Russia’s Hermitage Museum & Winter Palace

Comments Off on Russia’s Hermitage Museum & Winter Palace

HermitageThe State Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg, Russia is comprised of six main buildings which includes the Winter Palace. Five of the total, are open to the public. Its total collections contain over three million items,of which only a small part is on permanent display.  

The Hermitage Museum is known for its impressive collection of Egyptian antiquities, classical antiquities, prehistoric art, jewelry and decorative art. The museum is famous for its paintings for the Italian Renaissance period and for Italian and Spanish art in general.


Egyptian Hall

Millions of tourists arrive every year. The Hermitage was ranked 15th globally as of 2013.

There are an abundance of paintings at the Hermitage from the Dutch Golden Age and the Flemish Baroque period. In addition, there are numerous paintings and artifacts from German, Swiss, British and French origin.

Russian art can also be viewed in abundance, along with French Neoclassical, Impressionist and post-Impressionist. There is a copious number of Modern, German Romantic and other 19th and 20th century art that can be seen as well.

This would include collections from Asia and the Near East. Items from Byzantium, Central Asia, China, India, Mongolia and even Tibet, are on permanent display.

Along the Palace Embankment in addition to the Winter Palace, the former home of the Russian royal family, the museum complex consists of the Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage, New Hermitage and the Hermitage Theatre.

The Hermitage Museum complex. From left to right: Hermitage Theatre – Old Hermitage – Small Hermitage – Winter Palace (the “New Hermitage” is situated behind the Old Hermitage).

Apart from them, the Menshikov Palace, Museum of Porcelain, Storage Facility of Staraya Derevnya, and the eastern wing of the General Staff Building are also part of the museum. These facilities have been added in more recent years, to display a larger portion of the immense inventory of artifacts and paintings.

Empress Catherine II of Russia – reign 1762-1796

The history of the museum can easily be traced back to 1764, when a German princess who had become Catherine the Great of Russia, was able to acquire an sensational collection of paintings from the notable Berlin merchant, Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky.

Mr. Gotzkowsky had assembled a collection of some either 225 or 317 paintings, depending on conflicting historical accounts. They were amassed for Frederick II of Prussia, who due to large war expenditures, was unable to pay for the paintings. The German king was well known for his eclectic taste in art, with most of them of Dutch and Flemish origin.

These paintings formed the core of Hermitage collection. They include 13 by Rembrandt, 11 by Rubens, 7 by Jacob Jordaens, 5 by Anthony van Dyck, 5 by Paolo Veronese, 3 by Frans Hals, 2 by Raphael, 2 by Holbein, 1 by each Titian, Jan Steen, Hendrik Goltzius, Dirck van Baburen, Hendrick van Balen and Gerrit van Honthorst.


Southern Pavilion of the Small Hermitage.

To house this impressive collection of paintings the Empress (Czarina) Catherine commissioned Yury Felten, to build an extension on the east of the Winter Palace which was completed in 1766. It would later become known as the Southern Pavilion of the Small Hermitage.

Empress Catherine continued to acquire some of the best collections in Europe, when the heirs of prominent collectors, put them up for sale.

A noteworthy purchase arrived in 1769. She was able to buy the famous Bruhl’s collection, located in the German electorate of Saxony. It consisted of over 600 paintings and a vast number of paintings and drawings.

In 1772, she came into possession of the Crozat’s collection of paintings in France with the assistance of Denis Diderot. Seven years later, she acquired the collection of 198 paintings, that had once belonged to Robert Walpole in London. In 1781, 119 paintings were purchased from Count Baudouin in Paris, France.

Northern Pavilion of The Hermitage Museum

In the years 1767 to 1769, the French architect Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe, built the Northern Pavilion on the Neva embankment. Between 1767 and 1775, the extensions would be connected by galleries.

It was here, that Catherine began to display her growing collection of art and paintings. This neoclassical complex today, is identified as the Small Hermitage.

The Empress most favorite collecting was focused on cameos and gems. The symbol of Minerva was often used, in that the goddess was also a patroness of the arts.

Large or Old Hermitage

Catherine’s avid collecting soon outgrew the original buildings so in 1771 she again asked Yury Felten, to construct another major extension to the palace complex.

