The State Hermitage Museum (Russian: Gosudarstvennyj
Ermitaz) in Saint Petersburg, Russia is one of the
largest museums in the world, with 3 million works of
art (not all on display at once), and one of the oldest
art galleries and museums of human
history and culture in the world.
The vast Hermitage collections are displayed in six
buildings, the main one being the Winter Palace
which used to be the official
residence of the Russian Tsars.
International branches of The Hermitage Museum are
located in Amsterdam, London,
Las Vegas and Ferrara (Italy).
The Hermitage holds the Guinness World Record as the
world's largest collection of paintings.
Strong points of the Hermitage collection of Western
art include Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Rubens,
van Dyck, Rembrandt, Poussin, Claude Lorrain,
Watteau, Tiepolo, Canaletto, Canova, Rodin, Monet,
Pissarro, Renoir, Cezanne, van Gogh,
Gauguin, Picasso, and Matisse.
There are several more collections, however, including
the Russian imperial regalia, an assortment of Faberge
jewellery, and the largest existing collection of ancient
gold from Eastern Europe and Western Asia.
Catherine the Great started the famed collection in
1764 by purchasing more than 225 paintings from
Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky, after
bankruptcy in the year before.
Russian ambassadors in foreign capitals were
commissioned to acquire the best collections
offered for sale: Brühl's collection in Saxony,
Crozat's in France and the Walpole gallery and
Lyde Browne marbles in England.
Catherine called her art gallery my hermitage,
as very few people were allowed
within to see its riches.
In one of her letters she lamented that "only
the mice and I can admire all this."
She also gave the name of the Hermitage to her
private theatre, built nearby
between 1783 and 1787.
Expansion in the 19th century
The New Hermitage was built specially to
house art collections.
Gradually, imperial collections were enriched
by relics of Greek and Scythian culture,
unearthed during excavations on Pereshchepina,
Pazyryk, and other ancient burial
mounds in southern Russia.
Thus started one of the world's richest
collections of ancient gold, which now
includes a substantial part of Troy's
treasures unearthed by Heinrich Schliemann
and seized from Berlin museums
by the Red Army in 1945.
To house the ever-expanding collection of
Greek, Roman, and Egyptian antiquities,
Nicholas I commissioned the neoclassicist
German architect Leo von Klenze to design
a building for the public museum.
Probably the first purpose-built art gallery
in Eastern Europe, the New Hermitage
was opened to the public in 1852.
As the Czars continued to amass their art
holdings, several works of Leonardo da Vinci,
Jan van Eyck, and Raphael were bought in Italy.
The Hermitage collection of Rembrandts was
considered the largest in the world.
Expansion in the 20th century
The imperial Hermitage was proclaimed property
of the Soviet state after the Revolution of 1917.
The range of its exhibits was further expanded when
private art collections from several palaces of the
Russian Tsars and numerous private mansions were
being nationalized and then redistributed
among major Soviet state museums.
Particularly notable was the influx of old masters
from the Catherine Palace, the Alexander Palace,
the Stroganov palace and the Yusupov Palace as well
as from other palaces of St. Petersburg and suburbs.
Later Hermitage received modern art from private
collections of Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov
which were nationalized by the Soviet state.
New acquisitions included most of Gauguin's later oeuvre,
40 Cubistic works by Picasso, and such icons of
modern art as Matisse's La danse and
Vincent van Gogh's Night Cafe.
After WWII the Hermitage received about 40 canvasses
by Henri Matisse as a gift from the artist to the museum.
Other internationally known artists also
gave their works to the Hermitage.
The hard-liners in the Soviet government did not
pay much attention to maintenance of art, which
was officially labeled
as "bourgeois and decadent" art.
During the 1920s and 1930s, under the rule of
Stalin, the Soviet government ordered the sale
of over two thousand works of art, including
some of the most precious works from
the Hermitage collection.
These included priceless masterpieces like
Raphael's Alba Madonna, Titian's Venus with
a Mirror, Botticelli's Adoration of the Magi,
and Jan van Eyck's Annunciation among other
world known masterpieces by Rembrandt, Van Dyck.
In 1931, after a series of negotiations, 22 works
of art from the Hermitage were acquired by Andrew
W. Mellon, who later donated most of these works
to form a nucleus of the National Gallery of
Art in Washington, D.C..
(See also Soviet sale of Hermitage paintings.)
There were other losses, though works of
their kind are more abundant: thousands of
works were moved from the Hermitage collection
to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and other museums
across the USSR.
Some pieces of the old collection were also lost
to enemy looting and shelling during the Siege
of Leningrad in the Second World War, when the
Hermitage building was marked as one of the prime
targets of the Nazi air-raids and artillery,
albeit it was more or less successfully
defended by the surviving citizens of Leningrad.
This period in Hermitage's history came to an end in 1945.
At that time the government attempted to compensate
recent losses by transferring to the museum some of
the art captured by the Red Army in
Germany during World War II.
The most highly priced part of the booty were 74
Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings
taken from private collections of
German business elite.
These paintings were considered lost until 1995
when the museum unveiled them to the public
as "Hidden treasures" revealed.
The Russian government maintains that these works
provide just a small compensation for irreparable
losses inflicted on Russian cultural heritage by
the German invasion in WWII, including the almost
complete destruction and looting of Tsar's palaces
in Peterhof, Oranienbaum, Pavlovsk, Gatchina, and
Tsarskoe Selo, as well as other cities and towns
under the Nazi occupation.
Moreover, the State Duma passed a law forbidding
return of disputed works to their owners in case
they were guilty of financing the Nazi regime.
In the 21st century
In recent years, Hermitage expanded to the nearby
buildings of the General Staff and launched several
ambitious projects abroad, including the Guggenheim
Hermitage Museum in Las Vegas, the Hermitage Rooms
in London's Somerset House (which closed permanently
in November 2007 due to poor visitor numbers, and the
Hermitage Amsterdam in the
former Amstelhof, Amsterdam.
The Hermitage and much of its collection
were featured in the 24-hour long Japanese
documentary film, the largest film ever
about the Hermitage, made in the 1990s.
The Winter Palace and other buildings of the
Hermitage and its interiors were filmed in
several Soviet documentaries and educational
films, as well as in numerous feature films,
such as the James Bond film Golden Eye, Anna
Karenina, and other movies.
The most recent movie made in the Hermitage
was Russian Ark, a single-shot walk-through
with period re-enactments by actors in
period-style costumes, spanning three
hundred years of court meetings, balls
and family life in the Winter Palace.
In July 2006, the museum announced that 221
minor items, including jewelry, Orthodox icons,
silverware and richly enamelled
objects, had been stolen.
The value of the stolen items was estimated
to be approximately $543,000, albeit by the
end of the year 2006 some of the
stolen items were recovered.
The Hermitage complex as seen from across the Neva River.
The New Hermitage and Hermitage Theatre are on the left;
the Winter Palace is to the right.