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Treasures of the Hermitage

by Dr. Vladimir Matveyev

The foundation of the Hermitage is traditionally dated to 1764, when the first acquisition — a collection of 225 paintings by Western European masters — was delivered to St. Petersburg. Given her vast resources, Catherine II was able to secure most of the treasures that were offered to her, and when Frederick II of Prussia fell into financial difficulties and was unable to purchase the collection of paintings which the Berlin dealer Johann-Ernst Gotzkowsky had formed for him, Catherine bought it instead. The collection contained several masterpieces, including Frans Hals's "Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Glove".

The Empress Catherine continued to take her art-collecting activities seriously, and this first purchase was followed by a number of successful acquisitions, made possible by the assistance of intermediaries such as Dmitry Golitsyn, Russian ambassador to Paris and The Hague, and the co-operation of renowned art connoisseurs such as Denis Diderot, Francois Tronchin, Frederic-M. Grimm and many others, whose expertise helped to maintain the high quality of the collection.

In 1768 the private collections of the Prince de Ligne and Count Karl Coblentz were purchased in Brussels. The following year the collection of the late Count Heinrich von Bruhl, a Dresden connoisseur who had been Chancellor to Augustus II, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, became available and was acquired for the Museum, adding a number of Dutch and Flemish masterpieces to the collection. Francois Tronchin sold his private collection to the Empress in 1770, and in 1771 Prince Golitsyn acquired a number of Dutch paintings for the Museum at the sale of G. Braankamp's collection in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, they never reached their destination — St Petersburg — for the vessel with its valuable cargo sank in the Baltic Sea on its homeward voyage.

Further important acquisitions followed. In 1772, after long negotiations, the renowned collection of the French banker Baron Crozat, virtually complete, arrived from Paris. One of the most celebrated collections in France, it introduced to Russia the works of the great masters of the Italian Renaissance — Raphael's "Holy Family", Giorgione's "Judith", Titian's "Danae" — together with priceless French, Dutch and Flemish works including Rubens' "Portrait of the Maid of Honour to the Archduchess Isabella" and Van Dyck's "Self-Portrait". In 1779 the Hermitage collection was considerably enriched by the acquisition of paintings from one of the most outstanding collections in England, that of Sir Robert Walpole, Prime Minister to George I and George II, which was acquired from his heirs. Finally, the last major addition to the holdings of the Hermitage during the eighteenth century came with the purchase in 1785 of the collection of Count Baudouin in Paris.

The Hermitage collections grew rapidly. The first catalogue, published in 1774, numbered over 2,000 canvases. Apart from the acquisitions of major collections, individual paintings, many of which are now internationally-recognised masterpieces, were purchased for the Museum from private sources and at auction. Catherine II also commissioned a number of celebrated artists to provide works expressly for the Russian collection. Thus, Boucher painted his "Pygmalion and Galatea" for St Petersburg's new Academy of Fine Arts; Chardin painted his famous "Attributes of the Arts" for the Conference Hall of the Academy (although this remained in the Hermitage); and Sir Joshua Reynolds painted his allegorical picture "The Infant Hercules strangling the Serpents", which symbolized Russia's growing power.

Whilst the paintings comprise a considerable and significant part of the Hermitage collection, mention should certainly be made of Catherine's other acquisitions: collections of engravings; coins and medals; gemstones, her special passion; minerals (she was especially proud of the collection of minerals bought from the Academician Peter-Simon Pallace); and books, including the complete libraries of Diderot and Voltaire.

The fine art treasures amassed by Catherine II were originally accommodated in the rooms of the Winter Palace, the main residence of the Russian tsars, which was built on the banks of the river Neva in 1754-1762 to the designs of the architect Francesco Bartolommeo Rastrelli. As the collection grew, successive buildings were added: the Small Hermitage in 1764-1775, designed by Yury Felten and Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe; the Old (Large) Hermitage in 1771-1787, also designed by Yury Felten; and the Raphael Loggia, added onto the latter building alongside the Winter Canal, its first-floor gallery being a replica of the one painted by Raphael and his pupils in the Vatican Papal Palace.

As time went on, Catherine II turned instead to the theatre. The architect Giacomo Quarenghi was called upon to design the Hermitage Theatre, which was erected on the Winter Palace site in 1785-1787. The building was connected to the Old Hermitage by an arched bridge which spanned the Winter Canal. The rooms of the picture gallery now served both as reception rooms and theatre foyer, where parties of guests invited to Imperial performances were entertained.

"She [Catherine II] often invited me to dine with her and almost every day she permitted me to be present at the performance in the Hermitage," recalled the French emissary, Count de Segur, in his memoirs. "The appearance of this Hermitage did not fully correspond to its name, since on its threshold the beholder's eyes are struck by the enormous scale of its halls and galleries, the wealth of its furnishings and decoration, the multitude of paintings by Great Masters and by the pleasant 'winter garden,' whose green foliage, flowers and birdsong appear to have brought Italian springtime to the snowy North. The outstanding library seems to suggest that the Hermit of these halls prefers the illumination of philosophy to monastic privations. A history of the world in portraits is also to be found in a comprehensive collection of medals representing all races of mankind from all centuries."