Therefore, an additional neoclassical building would be built, with completion coming in 1787. It is known as the Old Hermitage or Large Hermitage.

The Empress would next give the same moniker Hermitage, to her private theatre. This beautiful building would be commissioned and later built, during the years 1783 and 1787, by the Italian architect Giacomo Quarenghi.

The Raphael Loggias

In 1787 from England, the Empress was able to buy the outstanding ancient sculpture collection, that had belonged to Lyde Browne. These were mostly Roman marbles. The Empress would use them to adorn the Catherine Palace and the park in Tsarskoye Selo.

In later times, these would from the core of the Classical Antiquities collection of the Hermitage.

From 1787 to 1792, Quarenghi would build yet another wing of a building along the Winter Canal. The construction of the Raphael loggias, were replicated from the Apostolic Palace in Rome, Italy.

These galleries were decorated with skillful copies of Vatican frescoes, painted by Cristopher Unterberger and apprentices at the time.

In her lifetime, the Czarina Catherine was able to assemble 4,000 Old Master paintings, 38,000 books, 10,000 engraved gems, 10,000 drawings, 16,000 coins and metals, as well as a natural history collection filling two galleries.

In the early days, only a very few visitors were allowed to visit this rapidly growing collection. After the death of the Empress in 1796, the pace of acquisition slowed considerably.

The Three Graces by Canova

Emperor (Czar) Alexander I, would subsequently purchase 38 pictures from the heirs of Josephine de Beauharnais, the former wife of Napoleon.

These has been mostly taken by the French from the German city of Kassel, during the years of occupation. He would also purchase from the heirs, the first four sculptures by the neoclassical Italian sculptor, Antonio Canova.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the Hermitage was considered one of the best museums in all of Europe. Some of the most prized works in all of Europe could be found there. It would for example, possess the largest collection of Rembrandt paintings in all the world at the time.

Inside the New Hermitage

In 1851, the Hermitage would acquire the Venice, Italy based collection of Cristoforo Barbaringo. Most notably, the grouping included five more paintings, by the internationally renowned Renaissance painter Titian.

Artifacts from the Russian Empire itself, would also be added to the collections, most notably Greek and Scythian artifacts. The ancient workmanship on the golden pieces have become much admired by art critics and historians globally.

In 1838, Czar Nicholas I contracted the neoclassical German architect Leo von Klenze, to design a new building that would be used for the envisioned public museum (New Hermitage).

Since there was no more available space for this construction, both the royal stables and the Shepelev Palace would be taken down.

Inside the Large Hermitage

This latest enterprise was overseen by the Russian architects Vasily Stasov and Nikolai Yefimov, during the years 1842 to 1851. The project would of course, incorporate the Raphael loggias.

From the years 1840 to 1843, Vasily Stasov, would also redesign the interiors of the Southern Pavilion of the Small Hermitage.

The New Hermitage would finally open its collections for public viewing in 1852.

The same year, the Hermitage would benefit enormously from items given by the Duke of Leuchtenberg, a son in law of Czar Nicholas. It allowed for a far more impressive opening, of the Egyptian Collection of the Hermitage Museum.

Portico with atlantes, the historical entrance to the Hermitage.

The years 1851-1860, saw the interiors of the Old Hermitage redesigned by Andrei Stackensneider for accommodation of the Cabinet of Minsters, the States Assembly and other state apartments.

He would also create the Pavilion Hall, in the Northern Pavilion of the Small Hermitage from 1851 to 1858.

Up to the 1920’s the entrance of the museum would be located from the middle of the southern facade of the New Hermitage building.

The rest of the 19th century, saw a number of major additions to the Hermitage collections. As the wealthiest family in the world, the Russian royal family could well afford to collect some of the most finest pieces of art. The Romanov’s would continue to add to the museum and personal collections up to the first World War in 1914.

Early Renaissance: Madonna Litta by Leonardo da Vinci? (c. 1490)

The Hermitage would purchase part of the Gaimpietro Campana collection from the Papal government in 1861. It consisted mostly of classical antiquities. It included over 500 vases, 200 bronzes and a number of marble statues.

