The State Hermitage Museum is a museum of art and culture in Saint Petersburg, Russia. One of the largest and oldest museums in the world, it was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great and has been open to the public since 1852. Its collections, of which only a small part is on permanent display, comprise over three million items (the numismatic collection accounts for about one third of them) including the largest collection of paintings in the world. The collections occupy a large complex of six historic buildings along Palace Embankment, including the Winter Palace, a former residence of Russian emperors. Apart from them, the Menshikov Palace, Museum of Porcelain, Storage Facility at Staraya Derevnya and the eastern wing of the General Staff Building are also part of the museum. The museum has several exhibition centers abroad. The Hermitage is a federal state property. Since July 1992, the director of the museum has been Mikhail Piotrovsky.
Of six buildings of the main museum complex, five, named the Winter Palace, Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage, New Hermitage and Hermitage Theatre, are open to the public. The entrance ticket for foreign tourists costs more than the fee paid by citizens of Russia and Belarus. However, entrance is free of charge the first Thursday of every month for all visitors, and free daily for students and children. The museum is closed on Mondays. The entrance for individual visitors is located in the Winter Palace, accessible from the Courtyard.
Originally, the only building housing the collection was the ‘Small Hermitage’. Today, the Hermitage Museum encompasses many buildings on the Palace Embankment and its neighbourhoods. Apart from the Small Hermitage, the museum now also includes the ‘Old Hermitage’ (also called ‘Large Hermitage’), the ‘New Hermitage‘, the ‘Hermitage Theatre’, and the ‘Winter Palace’, the former main residence of the Russian tsars. In recent years, the Hermitage has expanded to the General Staff Building on the Palace Square in front of the Winter Palace, and the Menshikov Palace.
Italian and Spanish fine art
The first floor of New Hermitage contains three large interior spaces in the center of the museum complex with red walls and lit from above by skylights. These are adorned with 19th-century Russian lapidary works and feature Italian and Spanish canvases of the 16th-18th centuries, including Veronese, Giambattista Pittoni, Tintoretto, Velázquez and Murillo. In the enfilade of smaller rooms alongside the skylight rooms the Italian and Spanish fine art of the 15th-17th centuries, including Michelangelo’s Crouching Boy and paintings by El Greco.
The museum also houses paintings by Luis Tristan, Francisco de Zurbarán, Alonso Cano, José de Ribera and Goya.
German, British, Swiss and French fine art
The first floor rooms on the southern facade of the Winter Palace are occupied by the collections of German fine art of the 16th century and French fine art of the 15th–18th centuries, including paintings by Poussin, Lorrain, Watteau.
The collections of French decorative and applied art from the 17th–18th centuries and British applied and fine art from the 16th–19th century, including Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, are on display in nearby rooms facing the courtyard. This area also holds paintings by German artists, including Hans Wertinger, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Barthel Bruyn the Elder, Caspar David Friedrich (Moonrise Over The Sea), Anton Mengs, Hans Thoma, Anselm Feuerbach, Franz Stuck (Two Men Fighting Over a Woman) and Heinrich Campendonk as well as paintings by Swiss painters Angelica Kauffman, Alexandre Calame, Arnold Böcklin and Ferdinand Hodler.
Catherine the Great started her art collection in 1764 by purchasing paintings from Berlin merchant Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky. He assembled the collection for Frederick II of Prussia who ultimately refused to purchase it. Thus, Gotzkowsky provided 225 or 317 paintings (conflicting accounts list both numbers), mainly Flemish and Dutch, as well as others, including 90 not precisely identified, to the Russian crown.In 1764, Catherine commissioned Yury Felten to build an extension on the east of the Winter Palace which he completed in 1766. Later it became the Southern Pavilion of the Small Hermitage.
In 1767–1769, French architect Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe built the Northern Pavilion on the Neva embankment. Between 1767 and 1775, the extensions were connected by galleries, where Catherine put her collections. The largest room in this particular apartment was the Audience Chamber (also called the Throne Hall) which consisted of 227 square meters. The Hermitage buildings served as a home and workplace for nearly a thousand people, including the Imperial family. Many events were held in these buildings including masquerades for the nobility, grand receptions and ceremonies for state and government officials.
In 1769, she purchased Brühl’s collection, consisting of over 600 paintings and a vast number of prints and drawings, in Saxony. Three years later, she bought Crozat’s collection of paintings in France with the assistance of Denis Diderot. Next, in 1779, she acquired the collection of 198 paintings that once belonged to Robert Walpole in London followed by a collection of 119 paintings in Paris from Count Baudouin in 1781.
In 1991, it became known that some paintings looted by the Red Army in Germany in 1945 were held in the Hermitage. Only in October 1994 the Hermitage officially announced that it had secretly been holding a major trove of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings from German private collections. The exhibition “Hidden Treasures Revealed”, where 74 of the paintings were displayed for the first time, was opened on 30 March 1995, in the Nicholas Hall of the Winter Palace and lasted a year. Of the paintings, all but one originated from private rather than state German collections, including 56 paintings from the Otto Krebs collection, as well as the collection of Bernhard Koehler and paintings previously belonging to Otto Gerstenberg and his daughter Margarete Scharf, including world-famous Place de la Concorde by Degas, In the Garden by Renoir, White House at Night by Van Gogh, and some other collections. Some of the paintings are now on permanent display in several small rooms in the northeastern corner of the Winter Palace on the first floor.