Aerial View The Hermitage (Credit: dreamstime.com)

The State Hermitage Museum is one of the largest museums in the world. It includes over 3 million exhibits representing Antiquity, Western Europe, Middle East, Russia and many more epochs, countries and regions. Its foundation dates back to 1764, when Catherine the Great purchased a big collection of Western European paintings.

Last week we explored the Winter Palace, one of the 5 buildings that make up The Hermitage Museum, when it was built and how it grew into one of the most magnificent palaces in the world. Today we'll learn a bit more about Catherine the Great, how the collection started and explore just a small sample of the fabulous works we can see today.

Unless otherwise stated, details are taken from my own notes, smithsonianmag.com, saint-petersburg.com and The Hermitage - A stroll Through the Halls and Galleries (a book I purchased in 2013).

So who was Catherine the Great?

The short video published in a biography by Brittanica.com below, provides an excellent summary.

Catherine the Great | Biography, Facts, & Accomplishments
Catherine the Great, empress of Russia (1762–96) who led her country into full participation in the political and cultural life of Europe. With her ministers she reorganized the administration and law of the Russian Empire and extended Russian territory, adding Crimea and much of Poland.

As Empress of Russia, Catherine ruled for 36 years - from 1762-1796, the longest reign of any female Russian leader. Her rule was marked by vast territorial expansion, which greatly added to Russia’s coffers but did little to alleviate the suffering of her people. Even her attempts at governmental reforms were often bogged down by Russia’s vast bureaucracy.

Catherine considered herself to be one of Europe’s most enlightened rulers, and many historians agree. She wrote numerous books, pamphlets and educational materials aimed at improving Russia’s education system.

She kept up a lifelong correspondence with Voltaire and other prominent minds of the era, tried her hand at composing opera and became a "very passionate, knowledgeable" proponent of painting, sculpture, books, architecture, opera, theater and literature. A self-described "glutton for art", the empress strategically purchased paintings in bulk, acquiring as much in 34 years as other royals took generations to amass. 1

Catherine died in St Petersburg on 17 November 1796 and was succeeded by her son Paul.

Some of the fabulous artworks (Credits: artsandculture.google.com)

Catherine easily rivals W. R. Hearst's buying spree for his castle in California, which we covered a few weeks ago. In 5 short years Catherine amassed a vast collection which is briefly summarised here:

In 1773, Catherine started with a purchase of a collection comprising 225 paintings from the Berlin art dealer Gotzkowsky. The collection was originally destined for King Frederick II of Prussia. Among the 225 paintings, there were only 5 masterpieces – 3 Rembrandts, a Franz Hals and a Rubens.

In 1769 Catherine scooped up the famous Dresden collection belonging to the late Count Heinrich von Brühl. The collection included 4 Rembrandts, a Caravaggio and 5 works by Rubens.

In 1771 Catherine purchased the famous collection of Pierre Crozat, which included 8 Rembrandts, 4 by Veronese, 12 by Rubens, 7 by Van Dyck and several by Raphael, Titian and Tintoretto.

Perhaps Catherine’s greatest conquest was England’s famed Walpole Collection. In 1778 the Empress received news that the spendthrift grandson and heir of Sir Robert Walpole wanted to sell the family’s entire collection. Considered the finest and most famous private art collection in England and perhaps the world; with almost two hundred paintings, including Rembrandt’s Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac, 15 works by Van Dyck and 13 by Rubens.

The Walpole Collection confirmed Catherine’s reputation: during her reign she amasssed around four thousand paintings, making her the greatest collector and patron of art in the history of Europe. 2

Some of the works from the Walpole Collection are below:

  • Rembrandt’s Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac
  • Jean-Baptiste Oudry's The White Duck, which was stolen from Houghton Hall in 1990
  • Pope Clement IX by Carlo Maratta, now in the Hermitage
  • Van Dyck's double portrait of Philadelphia and Elisabeth Wharton. These were described by Oliver Millar as "two of the most touching portraits" ever produced by van Dyck
  • Portrait of a young man by Frans Hals - part of the collection now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington

Apart from paintings, Catherine acquired a host of drawings, engravings, numismatic items, collections of cameos and intaglios; books including the libraries of Diderot and Voltaire.

