The collection of the State Hermitage includes more than three million works of art and artefacts of the world culture. Among them are paintings, graphic works, sculptures and works of applied art, archaeological finds and numismatic material.
The main architectural ensemble of the Hermitage situated in the centre of St Petersburg consists of the Winter Palace, the former state residence of the Russian emperors, the buildings of the Small, Old (Great) and New Hermitages, the Hermitage Theatre and the Auxiliary House.
History of the State Hermitage
Within two years of ascending the Russian throne, the Empress Catherine II – known to posterity as Catherine the Great – made her first significant purchase of artworks, thereby laying the foundations of what has become one of the richest and most extraordinary museums in the world.
Over the next 32 years until her death in 1796 – in between vigorously expanding the Russian empire and equally vigorously entertaining a string of lovers – Catherine continued her other great love affair with art, and art-collecting.
She had inherited St Petersburg’s Winter Palace on the Neva River from a predecessor, the Empress Elizabeth. But Catherine’s collection soon demanded more space than even a palace afforded. In 1764, she commissioned an extension to the Winter Palace. It was no sooner completed than a further extension was built, and then galleries were erected to join them. There her growing collection was installed.
Her first astonishing “job lot”, from the Berlin merchant Ernst Gotzkowsky, [Ernst Gotzkowsky] comprised well over 200 paintings, including no less than 13 Rembrandts, 11 by Rubens, five by van Dyck, two from Raphael, three from Frans Hals and many others from the Flemish and Dutch schools.
Her agents were involved in purchasing individual items, and entire collections, from all over Europe: the 600 paintings forming the collection of Count Heinrich von Brul, Elector of Saxony, the 400 from that of Pierre Crozat, who had one of the most renowned collections in France.
Amazingly, in 1779, in the midst of the Russo-Turkish War, she managed to acquire the collection of Sir Robert Walpole, Prime Minister of Britain. In 1787, it was the collection of John Lyde-Brown, a director of the Bank of England, whose classical sculptures formed the basis of today’s extensive collection.
According to the Hermitage records, by the time of her death Catherine’s acquisitions included 4,000 old master paintings, 38,000 books, 10,000 engraved gems, 10,000 drawings, 16,000 coins and medals and a natural history collection that filled two galleries.
Her son, Paul 1, and later her grandson, Alexander 1, continued to buy for what had become a palace collection. Though not only the scale of Catherine’s collecting, they nonetheless made some notable acquisitions – poignantly including the collection of the former French Empress Josephine, abandoned wife of Napoleon,from her lovely house, Malmaison.
The Palace ensemble, as it evolved over more than two centuries, today includes five main buildings – the Winter Palace, the Small and the Old Hermitage, the New Hermitage and the Hermitage Theatre.
Its three-million-plus items – only a fraction of which is on display at any one time – is spread between them. They include over 100,000 items of Greek and Roman heritage, one of the world’s finest collections of Western European art spanning the Middle Ages to the 20th century – think Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Titian, Renoir, Cezanne, Monet, Gaugin, Van Gogh, Matisse, Rodin…
There is art from India, Byzantium, the Middle and Far East, Islamic art, porcelain, clocks, toys, clothing and an astonishing display of the jeweller’s art in the so-called Diamond Rooms including, of course, that of the imperial jeweller, Carl Faberge.
It’s said that if you spent just one minute looking at each item on display, it would take you eleven years to see them all!
Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, this extraordinary collection became a State museum, and while it lost some of its treasures in a distribution to other museums, it acquired others as private collections from Royal palaces and the mansions of the nobility were taken for the nation.
The Hermitage itself became a treasured national institution. Its hold on the national imagination became apparent during World War II, when Hitler’s invasion of Russia and siege of what was then called Leningrad threatened the museum.
Museum staff – aided by literally hundreds of volunteers – began packing up the exhibits to shift them on special trains to a remote location in the Urals. Over one million items made it out before the German siege prevented a third trainload leaving the city.
But even before the war had concluded, the Hermitage reopened with a small exhibition in November 1944, and by May 1945, volunteers again joined staff to restore 69 rooms to a fit state to receive the returning art works.
It has never lost that special “pride of place” for the Russian people and now, it is shared with the world.
Visit the State Hermitage website to find out more.