The Hermitage in Saint Petersburg makes an unforgettable impression on every visitor. The art collection is immense and is spread across several museums in the city. Still the majority of the collection seems to be stored in depots! But it’s not just the art collection that impresses: the main museum is located in the most beautiful Romanov Palace in Russia. This Winter Palace on the river bank is the legacy of a century of ambitious tsarina’s.
The Winter Palace of Peter the Great
The founder of Saint Petersburg built a modest winter palace on the riverbank in 1712. After only ten years, Peter the Great was apparently already fed up with his new home and built a second winter palace right next to it. Already in 1727, the Tsar’s second successor was building a third winter palace. The two palaces of Peter the Great failed to impress after that. They were now only the side wings of the new palace.
The Winter Palace may have been started by Peter the Great, but it were his female successors who gave the palace its grandeur. The fourth and final Winter Palace was built by Anna Ivanovna, a niece of Peter the Great. The tsarina moved her court to a palace next to the three winter palaces. She had her new home redesigned by the Italian architect Rastrelli into a lush baroque style in 1732. The three winter palaces were connected to the fourth neighbouring palace and that is how the final Winter Palace was created.
The successor and infant nephew of Anna Ivanovna was only for three months on the throne in 1741, when he was already deposed. The new tsarina was Elisabeth I, a daughter of Peter the Great. Elisabeth was thus the third female prince of Russia. Her niece Anna Ivanovna reigned before her and her mother Catharina I briefly after the death of her father.
The architect Rastrelli was still working on his design for the Winter Palace of Anna Ivanovna at that time. But that was not to the taste of Elisabeth I who had a rather extravagant lifestyle. The palace had to be even more grand. Elisabeth’s palace had to become the most beautiful in Europe. That turned out to be an immense project. Even at her death in 1761, the palace was not finished.
The museum of Catharine the Great
Elisabeth had no children and therefore named her sister Anna’s son as her successor. This German prince Peter turned out not to be very suitable for that task. He didn’t speak Russian and felt more German. But above all, he had no leadership qualities and behaved like a child. How different was the wife tsarina Elisabeth chose for her nephew: the German princess Sophie Augusta van van Anhalt-Zerbst. Or maybe her married name Catharine the Great rings a bell?
Peter was on the throne for about half a year when he was deposed. His wife seized power and moved to the Winter Palace. Peter died not much later under suspicious circumstances. The German Catherine was a big fan of European literature, culture and architecture. She read books by French Enlightenment writers and loved European art. Catharine was the first Russian royal to make a huge art purchase. She bought a large collection of European masterpieces. Russia now had paintings by well-known painters such as Rembrandt, Rubens, Raphael and Titian.
Catharine the Great finished the baroque project of Tsarina Elisabeth in a more classical style. She also expanded it with an additional palace she called the Hermitage. Catharine had it built to house her growing art collection. Almost obsessed, the tsarina purchased unseen art collections from nobility all over Europe. The Hermitage soon was to small to house her art, so another expansion was built. For this Great or Old Hermitage, one of the first Winter Palaces was torn down.
When Catharine died in 1796, she left her heirs an art collection of 4,000 paintings and thousands of other art objects. Her son Paul did not rule long, but her favourite grandson Alexander I brought Russia glory by deposing Napoleon in Paris. What he brought home for his grandmother’s collection? The paintings of Napoleon’s wife Joséphine.
The Hermitage as a public museum
His brother and successor Nicolaas I had the challenge of restoring the Winter Palace after a major fire in 1837. The art collection was fortunately unharmed. The result of this restoration is merely what the museum interior looks like now. It was also Nicholas I who opened the art collection to the public in 1852. This of course was not in his own palace, but in the New Hermitage. Only a small part of the imperial collection was on display here.
After the Russian Revolution and the end of the Romanovs in 1917, the Hermitage became a state museum. While the government robbed the Russian nobel families of their Russian possessions and art, the Hermitage collection grew rapidly.
During the Second World War the art collection was evacuated to a safe place in the mountains. And the museum itself? 12,000 Russians moved in, after their houses were destroyed in bombings. But the museum benefited from the Second World War very well. The Russian troops looted private collections in Germany and Eastern Europe for their state museum.
Today, the biggest challenge facing the Hermitage is to showcase its extensive art collection. The collection is so large that even the enormous Winter Palace is too small for it. One of the solutions? The sister museums in other countries. I can therefore visit exhibitions from the Russian art collection in the Hermitage Amsterdam every year!