From the early sixteenth century, the Armory Chamber in the Moscow Kremlin collected and preserved arms, diplomatic gifts, objets d’art, and state regalia, but art collections per se did not exist prior to the reign of tsar Peter I (Peter the Great, b. 1672, d. 1725). In 1703, he founded the city of St. Petersburg, which became the capital of Russia in 1712. As part of the schema for the new city, which symbolized an intentional opening of Russia onto the West, many buildings and palaces were constructed and required decoration. Peter invited foreign artists to Russia and purchased Western European and ancient art for his collection. Between 1714 and 1725, his Summer Palace was built, and he adorned its Summer Gardens with antique sculptures of pagan gods. This move incurred the wrath of the Russian Orthodox Church, which had forbidden such idols because of their potential to lead people into temptation. Perhaps Peter’s most famous sculpture was a marble Aphrodite, likely made in Greece in the 2nd century B.C. and known as the Tauride Venus, acquired in Italy in 1718–19. While Peter favored sculpture, he also collected paintings, including Garofalo’s The Entombment (1520s), presented to him in 1720 as a Raphael. By the end of his reign, Peter’s art holdings included around 400 paintings.
In 1762, Peter’s granddaughter-in-law Catherine II (Catherine the Great, b. 1729, d. 1796), born a German princess, became the empress of all Russia following a successful coup d’état to oust her unpopular husband, Peter III (b. 1728, d. 1762). By that time, she had converted to Russian Orthodoxy and learned Russian. She was deeply influenced by French Enlightenment philosophy as represented by Voltaire, and consequently French was spoken at the court. In her desire to bring the best of culture to Russia, she began to acquire foreign collections of art beginning in 1764, which she housed principally in the Winter Palace, completed in 1762, and the Catherine Palace, her summer residence in Tsarskoe Selo. In 1765–66, an addition to the Winter Palace known as the Small Hermitage was built with side galleries for her art, and in 1771 she initiated work on the Great Hermitage, erected to house the imperial art collections. Catherine filled these galleries with masterworks bought by her agents abroad—including the French philosopher and writer Denis Diderot— at auctions in Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, and London, chief among them the Pierre Crozat Collection (Paris, purchased 1772) and the Sir Robert Walpole Collection (London, purchased 1785). In addition to the work of such historic artists as Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, Claude Lorrain, and Antoine Watteau, she commissioned and acquired contemporary art by artists including Jean-Simeon Chardin. By the time of her 1785 inventory, Catherine counted 2,658 paintings in her possession.
Under Catherine’s successors, the imperial collections continued to be enhanced. Her son Paul I (b. 1754, d. 1801) sought to strengthen the collection’s status as an imperial museum. His son Alexander I (b. 1777, d. 1825), a leader in the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, purchased the private collection of Napoleon’s first wife, Empress Josephine of France, acquired numerous works of Spanish art, and expanded the imperial holdings to include Russian art. In his desire to transform the Hermitage into a state institution akin to Paris’s Louvre, he awarded the Hermitage the status of palace museum and by the end of his reign allowed limited public access to it. In this time, the museum became an important living classroom for young Russian artists.
Alexander’s brother Nicholas I (b. 1796, d. 1855) undertook the reconstruction of the Winter Palace following a fire in 1837 that almost completely destroyed the interior. He sought to establish a museum similar to those being created in Western Europe, particularly the Vatican Museum. He made a special trip to Italy in 1845, where he acquired a number of works, including contemporary sculpture by neoclassical artists such as Luigi Bienaimé. Nicholas hired the noted German architect Leo von Klenze to design the New Hermitage with a new public entrance. In February 1852, the Imperial Hermitage Museum opened to visitors of the higher levels of society; under Nicholas’s successor, Alexander II (b. 1818, d. 1881), the museum became free and open to the public. Following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the imperial collection was declared national property, and the museum was renamed the State Hermitage Museum.
ABOVE: Claude Lorrain (Claude Gellée), Morning In the Harbor, late 1630s.
Oil on canvas, 74 x 97 cm. State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo: © State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.