The Hermitage Library (credit: commons.wikimedia.org)

Under Catherine's successors the collections continued to grow. Among the most valuable additions made in the early part of the C19th were the contents of the Malmaison Gallery formally the property of Napoleon's first wife, Empress Josephine, acquired by Alexander I; the collection of the Amsterdam banker Coesevelt and part of that of King William II of the Netherlands, purchased on the orders of Nicholas I.

The collection today now includes 17,000 paintings and 600,000 graphic works, over 12,000 sculptures and 300,000 works of craft, 700,000 archaeological and 1,000,000 numismatic^ findings. The museum also hosts a world's best collection of Holland baroque, French paintings of 19th and 20th centuries, Western European decorative art collection, a unique Gold of the Scythes exhibition, and ancient Greek jewellery.

^ In case you didn't know (like me!) numismatic relates coins and medals.

More of the fabulous art works (Credits: artsandculture.google.com)

You can see why I was completely overawed in viewing so many of these works in just a few hours. The guide during our 2006 visit told us there were 26 Rembrandts, 26 Picasso's, works by Monet, Pissaro, Renoir, Kadinsky, Da Vinci, Rafael, Rubens, Matisse - the list goes on and on. I am sure every famous artist you care to mention is represented.

As Vera said in the video included with the post on the Winter Palace last week, if you spent a minute in front of each work of art, it would take 8 years to view the complete collection.

In 2 visits I only had 6 hours - but what a wonderful 6 hours! A few of my photos below - which as you can see covers gold artefacts, wonderful marble and metal sculptures, Egyptian scarphogus and two paintings: Madonna and Child with two angels by Paolo di Giovanni Fei (c1380s) and Madonna and Child by Leonardo da Vinci (c1490s).

On both occasions we were given free time and I dashed off to the rooms displaying the Impressionists - to my surpise there were not many people around at all. Some paintings seem like old friends, as I have seen them before. The Hermitage often lends works out as part of travelling exhibitions.

As with all significant museums and galleries The Hermitage has had its ups and downs: works of art fell into disrepair, sold off, deemed unimportant or of little artistic worth and in later years sold to buyers abroad to help solve the national financial woes. In the 1920s new and expanding galleries cross the USSR drew on stocks from The Hermitage.

Today The Hermitage is a leading centre of scholarly activity with several research departments, which include archaeology of eastern Europe and Siberia; the Ancient World, Western European Art, to name a few. A particular concern for The Hermitage nowadays is to preserve the wealth of the artistic legacy that it possesses.

Specialists are employed in restoration and conservation of thousands of objects of culture and art each year as well as the priceless Hermitage interiors. The museum is still constantly expanding its collections; a large share of the acquisitions come from the Hermitage archaeological expeditions particularly before the late 1980s.

New paintings, works of graphic, decorative, applied art and new numismatic items are managed by the expert purchasing commission. A large and particularly important group of new acquisitions comprises generous gifts by the artists themselves and donations from collectors.

The Hermitage is actively engaged in the exchange of temporary exhibitions with museums abroad.

Extract by Vladimir Matveyev - Deputy Director of the State Hermitage - from the publication The Hermitage - A stroll Through the Halls and Galleries.

To explore more follow this link to The Hermitage. It covers some history and some of the rooms which we covered last week. If you continue to scroll down, there is an excellent selection of art works - a feast for any art lover.

To conclude our visit of The Hermitage Museum, lets take a look at the stunning Peacock Clock – a large automaton featuring three life-sized mechanical birds, which looks like a gilded garden. It was manufactured by the entrepreneur James Cox in the 2nd half of the 18th century at the request of Grigory Potemkin – to be a gift to beloved Catherine.

We have come to the last of the magnificent mansions and palaces I have visited. I am sure you will be surprised to know we have spent the last 20 Wednesdays together!

Its been such a pleasure to re-visit such amazing places, to research and learn so much more about them and a joy to share them with you.

Anne tells me that we have received a lot of positive feedback, so as an encore I have searched my albums and found a few Housemuseums - not really mansions, closer to stately homes, but each filled with a fabulous collection, available to the public through the philanthropy of the wealthy owners.

In two weeks, we head to Melbourne for a look at the Johnstone Collection. In the meantime, tomorrow Anne and I share a touch of The Hermitage donwunder!

Credits:
1 bbc.co.uk and history.com
2 musings-on-art.org