Imagine this. It is Russia and the beginning of the 20th century. You are a student, a journalist, an intellectual or simply an art lover. You’ve heard of these radical impressionists that are scandalising French society. How do you see what all the fuss is about? You simply head to Moscow, for it’s there that you’ll be able to feast your eyes upon some of the most cutting-edge modernist artworks coming out of France.

Pablo Picasso, Woman with a fan (1908). All photos © State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The course of art history would be very different indeed if it weren’t for two Russian art collectors, Sergey Shchukin and Ivan Morozov. Both businessmen from textile families, they represented the merchant class’s growing patronage of the arts within Russia, filling their palatial homes with works by Matisse, Picasso, Gauguin, Cézanne and Monet. A significant proportion of both collections are now held by the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, the endpoint of a long journey involving state confiscation, nationalisation and the escape of both men from an increasingly repressive Russia.

Some of these magnificent works...