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Profile - The State Hermitage Museum

The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg is Russia's premier art museum. It began life as the private art collection of the imperial family and was nationalised and greatly expanded after the Revolution. The Museum is housed in the buildings of the former imperial palace in the centre of St Petersburg. They comprise the Baroque Winter Palace built by Bartolemeo Rastrelli for the Empress Elizabeth, the Neoclassical Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage and Hermitage Theatre built by Vallin de la Mothe, Yuri Velten and Giacomo Quarenghi respectively for Catherine the Great and the Historicist New Hermitage built by Leo von Klenze for Nicholas I. The latter was built as a museum where the cream of the imperial collection could be shown to the public. It opened its doors in 1852 and was known as the Imperial Hermitage Museum up to 1917.
The foundation of the State Hermitage Museum is generally dated to 1764, the year when Catherine the Great bought a collection of 200 Old Master paintings from Berlin. Catherine, who reigned from 1762 to 1796, was a keen collector and her purchases are still among the most distinguished exhibits in the Museum. She bought 4,000 Old Master paintings, tens of thousands of drawings and engravings, a large collection of antique and modern sculpture and 10,000 engraved gems - her special collecting passion. She also purchased and commissioned furniture, silver, porcelain and other decorative arts on an imperial scale. The famous silver dinner service that she ordered from Roettiers in Paris for her lover Count Grigori Orlov originally comprised over 3,000 pieces.

Catherine was not the first imperial collector. Peter the Great (1682-1725) bought works by Rembrandt and other Dutch masters, invited contemporary sculptors to Russia and ordered that gold and silver artefacts found in the ancient tombs of Siberia and Central Asia be collected on his behalf - thus laying the foundations of the Museum's magnificent archaeology collection.

The 19th century saw many additions to the imperial collection, notably during the reigns of Alexander I (1801-1825) and Nicholas I (1825-1855). The latter built the 'New Hermitage' onto the imperial Winter Palace and put the best of the imperial collection on show to the public there, with classical antiquities on the ground floor and Old Master paintings upstairs.

In September 1917, between the February Revolution and the October Revolution, the Museum's most important treasures were evacuated to Moscow to escape the advance of the German army. After Lenin moved the capital to Moscow in 1918, the government considered exhibiting them there and the Hermitage curators had to fight to get their treasures back. In the course of the 1920s some 400 paintings were transferred to Moscow to turn the Pushkin Museum into a national gallery and works of art were also given to provincial museums. However, the State Hermitage Museum, as it was called after 1917, grew in size since it was allocated many important items from nationalised private collections and began to organise its own archaeological excavations.

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