Andrey Avinoff (1884-1949)
"I cannot understand why people are more interested in individuals like myself than they are in butterflies," Andrey Avinoff once quipped. In an age of specialization, Dr. Avinoff brought his versatile sensitivity to a wide range of disciplines. He was both a worldly scholar and an astounding artist. It was difficult to decide whether to call him an entomologist, museum director, explorer, mystic, linguist, professor, musician, iconographer or diplomat. Director of the Carnegie Museum from 1926 to 1945, Avinoff pioneered unique multi-disciplinary exhibits and helped to provide a broader experience of natural history.
As Chairman of the International Committee on Museums of Science under the League of Nations and vice-president of the American Association of Museums, his influence was far-flung. The Carnegie Institute's 1953 retrospective was appropriately entitled, "Avinoff: the Man of Science, Religion, Mysticism, Nature, Society and Fantasy."
"Painting, to Andrey Avinoff was simply an extension of perception,' wrote Linda Pate Fox. "The artist in Dr. Avinoff seemed to flow from the scientist, and he happily blended his skills as a painter to illustrate discoveries in the world of nature as well as those in his own spirit. He seemed to feel that art should complement science-that the two were intertwined and not at opposite poles of reality as is frequently felt."
Avinoff developed a passion for butterflies and painting during his lyrical Chekhovian childhood on the family estate in Ukraine where he started a small collection a the age of 5 beginning with catching subjects for his sister and famous portrait artist Elizabeth Shoumatoff. General Serge Avinoff, hero of the Caucasian wars, left his nephew Andrey a significant inheritance. This allowed Andrey to pursue his childhood passion, enabling him to finance 44 expeditions throughout arctic and central Asia collecting butterflies and exploring. He personally explored Pamir, Ladakh, Kashmir, Tibet, Russian and Chinese Turkestan,thus receiving the Gold Medal of the Imperial Geographic Society of Russia in 1917 in recognition of his zoo-geographic research. His collection of 80,000 butterfly specimens was nationalized by the former U.S.S.R., but was later made available to him and he was able to re-collect most of the specimens for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
Avinoff discovered several genuses of butterflies, specifically the Avinoff hairstreak of Jamaica which bears his name, while he named many others such as the Parnassius Autocrator. His role in entomology was not limited to his vast collection, he also made important scientific observations that have provided a greater understanding of wing-pattern development in the Asiatic species, Rhopalocera. "On the very first day I set foot on American soil I found myself in the familiar and congenial company of fellow entomologists," Avinoff wrote of a meeting of the Entomological Society at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. "I was on the premises of an institution of which I myself was to be trustee many years later."
Avinoff, profiled once by New Yorker columnist George T. Hellman, was also recently featured by Maraleen Manos-Jones in her book The Spirit of Butterflies. Yet the greatest account of his life is by his grand-nephew Alex Shoumatoff in his book Russian Blood. Nicholas Shoumatoff, Avinoff's nephew started work on a more comprehensive biography: Rhapsodies of Panorama and Enlightenment.
Avinoff was born on February 14, 1884 in Southwestern Russia. He grew up in Uzbekistan where his father, General Nicholas Avinoff was stationed, as well as on his mother's country estate, Shideyevo, in what is now Eastern Ukraine. Admiral Alexander Avinoff, his grandfather, participated in the epic battle of Trafalgar with Admiral Nelson, discovering Cape Avinoff in Alaska. His great-grandfather, Vladimir Panaieff, was an amateur lepidopterist and was the Minister in the Imperial Court of Nicholas I, in charge of the Imperial Hermitage, a private art collection, and it was under his jurisdiction that it became established as a museum in 1852. Like many young men of his time, Avinoff served the government as Assistant Secretary General of the Senate and was appointed Gentleman-in-Waiting to Czar Nicolas II in 1911. He became foreign liaison in the Diplomatic Corps and served as Director of Ceremonies to the Czar until 1916.
When later asked at a Pittsburgh socialite event, whether he was elected to be in charge of protocol at the Russian Court he replied, " Yes I was. But were I to go there now, I should be elevated to a still higher position-- with the help of my necktie."
His intuition about the dangerous Revolutionary climate in Russia enabled him to recommend that his family emigrate to the United States in 1916. They embarked on the last Trans-Siberian train out of the country. During his first years in the U.S. he worked as a commercial artist, designing artwork for Colgate, Palmolive, Underwood Typewriters, Pall Mall and Johns Manville Roofs among others.
Later, through his charming wit, sharp eye and humble spirit, he did his part to contribute thoughtful guidance to many eager intellects grappling with the theories of Einstein and other scientific break-throughs in what became his home town. His knowledge of virtually all artistic traditions, human history and more than a modicum of natural history, enabled him to initiate discourse on a great many topics in a wide range of fields. Andrey Avinoff became the Director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh in 1926, one year after he was recruited to head up the entomology department. He remained Director for the next 19 years, as well as filling many official and unofficial posts in the community of Pittsburgh. He lectured at the University of Pittsburgh in the departments of Biology and Art History, later recognized with a Chair in the Biology Department carrying his name. His lectures included: Nature as Reflected in Art and Art in Nature, Plants in Art, Animals in Art seen through the Eyes of Flemish and Dutch Painters, the Art of Paleolithic and Neolithic Man, as well as innumerable lectures on Motifs on Persian Art and Russian Iconography. Avinoff was a favorite of many in his community, who flocked to hear him speak on countless subjects at the University of Pittsburgh.
Although referring to himself as an "amateur," to local papers such as the Post-Gazette, most journalists noted the irony of this from a man who spoke ten languages, served on the International Association of Museums as President, amassed one of the world's largest butterfly collections and established himself as a leading botanical painters of his day. He also designed and painted the famous Nationality Rooms at the University of Pittsburgh. He illustrated a number of articles and books including a collection of Tibetan folk tales called The Magic Bird of Chomo Lung Ma. He received the National Book of the Year award for his 253 watercolor renderings for Wildflowers of the Western Pennsylvania and Ohio Basin. He produced over 125 orchid "portraits," 50 of which were published as a portfolio by Harrison Conroy.
Towards the end of his life, he stepped aside as Director of the museum and dedicated more of his time to painting, moving to New York to live with his sister and famous portrait artist Elizabeth Shoumatoff. At that time, he became increasingly intrigued by mystical themes. He produced an extraordinary folio that is eerily prophetic in light of our modern cataclysms, illustrating an epic poem by George Golokhvastov called the The Fall of Atlantis. The paintings he produced toward the end of his life depict angelic hierarchies, in luminous layers of brilliant rays of light, and show that he was trying to visually explain spiritual and mystical insights. He also collaborated with many other distinguished researchers in their fields such as Walter Beebe of the Bathosphere and Alfred Kinsey of the Kinsey Instititute.
Whether through science, education or art he always attempted to bring the viewer into imaginative and fantastical realms using compelling images and intriguing ideas. His work is today being re-discovered and presented by his grandneice, Tonia Shoumatoff, on the website, Unseen Realms.