Walks With Folks

The Wonders of the Hermitage

Learn the history of the Hermitage museum and its significance for the Russian monarchy
The State Hermitage Museum is the second-largest art museum in the world and one of the main tourist attractions in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Located between Neva River and Palace Square it is comprised of several historical buildings, the main of which is the Winter Palace.
The art collection of the Hermitage includes almost three million items, including one of the largest collections of Renaissance Italian and Baroque Dutch, Flemish, and French painters, and also archaeological findings from all over the world, Ancient Greek statues, Asian art and numismatic collection. In its halls you can see masterpieces of Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, El Greco, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Gainsborough and many other world famous artists.

However, the Hermitage is more than an art museum. The Winter Palace, the former residence of Russian Emperors and Empresses, offers a glimpse into the life at Russian imperial court. It is named so because in summer the court moved to another residence - Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo near Saint Petersburg.
The construction of the Winter Palace started in 1754. Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, reigned in Russia at that time. Elizabeth, whose court was one of the most splendid in Europe, wanted a palace that could be a symbol of national prestige.

Italian-Russian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli designed the building in Baroque style. The construction continued for more than 8 years. Over 4000 workers were employed in the project and an enormous sum of money was spent on it. Empress Elizabeth did not get to enjoy living in her new palace, as the construction was completed only after her death. Elisabeth was succeded by her nephew Peter III who, just after 6 month of his own reign, was overthrown by his wife Catherine.

Catherine was born a German princess and her original name was Sophia-Augusta-Frederika of Anhalt Zerbst. Though being not a Russian by birth she ruled Russia for 34 years and became known as Catherine the Great. Well-educated and talented, she strived to be a model of an "enlightened monarch", reformed Russian laws and system of government, exchanged letters with famous French philosophers Rousseau and Diderot and collected art. First major acquisition was made in 1764. It was the so-called Gotzkowsky collection, originally put together on behalf of King of Prussia Frederick II. After his defeat in Seven Years War Frederick refused to make a purchase and the collection was sold to Catherine II.
To house these paintings Catherine ordered the construction of a new building next to the Winter Palace known as the Small Hermitage. The word Hermitage means 'dwelling of a hermit' and it was named so because Catherine regarded this place as a retreat from the court life. Only selected few could attend parties that Catherine held in her "Hermitage". The Small Hermitage was designed by architect Yuri Velten who combined Baroque style with newly fashionable Neoclassicism.

In the next years Catherine's collection of art and library continued to expand so new buildings were needed. In 1771—1787 the Large Hermitage was built by Yuri Velten and in 1783 the Hermitage Theatre by Giacomo Quarenghi. The Hermitage Theater was used for theatrical performances, costumed balls and dinners.

Catherine's successors kept and expanded the royal art collection. One important addition was the collection of Josephine, former wife of Napoleon. It was bought by Russian Emperor Alexander I, Catherine's grandson, who reigned in Russia during the Napoleonic wars. After the entry of the Russian army into Paris, Alexander bought the paintings from Josephine's heirs . The majority of the paintings was itself captured by the French army as trophies from other countries. This collection included, among others, paintings by Rembrandt and Rubens and sculptures of Antonio Canova.
In December 1837 a terrible fire ravaged the Winter Palace. To prevent the flame spreading to the Small Hermitage and the paintings displayed there the passages connecting them together were disassembled during the fire. Emperor Nicholas I decided that the palace must be restored as quickly as possible and only fifteen months later in the spring of 1839, the royal family moved back into the palace.

During Nicholas I's reign the Hermitage complex gained another addition - the New Hermitage. Emperor Nicholas I invited German architect Leo von Klenze to build a new extension and public entrance to the Hermitage Museum. The entrance to this magnificent building has a portico supported by five-meter high Atlantes figures cut from grey granite. These sculptures became a symbol of the Hermitage.

With the opening of the Imperial Hermitage Museum on 5 February 1852, the Hermitage, previously accessible only to royal family and their courtiers, became a public museum.
Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace Skip-the-Line Private Tour
Visit one of the most notable Art Museums in the world on a custom tour with a professional guide and art lover.
During World War I the interiors of the Winter Palace changed radically. It was used to house a hospital for wounded soldiers. The ceremonial halls and opulent rooms were turned into wards, a dressing station, an operating-room, store rooms, laboratories and so on. As for the art collection, it was moved to Moscow to ensure its safety.
Tumultuous events of 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution, changed a lot for the Winter Palace and the Hermitage. In February 1917 Tsar Nicholas II abdicated. After that the Provisional Government, which became the highest authority in Russia, installed itself in the Winter Palace, moving into what had been the private rooms of Nicholas II and his wife. This occupation was not very long. In October of the same year the Bolshevik Party led by Vladimir Lenin overthrew the Provisional Government. Bolshevik forces stormed the Winter Palace and arrested the ministers. Soon after that the new authorities announced that the Winter Palace would become a museum and a few years later, after the end of the Russian Civil War in 1921, the Hermitage was reopened with the Winter Palace as its part.

During the Soviet period of the Russian history the Hermitage collection was expanded even more, incorporating art from nationalised private collections. On the other hand, some works were sold abroad by the Soviet government to finance industrialization of the country. Today the Hermitage Museum continues to be one of the most famous museums of the world, attracting several millions of visitors each year.

Several other buildings in Saint Petersburg also belong to the State Hermitage Museum. One is the General Staff building that stands opposite the Winter Palace across the Palace Square. The collection displayed in the General Staff Building is dedicated to Russian and European decorative art, paintings and sculptures from the 19th and 20th centuries. Highlights of this collection include paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Malevich and Kandinsky. Another of the buildings belonging to the Hermitage is Menshikov Palace. Alexander Menshikov, a man of humble origins, became the most trusted associate and friend of Emperor Peter the Great and the first governor of Saint Petersburg. His palace, construction of which began in 1710 and was finished in 1727, was one of the very first buildings in Saint Petersburg. Today, inside you can see decorative and applied art from the State Hermitage collection representing Russian culture in the 18th century.

The Hermitage collection is so vast and diverse that one needs at least 5 hours to even walk through all rooms of the museum. Unlike other museums, the Hermitage Museum does not provide written explanations for the artwork on display. Therefore, a guided tour can be indispensable for tourists who want to see the highlights of the collections and not miss any interesting exhibits. If you're interested in a private tour or a small group tour of the State Hermitage Museum with a highly knowledgeable licensed guide, book one with Walks With Folks (skip-the-line entrance ticket is included).
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