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Russia's treasure house - The Hermitage

— March 2015

Article read level: Art lover

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Grand Coach, Early 1720s. Various woods & metals, glass, silk & cotton fabric with embroidery, canvas; carved, &gilded; 700x250x310cm ©2014 State Hermitage Museum. Courtesy Booth-Clibborn Editions

Two massive volumes display the rich and varied contents of one of the world's foremost art galleries

The State Hermitage: Treasures from the Museum’s Collections, edited by Mikhail Piotrovsky

This grand (and weighty) production is a revised and expanded version of a publication which first appeared in 1994. It has been republished to mark the 250th anniversary of the founding of the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg, Russia. The covers of these two hardback volumes and the slipcase are decorated by close-up images of malachite mosaics found in the museum. The publication is as imposing and encyclopaedic as befits such a prestigious museum.

The year 2014 marked exactly 250 years since Catherine the Great’s acquisition of a group of Western European paintings in 1764, the foundation of the Hermitage collection. The Hermitage’s holdings are what one would expect from a collection originally formed by a rich and powerful European monarchy. It consists of paintings, graphics, sculpture, applied art and historical artefacts, spanning pre-history to mid-20th century. The Hermitage has good examples of ancient art from Southern and Eastern Europe. (African and American art does not seem to have significant representation in the collection.) Objects from the Caucasus and Ottoman Empire regions reflect the Czars’ interest in their own dominions and most will be unfamiliar to Western eyes. The collection of Old Master drawings is unexciting but solid, with outstanding portraits by Rubens and François Clouet and examples by many of the big names of art from the Renaissance up to c. 1950. There is a huge collection of prints, numbering almost half a million.  

In addition to direct purchases by the Czars, diplomatic gifts swelled the royal collection. The Hermitage Arsenal contains a Scottish claymore, dagger and pistol presented to Alexander I during a visit to England in June 1814. Martial imagery and paraphernalia (including arms, armour, medals and metalwork) give the Hermitage collection historical breadth. The elaborate tomb (1747–52) of Alexander Nevsky (cast in one and a half tons of silver) is triumphal in the traditional sense of that word: displaying military trophies.

Among the sculptures are Canova’s famous sculpture of Cupid and Psyche (1796) and an unfinished male figure by Michelangelo. Highlights from the painting department include two Leonardo Madonnas, two Giorgiones,  a Velázquez and numerous Titians, Raphaels,  Rembrandts, Rubenses and paintings by most major European artists. Such wide-ranging collections always include unexpected gems. For example, there is a limpid view of a quiet street in Arnhem painted in 1851 by Dutchman Jan Weissenruch (1824-80). It has many features in common with Golden Age  Dutch paintings (particularly by Gerrit Adriaensz. Berckheyde) and makes one keen to see more of Weissenruch’s pictures.

Another lesser-known piece to catch the eye is Cleopatra (c. 1630–40s) by Massimo Stanzione (c.1586–c.1656), the Neapolitan painter, which has a Balthus-like  quality. Cleopatra was a favourite subject for those pre-20th-century painters who wished to paint the female nude as free as possible from context and narrative. The collection of Russian art is not particularly strong because most of the best Russian art owned by the state is located in the Tretyakov Museum, Moscow.

All of the best known Impressionists and Post-Impressionists are represented. The outstanding collection of early Bonnard, Van Dongen, Matisse  and Picasso  is due to the insight and commitment of two remarkable Russian patrons, Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936) and Ivan Morozov (1871-1921). These wealthy industrialists bought when the artists were at the height of their creativity, forging High Modernism in Paris during the 1900s and early 1910s. Their collections include the very best of early Matisse (Dance (1910),Music (1910), The Conversation (1908-12)) and some well-known Picassos (Boy with Dog (1905),Three Women (1908)). These paintings ended up in Moscow, where they energized the Russian avant-garde in the 1910s. After the 1917 revolution, Shchukin and Morozov’s collections were appropriated by the state and were divided between major institutions.

The Hermitage collection has a strong collection of politically conscious and politically partisan art from the early 20th century, as is to be expected from an institution of the USSR. Käthe Kollwitz’s scenes of the poor of Germany are included, as are works by Italian Communist Renato Guttuso and left-wing artists from the GDR. There are more depictions of people working (and working-class people) than are to be found in more aesthetically driven Western collections of modernist art; abstract art is definitely under-represented. On balance, much of the modernist art is of neutral subjects: landscapes, marines, still-lifes and interiors.  That, however, is one of particular pleasures of museum collections – their partiality and blind spots as well as their strengths and treasures.   

Large museum catalogues such as this are rarely read cover to cover – and are not designed to be so approached. These volumes are no exception. They allow readers to find and examine particular pieces and to browse. Leafing through this book is like walking through the Hermitage itself – wandering into a gallery on your way somewhere else, only to find yourself lingering over examples of ceramics, gem cameos or coins. Short section summaries discuss various categories before a sequence of illustrations. Each catalogued item is given a large illustration (except for many coins and gems, which are reproduced close to actual size), with data and brief discussions by a specialist, which informs the reader of the object’s significance. Illustrations are generally high quality and large. One minor flaw is that linking texts with images on pages with multiple illustrations of similar items is not always easy because figures are not numbered. Photographs of the interior of the museum give an impression of the opulent settings these objects occupy. For those unable to visit St Petersburg in person, these volumes offer a less expensive alternative in book form.   

The State Hermitage: Treasures from the Museum’s Collections, edited by Mikhail Piotrovsky is published by  Booth-Clibborn Editions, revised edition 2014. 1,752pp, hbk in two volumes with slipcase.


Alexander Adams
Writer and artist

Background info

The catalogue reviewed here is available from Booth-Clibborn Editions This is not available from Amazon. We can’t find a price for it – it will be expensive, but as Alexander Adams points out, cheaper than visiting from most parts of the world!
The catalogue’s author, Mikhail Borisovich Piotrovsky, has also written the much smaller and cheaper volume The Hermitage: 250 Masterpieces (Skira Rizzoli, 272pp. £30.00 hbk).
A good accompaniment to the catalogue or the Skira book would be a DVD of Alexandr Sokurov’s film Russian Ark, which takes the viewer on a tour of both the Hermitage (the ‘Russian ark’ of the title) and 300 years of Russian history. This appears to have been filmed in a single take – one suspects some masterful editing!

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