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In 1764 Catherine the Great, empress of Russia (1762-96), acquired from Berlin a magnificent collection of 225 paintings by Dutch and Flemish masters. This purchase became the nucleus of Catherine's private collection, housed in her new royal residence on the banks of the Neva River in St. Petersburgthe Winter Palace. Designed by Italian architect Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli, this immense baroque building was completed in 1762. The gallery itself was known as the empress's ermitage, French for "place of seclusion," and over more than two hundred years it has developed into one of the world's largest and most impressive museumsthe State Hermitage.
Though Catherine was the driving force behind the royal collection based at the Winter Palace, it was Peter the Great (1682-1725) who played the pioneering role. Peter's vision for his new capital city, founded in 1703 and built on marshy, inhospitable land by the Gulf of Finland, was to "open a window to the West." St. Petersburg duly became a cultural and artistic center with foreign architects and artists responsible for many of the palaces and public buildings. Peter started to amass a personal art collection and founded the Kunstkammer, or Museum of Natural History, Russia's first public museum. It was with the reign of Catherine, however, that the arts took on new importance as she began to promote private patronage as an aspect of state policy.
The foundation of the Hermitagea direct result of the Age of Enlightenmentwas part of this cultural renaissance, and during the second half of the eighteenth century the museum's collections expanded rapidly. In 1768 the private collection of CountKarl Cobenzl, which included more than four thousand drawings, was purchased in Brussels; the following year some six hundred Flemish, Dutch, and French paintings were sold to Catherine by the heirs of Count Heinrich von Brühl, a Dresden connoisseur. Not all of these royal purchases found their way to St. Petersburg: in 1771 a number of important Dutch paintings acquired for Catherine by Prince Dmitry Golitsyn in Amsterdam were lost when the ship carrying them capsized in the Baltic Sea.
In 1772 the Hermitage acquired one of the most important European art collections of the eighteenth century, that of the French banker Baron Crozat. Further significant acquisitions were made with the help of Catherine's distinguished foreign advisers, including the French philosopher Denis Diderot. These additions included the celebrated collection of the former British prime minister Sir Robert Walpole, purchased in 1779, and that of Count Baudouin, acquired in Paris in 1781. Apart from these major collections, Catherine also commissioned a number of celebrated artists to produce works expressly for the Russian collection, among them Chardin and Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Although the Hermitage is justly renowned for its paintings, it would be wrong to concentrate solely on this aspect of the empress's acquisitions. The extraordinary wealth of the Hermitage's collections of engravings, coins and medals, gemstones, minerals, and books (including the complete libraries of Diderot and Voltaire) is in large part due to her. To house the ever-increasing number of works of art, new buildings were added to the Winter Palace along the Neva embankment: the Small Hermitage, completed in 1769, and the Great, or Old Hermitage, as it became known, in 1787. Also in 1787 the Hermitage Theater was erected on the site of Peter the Great's original Winter Palace, and connected to the Old Hermitage by an arched bridge spanning the Winter Canal.
The private art collection of Catherine acquired the status of an imperial museum during the reigns of her son, Paul I (1796-1801), and her grandson, Alexander I (1801-25). In 1814, taking advantage of political turmoil in France, Alexander I acquired thirty-eight works from the Empress Josephine's collection at Malmaison. In the same year the first Spanish paintings entered the museum through the purchase of the well-known collection of the Dutch banker W. G. Coesvelt.
The first half of the nineteenth century marked a new stage in the development of the Hermitage, for over that period a great many classical and Oriental antiquities were added to the museum's collections, together with finds from contemporary archaeological excavations in the northern Caucasus, Crimea, and southern Ukraine. Most notable among these are the treasures of the Bosporan Kingdom, found at the famous Kerch burial mound of Kul Oba. Further finds in the Crimea and the Kuban basin provided the museum with perhaps its most famous collection of antiquities, the Scythian gold.
The period also marked a new turn in a more dramatic and terrible way. On December 17, 1837, fire broke out in the Winter Palace. It raged for three days, but thanks to the heroic efforts of firefighters, the Hermitage building was saved, together with a considerable number of the Winter Palace's priceless items. Thousands of craftsmen participated in the restoration of the palace, and by November 1839 it became once again the winter residence of the emperor, then Nicholas I (1825-55).
In 1852 Nicholas inaugurated a major new museum building. The New Hermitage, as it was called, was designed by Munich-born architect Leo von Klenze. The portico facing onto Millionaya Street was adorned with ten 16H-feet-high atlantes, carved out of whole blocks of granite by the sculptor Alexander Terebenev. With this new building came a reorganization of the museum's collections, as the Hermitage was now a public museum, formally separated from the Winter Palace residence. An up-to-date inventory was taken and a catalog compiled, and for the first time Russian art was acknowledged to be worthy of its own department, as was the collection of classical art.
The Hermitage made a number of important acquisitions in the mid-nineteenth century, including some fine paintings by Titian that were part of a collection acquired from the Barbarigo Palace in Venice; Leonardo's Madonna and Child (Madonna Litta), purchased in 1865 from Count Litta in Milan; and Raphael's Madonna and Child (Conestabile Madonna), bought from Count Conestabile della StaVa in Perugia in 1871. In 1884 the museum also acquired the wonderful Oriental, Byzantine, and medieval works of art that made up the collection of Anton Basilevsky. A year later the collection of arms and armor from the Tsarskoye Selo armory was added to the museum's many treasures.
The acquisitions did not cease in the twentieth century. In 1910 the vast collection of some seven hundred Dutch and Flemish works that belonged to the famous traveler and geographer Semyonov Tian-Shansky was bought for the museum; four years later Leonardo's Madonna with a Flower was purchased from the Benois family collection in St. Petersburg, and consequently became known as the Benois Madonna.
The fortunes of the Hermitage changed drastically in 1917. After the February Revolution the museum was renamed the "ex-imperial Hermitage." Kerensky's Provisional Government ordered that the art collection and all the property of the Winter Palace be moved to Moscow, where it was stored in the Kremlin and the History Museum in Red Square. On the night of October 25, 1917, the Winter Palace, in which sessions of the Provisional Government had been held since the summer, was stormed by revolutionary forces and the government members were arrested. A few days later the new Soviet government designated the Winter Palace and the Hermitage state museums. Eventually they were merged to form the Hermitage as it is known today.
Since the Revolution the museum's holdings have undergone many changes, not always for the better. Although nationalization brought to the Hermitage the unparalleled collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings assembled by the great collectors Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, during the 1920s and 1930s the Soviet Commissariat for Foreign Trade frequently offered works of art to foreign officials and businessmen for token sums. As a result, numerous works of art originally from the Hermitage are now in national and private collections the world over. Even the private library of Nicholas II (1894-1918), for example, was bought by the U.S. Library of Congress.
In 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union, precipitating Soviet involvement in World War II. So began the second wartime evacuation of the Hermitage, this time to Sverdlovsk in the Urals, and more than two million items were dispatched on two trains. Toward the end of 1944, with war still raging, a marvelous exhibition was mounted of all the treasures still in the Hermitage, which were saved by the museum staff often at the cost of their lives.
Today the Hermitage, with its collection of almost three million artifacts, many of them housed in 353 rooms of unrivaled splendor, is a remarkable testament to the history of one country and the art and culture of many. The small imperial collection established in the mid-eighteenth century and whimsically named a "hermit's refuge" by its crowned owners is now, at the end of the twentieth century, one of the world's largest and most magnificent museums.
-Vitaly A. Suslov