In 1884, Czar Alexander III would acquire the Paris based collection of Alexander Basilewski, which was comprised of European medieval and Renaissance artifacts.

In 1885, the Arsenal collection of arms and amour kept in the Catherine Palace, originally founded by Alexander I of Russia, was transferred to the Hermitage.

Single famous paintings were acquired as well. The Connestabile Madonna by Raphael in 1870 and in 1914, Leonardo da Vinci’s Benois Madonna. The 1865 acquisition Madonna Litta, which the Hermitage still insists is another painting by Leonardo, has not been totally authenticated as such.


The Romanov Royal Family in the early 20th century. They would all later be murdered by the Bolshevik government of Russia

World War I and the resulting Russian Revolution moved the museum in a dramatic new direction. The Imperial Hermitage and the Winter Palace, the former home of the Romanov’s, were soon proclaimed as state museums and later merged.

At first the Hermitage collection would expand further, as the nationalization of former imperial and aristocratic residences took place.

The inventory of Old Masters would swell considerably, with additions from the former royal residences of Alexander Palace, Catherine Palace, Stroganov Palace and Yusupov Palace.

Another windfall for the museum arrived from the Academy of Arts in 1922. It consisted of an important collection of 19th century European paintings. The Hermitage collections were now at their apex.


Titian’s 1555 painting Venus with a Mirror, sold off by the Russian government in 1931 to Andrew Mellon

The new leadership of Russia (the Soviet Union) had moved the Russian capital back to Moscow from St. Petersburg.

At the insistence of the government, near 500 notable paintings were now transferred from the Hermitage, to the Central Museum of old Western Art located in Moscow.

During the early 1930’s, 70 more paintings would be sent there. In addition, a large number of less significant works of art were transferred to new museums all over the Soviet Union.

In this way, it was felt by authorities, that more of the Russian population would be able to view various pieces.

Even more devastating to the Hermitage, was an earlier government decision made in 1928. The government ordered its premier museum, to create a list of valuable works of art, that would now be sold outside of Russia.

The government was in need of money and the holdings of Western style artwork, was deemed far less important.

The Alba Madonna by Raphael, was bought for the Hermitage by Emperor Nicholas I of Russia in 1836. It was sold to Andrew Mellon by the Soviet Government in 1931 for $1,166,400, the largest sum ever paid for a painting until that time.

In fact, some of the more extreme officials, would of practically emptied the Hermitage of European art from outside of Russia, on ideological grounds alone. In their minds, the collections were merely an asset to be sold, at the will of government bureaucrats.

From 1930 to 1934, more than two thousand works of art were subsequently sold. Much of it was done secretly at private auctions. These would be then transferred to foreign business people and officials.

The loss to the Hermitage is incalculable. Among the most famous to leave Russia were masterpieces from Botticelli, Jan van Eyck, Raphael, Rembrandt, Titian and Van Dyck.

The most famous transaction from the period, was the acquisitions made by the famous American industrialist and politician Andrew Mellon, in 1931.

He was able to buy and then later donate,a total of 21 paintings from the Hermitage. His gift would later form the core, of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

Soviet ski troops by the portico during the Siege of Leningrad in World War II.

The invasion of the Soviet Union by Germany in 1941, forced the need to utilize two trains to evacuate a considerable portion of the Hermitage collections.

During the siege of St. Petersburg known at that time as Leningrad, the museum buildings themselves suffered damage.

In 1945, with the ending of World War II, the Hermitage would reopen.

The year 1948, saw a return of good fortune for the museum when 316 Impressionist, post-Impressionist and modern art, from the collection formerly housed at the Museum of New Western Art in Moscow arrived.

These were largely from the now nationalized paintings from Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin. Included in the trove were works by both Matisse and Picasso.

Beginning in 1967, further paintings from Matisse were donated by the artist’s muse Lydia Delectorskaya.

The restored Menshikov Palace became a new branch of the Hermitage in 1981. It features artifacts of Russian culture of the early 18th century.

Eastern Facade of the General Staff Building of the Hermitage. Built during the years 1819 – 1829.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, began a new chapter in the life of the Hermitage Museum.

