Catherine the Great and the History of Hermitage Museum
Nature endowed Catherine the Great with intelligence, shrewdness and feminine charm. And she made use of all three qualities most effectively. Brought up on the literature of French Enlightenment, she decided the Russian nobility must be educated for its own good and the good of the state. Catherine introduced a system of education and allowed her subjects to import books from Europe, open private printing presses and publish various journals.
In the first few months of her reign the new Empress set up a special Commission for Stone Building in St. Petersburg with the task of making the city a fitting capital for a great empire. Lavish Baroque was rejected and French classicism became the official style. It was Catherine who founded the Hermitage, now a world-famous museum. Yet it all began as the concern of a woman in love for her favorite. On the east side of the Winter Palace the architect Francesco Rastrelli erected a long building for the royal stables.
Catherine was deeply moved by the death of Voltaire. She professed an enthusiastic admiration for the philosopher; she liked to say that she was indebted to the great man for all she knew, for everything she was, "I am his pupil", she liked to say.
Voltaire, Diderot, and other advised Catherine on art
No sooner had Catherine come to the throne than she expressed the desire to have a hanging garden in her palace. The architect Georg Velten built one on the roof of the stables and decorated it with fountains and sculptures. In 1764 the Empress asked Vallin de la Mothe to design pavilions for the hanging garden. One for her favorite Count Grigory Orlov on the southern edge and a Hermitage for relaxing informally with close friends on the north. The Frenchman was capricious and egoistic. After drawing up the design, he left all the construction work to Velten. As a result the façades have different compositions. The north one facing the Neva has an elegant monumental portico of six Corinthian columns. The south façade echoes the Baroque décor of the Winter Palace and is adorned with reliefs.
When the pavilions were ready Velten connected them with covered galleries. And the used the galleries to hang the paintings which Catherine had begun to collect. Collecting works of art was intended to enhance the enlightened ruler’s image in the eyes of civilized Europe. The Empress herself admitted that she did not know very much about painting. She preferred precious stones and cameos. The collection of painting and sculpture was organized quickly and well. The Empress’s assistants and advisers included Voltaire, Diderot, and the Franco-German critic and diplomat Friedrich Mechior Grimm. With their help Catherine acquired over the years the famous collections of Gotzkowsky, who collected painting for Friedrich II, the Saxon minister Heinrich von Bruhl, Monsieur Geniya, former secretary of Louis XV and Robert Walpole, prime minister of England from 1721 to 1742.
These expensive purchases, made in the period when Russia was fighting Turkey, was intended to demonstrate the wealth of the empire. Catherine asked Velten to construct a special building for her collections. It stretched along the embankment from Vallin de la Mothe’s Hermitage to the Winter Canal dug in Peter the Great’s reign.
This new museum began to be called the Grand Hermitage, and the pavilion in the hanging garden the Small Hermitage. The Grand Hermitage consisted of two enfilades of rooms on each of the three floors, one facing the Neva and the other the courtyard. By 1787 the museum contained 2,658 canvases.
Catherine loved and understood nothing of the arts; her avowed ignorance did not cool the ardor of her passion, because "her tastes, in a nice expression of Prince de Ligne, took the place of taste".
Henry Tronchin, Le conseiller François Tronchin et ses amis: Voltaire, Diderot, Grimm, 1895
In 1778 the Empress commissioned the artist Christopher Unterberger to make life-size copies of the paintings in the famous Raphael Gallery in the Vatican. In 1883 the architect Giacomo Quarenghi built a special gallery for them along the Winter Canal. Its façade is a strictly classical two-tiered arcade, massive at ground level and light, with Corinthian columns, at the top. IN 1787 the copies were exhibited on the first floor of the new Raphael Loggia. And the ground floor housed Voltaire’s library, which the Empress had purchased from his heirs.
She has the soul of Brutus and the charm of Cleopatra.
Diderot of Catherine the Great, in a letter to Princess Dashkova
Playing her role of great enlightener, Catherine the Great believed that instructive comedies of character were a good way of educating the new generation. She herself wrote several such works. Consequently the theater played an important part in Petersburg social life. In 1783 Catherine asked Quarenghi to build a court Hermitage Theater in place of Peter the Great’s old palace. This building is one of the finest specimens of Russian classicism. The architect based his design on Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza. The seats were arranged in an amphitheater. The walls were decorated with Corinthian columns and niches with sculpture.
Archeological excavations in the 1970s and 1980s showed that the ground floor of the theater actually preserved some of the rooms in Peter the Great’s Winter Palace. Quarenghi did not demolish the old palace, but simply slotted it into his own building. Georg Velten connected the Grand Hermitage to the theater by a gallery. The curve of the arched passageway over the Winter Canal repeats the contours of the granite bridge over it. As a result you have a magnificent view of the Neva and the fortress from the Canal side.
Fifty years passed and the Small and Grand Hermitage could no longer accommodate all the treasures in the royal collection, which Alexander I and Nicholas I continued to enrich. In 1838 Nicholas decided to erect another building for the museum and asked the Bavarian architect Leo von Klenze to design it. It was to stand on Millionnaya Street at the point where it joins the Palace Square. Von Klenze presented his design in 1840 and left the construction to the Russian architect Vasily Stasov. The latter had to make several corrections. Von Klenze had not taken account of the Petersburg climate or the local relief.
Nevertheless in 1852 the new building was ready. It was called the New Hermitage, and the Grand Hermitage built at the end of the 18th century became the Old Hermitage. The three long new blocks run parallel to the Old Hermitage and the Neva. They are connected by wide galleries which also contain rooms. The main entrance of the New Hermitage faces Millionnaya Street. The heavy balcony is supported by ten powerful Atlantes made of whole blocks of grey granite. The vestibule with its dark-pink columns is somewhat dark. It opens into a broad, well-lit staircase. The ground floor contained the gallery of the history of ancient painting.
Its walls were adorned with arabesques and portraits of the great painters of the past, Giotto, Raphael, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Rubens and many others. Klenze was not shy about including his own portrait in this row. Today the gallery houses sculpture by Thorvaldsen and Canova. The new building has sixty rooms, three of which have glass ceilings. It was here that the official opening ceremony took place.
As an eyewitness said: “The court ladies in their fine dresses… the ministers in their shining uniform, and the high state officials… imparted a new radiance to the chosen venue. The splendor of the occasion was enhanced by the exquisite art with which the rooms, where a dinner was prepared for six hundred places, were adorned and lit. The Spanish room, intended for the Imperial family and the tables of the court ladies and highest dignitaries, presented a wondrous aspect. Thousands of candles… lit up… the works of Murillo, Velasquez and other Spanish painters.”
After 1917 the Winter Palace was handed over to the museum and the Hermitage occupied a large block in the center of the town. Yet today it needs more space. It is planned to hand over the former Office of the General Staff and Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the museum in the coming years.