He bought his first acquisition, a group of 10 original works by Dutch masters, in 1854 shortly after inheriting a considerable estate worth some 3.8 million rubles from his father at the age of 18. The inheritance made him an important textile tycoon, a business that he and his brother Sergei expanded, opening new mills and employing thousands of Russians from various cities.
Originally, Tretyakov had in mind a private collection of Russian art that he originally planned to leave to his descendants. Yet inspired by the St. Petersburg gallery of Fedor Pryanishnikov, Tretyakov came to the idea that there should exist a public gallery in which Russian art could inspire Russian ideas among its viewers.
To realize this new and much larger goal, Tretyakov understood that he needed the best works that this huge country could produce. He even sponsored a society of great Moscow artists he called “The Wanderers” in 1870, who in turn provided him with an ever-growing collection of select work with which to fulfill his vision.
Many of Russia’s best would find enough financial security to produce even greater works, for which Tretyakov would become almost immediately the collector. Tretyakov soon became known not only for his generosity to great artists, he also developed a renown for an almost legendary ability to discern the best in Russian art.
The collection grew in both size and quality, but it finally took a dose of mortality before he was able to overcome the final obstruction to opening his gallery - perfectionism. The death of his brother Sergei finally convinced him to push for the opening of his great gallery of Russian art in mid-August 1894, and only 2 weeks later the city agreed to receive it as a public institution.
Ever since, even during Soviet times, the Tretyakov has been synonymous with the best in Russian art and is considered to be the #1 art gallery in Moscow with more than 150,000 works of art as of today.