , 1. apr., 12. l. , pg. 223.
3 Lāce, Māra. Daži fakti par nacionālās mākslas kolekciju veidošanu. From: No de facto līdz de iure. Latvijai topot. Māksla un laikmets. Compiled by Aija Brasliņa. Rīga: Latvian National Museum of Art; Neputns, 2008, pgs. 201–202.
4 Vadonis pa Latvijas Valsts mākslas muzeju. Rīga: State Museum of Art, 1926, pg. 10.