"At the end of the palace is a beautiful theatre, a reproduction in miniature of the ancient theatre in Vicenza. It is semi-circular in shape: it has no boxes but rising tiers of seats arranged to form an amphitheatre. Twice a month the Empress invites the diplomatic corps here and those persons privileged to have access to the Court. On other occasions the number of spectators does not exceed a dozen."

The personal art collection of Catherine II acquired the status of an Imperial museum in the reigns of her son Paul I and her grandson Alexander I who, taking advantage of the troubled situation in France in 1815, acquired several paintings from the Empress Josephine's gallery at Malmaison. This collection brought the Hermitage new works by Rembrandt, Rubens and Teniers the Younger. At about the same time, the first Spanish paintings were acquired for the Museum from the well-known collection of the Dutch banker, W. G. Coesvelt.

During the reign of Nicolas I, the Hermitage collections continued to expand. But in 1837 a tragedy occurred when fire broke out in the Winter Palace. It raged for three days, causing untold devastation, but thanks to the truly heroic efforts of those who fought the fire, the Hermitage building was saved, together with a considerable number of the Palace's priceless contents. Thousands of craftsmen participated in the restoration of the Palace, and its first rooms were completed in 1839.

In 1852, a major development in the history of the Imperial collection was inaugurated by Nicolas I when a new museum building was opened to the public. Called the New Hermitage, it had been built in 1839-1851 to designs by the Munich architect Leo von Klenze. The portico facing what used to be Millionnaya Street was adorned with ten huge Atlantes, carved out of blocks of granite by the sculptor Alexander Terebenev. With the construction of the new buildings, an up-to-date inventory and catalogue of the Museum's collections was carried out, a task made even more necessary by the palace fire. For the first time Russian art was acknowledged with its own department, as were classical antiquities. The two galleries in the Small Hermitage, now left vacant, were to house the Romanov family portraits and the Memorial Collection of Peter I from the Kunstkamera, together with the collection of jewellery.

But Nicolas I is also associated with regrettable events in the history of the Hermitage for, as a result of his subjective decisions, many valuable pieces were to disappear from the Museum. A considerable number of masterpieces were sold, including Chardin's "Attributes of the Arts" and Lucas van Leyden's "The Healing of the Blind Man of Jericho". Decades later, some of these works were recovered.

The mid-19th century saw a number of important acquisitions for the Hermitage including the collection of the Barbarigo Palace in Venice, which provided the Museum with some excellent paintings by Titian, several works from the collection of William II of The Netherlands, and classical antiquities from the collection of the Marchese Campana in Rome. These were followed by Leonardo de Vinci's "Madonna and Child", bought from Count Conestabile in Florence in 1879. (This canvas was purchased originally for the Empress Maria Alexandrovna, who bequeathed it to the Hermitage in 1880). In 1884 the Museum also acquired the collection of Anton Bazilevsky with its superb Oriental, Byzantine and medieval works of art, and a year later the collection of arms and armour from the Tsarkoye Selo armoury was added to its many treasures.

The Hermitage played a crucial part in the history of Russian art by acting as a valuable resource for young artists studying the Old Masters and by displaying the collection of Russian paintings. (This was to form the nucleus of the present Russian State Museum.)

Outstanding among the 20th-century acquisitions was the vast collection of Dutch and Flemish works that belonged to the well-known traveller and geographer Semenov Tien-Shansky, bought in 1910, and Leonardo da Vinci's "Madonna with a Flower", purchased from the Benois family collection and consequently known as the Benois Madonna.

The tragic year of 1914 marked the 150th anniversary of the Hermitage. Celebrations began with a performance at the Hermitage Theatre of a play written by Grand Prince Konstantin Konstantinovich, entitled "The King of the Jews". In keeping with a tradition which started in the reign of Catherine II, the performance was followed by a dinner served in the rooms of the Hermitage. But such festivities were shortly to come to an end forever. World War I broke out in August that year and preparations began immediately for the evacuation of the Museum's contents. (However, only the treasures of the jewellery gallery were actually removed.)

The fortunes of the Hermitage changed drastically in 1917. After the February Revolution it became known as the 'Ex-Imperial Hermitage'. Kerensky's Provisional Government ordered the art collection and all Palace property to be removed to Moscow, where it was to be stored in the Kremlin and in the History Museum in Red Square.

On the night of 25 October (Old Style) the Winter Palace, in which sessions of the Provisional Government had been held since the summer, was stormed by revolutionary forces. A few days later, Anatoly Lunacharsky, Commissar of the Soviet Government, declared the Winter Palace the Hermitage State Museums. (Eventually they were to be merged together to form the Hermitage we know today.)

