Sitting on the bank of the Neva River in St. Petersburg, the Hermitage Museum houses one of the world's preeminent collections of artwork. Among its three million treasures are works by Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Cézanne, and Picasso. The holdings range from Scythian gold to Impressionist paintings. The word Hermitage is often used interchangeably with Winter Palace, but historically they are distinct facilities. Built during the reign of Empress Elizabeth, between 1754 and 1762, the Winter Palace was the official residence of the tsars. The Palace contains the imperial throne room and grand staterooms such as the Hall of St. George. During the late eighteenth century Empress Catherine II oversaw the construction of four additional buildings. Between 1765 and 1766 Yuri Velten began the Small Hermitage, a pavilion near Palace Square, as Catherine's intimate retreat from court life. Vallin de la Mothe expanded the Small Hermitage from 1767 until 1769 with a second pavilion connected by Hanging Gardens. Beyond the Small Hermitage to the east lies the New Hermitage (1839–1851) on Palace Square. Along the Neva riverbank is the neoclassical Large Hermitage, designed by Yuri Velten and built between 1771 and 1787 to house Catherine's paintings, library, and copies of the Vatican's Raphael Loggias. The Winter Canal runs along the east side of the Large Hermitage and a gallery spans the canal and connects the Neoclassical Theater (built 1785–1787 and designed by Giacomo Quarenghi) to the rest of the complex.
Nicholas I ordered the New and Large Hermitages to be opened to the public and a new entrance was constructed away from the Palace in
1852. Following the demise of the Romanov dynasty in 1917, the Bolshevik government combined the Hermitage and Winter Palace into one large complex that was designated as a public museum. The Bolsheviks nationalized the private collections of many wealthy Russians, further enhancing the collection.
During the nine-hundred-day Nazi siege of Leningrad (the city's Soviet-era name), the museum was bombed nineteen times. Many holdings were evacuated to the Urals for safety, while curators moved into the facility to protect the remaining treasures. Twelve air-raid shelters were constructed in the basement, and at one point twelve thousand people were living in the museum complex. They planted vegetables in the Hanging Gardens in order to feed themselves.
The eventual Soviet victory over Germany allowed many priceless works of art to fall into Soviet hands, because Hitler had ordered the seizure of artwork from museums and private collections in occupied lands. Some paintings were immediately placed on display in the USSR, while others were hidden away and only revealed after the fall of the Soviet Union. Restitution of these trophies of war became a contentious issue in Russian politics. While some political leaders thought restitution would be morally and legally correct as well as positive for Russian–European relations, other politicians insisted that they are legitimate reparation for the immense damage and suffering the Soviet people experienced during World War II.
See also: catherine ii; leningrad, siege of; nationalism in the tsarist empire; rastrelli, bartolomeo; winter palace
Eisler, Colin T. (1990). Paintings in the Hermitage. New York: Stewart, Tabori, and Chang.
Forbes, Isabella, and Underhill, William. (1990). Catherine the Great: Treasures of Imperial Russia from the State Hermitage Museum, Leningrad. London: Booth-Clibborn Editions.
Norman, Geraldine. (1997). The Hermitage: The Biography of a Great Museum. London: J. Cape.
Varshavsky, Sergei and Rest, Boris. (1986). Hermitage: The Siege of Leningrad, 1941–1944. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
Ann E. Robertson