That same year the facility acknowledged that some paintings that had been looted by the Soviet Red Army in Germany during the closing months of World War II, were in the vaults of the Hermitage.

In 1994, a formal announcement was made by the museum, that it indeed held a major cache of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings from private German collections.

In the exhibit that opened up in 1995, a total of 74 were put on display. Among them were works from Degas, Renoir and Van Gogh.

Additional space for the now growing collections on display arrived in 1993, when the eastern wing of the General Staff Building was transferred to the Hermitage.

In 2003, the last branch to the present Hermitage would be added with the opening of the Museum of Porcelain.

Facade of the Winter Palace

The present Imperial Winter Palace, as part of the Hermitage complex, is actually the fourth rendition of the family residence of the Romanov royal family. It was built and altered on an almost continuous basis, from the late 1730’s to the 1830’s. Damaged in a major fire in 1837, it was immediately rebuilt.

St George’s Hall, the principal throne room of the Tsars of Russia. The room was a late addition to the Palace for Catherine II.

The full size of the Winter Palace is on a monumental scale, with the input of a number of architects, most notably Bartolomeo Rastrelli. The architectural style is known as Elizabethan Baroque.

The now famous green and white building, is an elongated rectangle, with the principal facade 820 feet long (250 meters) and upwards to 98 feet (30 meters) in height.

The Palace contains 1,500 rooms and 117 staircases. There are supposedly 1,786 doors and 1,945 windows.

The fire of 1837 left the exterior largely unchanged, but large portions of the interior were modified to reflect various tastes and styles. It has been described as a 19th century palace inspired by a model in Rococo style.

The Nicholas Hall is the principal reception room, at the centre of the Neva enfilade. This room was the setting for court balls.

The Winter Palace of today began as the Apraksin Palace. In 1732, the Russian Empress Anna, a niece of Peter the Great, commissioned Rastrelli to completely reconstruct and extend the Apraksin.

It would eventually involve the incorporation of a number of neighboring structures. It remained an ongoing project throughout her reign, which ended in 1740.

Emperor Ivan VI succeeded her, but was soon toppled by a daughter of Peter the Great, who became the Empress Elisabeth. It would be during her reign, that Rastrelli would begin the architectural plan that compromises the modern day Winter Palace.

The massive project began in earnest in 1753 and would be largely completed by the end of the decade, at an enormous cost. The Czarina Elisabeth would see her reign end in 1762, and was succeeded by her nephew Peter III.

The principal or “Jordan Staircase”

However, by the end of the year, Peter III would be overthrown and murdered. This allowed his wife to come to the throne. It would be this Empress, Catherine the Great, who is often most closely associated with the Winter Palace.

The aforementioned architect Giacomo Quarenghi and Starov would enlarge transform the palace under the direction of Catherine.

In 1790, Quarenghi redesigned five of the state rooms to create three vast halls of Neva enfilade. These would be decorated with numerous bas-reliefs, statuary and faux marble columns.

Internally, the palace remains a combination of the Baroque and the Neoclassical. Little of the rococo interior design created by Rastrelli remains. The Grand Church and the Jordan Staircase, are the two obvious exceptions.

In imperial times, the principal rooms and living areas of the royal family were on what is considered the first floor, known as the piano nobile. The ground floor was given over to offices, with senior courtiers and high ranking officials, quartered in the level above the royal family.

The total area of the museum is 233,345 square meters or 765,567.6 square feet with an exhibition space of 66,842 square meters or 66,842 square feet.

There are 1,012,657 works of art in the various collections.

There are a total of 1,124,919 numismatic objects and 771,897 archeological artifacts. The arms and armory collections alone house 13,974 items.

The entire collection contains over 3 million individual pieces.

How To Get There

The main Hermitage museum complex is located at 2, Dvortsovaya Square. More history on the Hermitage museum can be found here.

The mailing address is Russia.190000. St. Petersburg, Dvortsovaya Naberezhnaya (Embankment), 34

The main local telephone number is (812) 710-90-79.

The Hermitage Excursion Bureau (812) 571-84-46

Read More Share

Recent Author Posts

Join Our Community

Connect On Social Media

Most Popular Posts

We Blog The World

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share this post with your friends!