At the end of 1920 the works of art that had been sent to Moscow were returned, but there now began a period when treasures were moved around the country to ensure their fair distribution among the different museums. For instance, in 1920 some 460 Old Masters were transferred to the State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow alone. For its part, the Hermitage received part of Moscow's collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works. New departments were established: Oriental arts and culture; the history of primitive civilizations; the history of Russian culture. The departments of Antiquities and Western European arts were completely rearranged. Archaeological excavations, initiated by B. Piotrovsky, brought to the Museum unique artifacts from the State of Urartu, one of the oldest Russian territories.

It was in many ways due to the shortsighted policies and the ignorance of Soviet foreign trade organizations, backed by the highest authorities, as well as a generally warped view of the role and significance of Russia's cultural heritage, that the Hermitage became increasingly involved in unprecedented sales of national treasures that could be justified neither on economic nor political grounds. The foreign trade organizations were undoubtedly spurred on by the fantastic number of works of art amassed during the short post-revolutionary period and the financial reward their sales seemed to promise. The efforts of the Hermitage staff to stem this destructive process met with little success. The catalogue of the auction held by the Rudolph Lepke Company in Berlin in 1931 lists an extensive and unique collection of objects of applied art and 108 paintings from the Stroganov Palace collection, including masterpieces by Van Dyck, Rubens, Rembrandt, Poussin and Boucher. The auction's commercial success was undermined by the mere fact that so many outstanding works of art were being sold off at the same time. Fortunately, in many cases bids did not reach the asking price and the works were later returned to the Hermitage.

During the Twenties and Thirties the Soviet Union found itself in a state of economic isolation. To stimulate business the Soviet Commissariat for Foreign Trade frequently offered works of art to foreign officials and businessmen for token sums. So it was that the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union Joseph Davis and his wife took advantage of these favourable terms when putting together their well-known collection of Russian art. Iraqi petroleum company chief Calouste Gulbenkian, US Minister of Finance Andrew Mellon, and others whose business was of particular interest to the Soviet Union, also unobtrusively acquired gems from the Hermitage. The scale of Andrew Mellon's 'deal' became evident when he presented Washington with twenty-one Hermitage paintings (which he had purchased for less than seven million dollars) to compensate for his failure to declare his profits to the US Department of Finance. These paintings became the core of the National Gallery in Washington: Van Eyck's "Annunciation", Botticelli's "Adoration of the Child", Raphael's "Alba Madonna" and "St George" and Titian's "Venus with the Looking-Glass", as well as masterpieces by Perugino, Veronese, Van Dyck, Frans Hals, Rembrandt and Velazquez. Numerous works of art originally from the Hermitage are now to be found in national and private collections the world over.

Only in 1934 did it become possible to stop these catastrophic sales. To the devastating list of losses one must add the book collection of the Winter Palace. The private library of Nicolas II, for example, was bought by the US Library of Congress.

On 22 June 1941 the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union, and the Museum staff, assisted by many volunteers, immediately began the second wartime evacuation of the Hermitage collection, this time to Sverdlovsk. More than two million items were sent off in two trains. The objects for the third train were in the process of being packed when the ring of the blockade closed. Thanks to the heroic efforts of the staff, both the collections and the buildings were saved. They continued with their research and even held scholarly conferences in the Museum buildings.

Towards the end of 1944, with the war still raging, a marvellous exhibition was mounted of all the treasures still in the Hermitage, which many of the Museum staff had lost their lives saving. In October 1945 the evacuated collections were returned to Leningrad and shortly afterwards the Hermitage was ready to receive its first post-war visitors. The restoration work, however, was to continue for many years to come.

Since the war the role of the Hermitage as an important research centre has expanded. Numerous archaeological expeditions, sponsored by the Museum and aimed at collecting Russian works of art, have been highly successful. Among the most valuable findings are frescoes from the ancient settlements of the area north of the Black Sea, from the medieval cities of Central Asia and the old Russian city of Pskov.

The past few years have been a period of great expansion for the Hermitage. A considerable number of works of art are purchased annually with state subsidies. Recent acquisitions have included a rare tapestry produced by a St Petersburg workshop in the 1730s; a miniature portrait of Catherine II; the dinner service manufactured on her orders for her favourite, Count Grigory Orlov; and Rastrelli's bust of Alexander Menshikov, the first Governor of St Petersburg. The Hermitage has also received generous gifts from citizens of the Soviet Union and friends from all over the world.

The Museum complex, too, has been augmented by a number of additional buildings: the palace of Alexander Menshikov is now devoted to the history of early 18th-century Russian culture and its relationship with Oriental and Western European cultures. The former General Headquarters of the Russian Army is to become a new museum of applied arts, and restoration work on the Hermitage Theatre is nearing completion: here, visitors will soon be able to see the excavated remains of the palaces of Peter I.

The exhibitions programme of the Hermitage is also growing, both in scope and in terms of international status. Along with the traditional exhibitions of new acquisitions each year, a number of monographic exhibitions are now arranged by the various departments. International exchanges of exhibitions and precious individual works of art are increasing, and the treasures of the Hermitage now travel all over the world.

Every year, thousands of visitors come to see the world-famous buildings of the Hermitage, and it is hoped that many more will have the opportunity to walk through this rich and wonderful museum and enjoy its countless magnificent treasures.


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