Do you ever wonder about the big, hot shot museums and how they really function? I’ve worked in a few such museums here in the states. For museum professionals around the world, one of the most interesting of the world’s museums is St. Petersburg’s Hermitage museum, once the winter retreat of Czarina Catherine the Great. For its grandiose collections as well as the controversy surrounding the atrocious conditions in which the fine and precious art is housed, the Hermitage continues to cause quite a stir.
The Hermitage museum is part of the famed Winter Palace designed by the Italian architect, Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli in 1762. Hermitage got its name (“dwelling of the hermit”) because the mansion was intended for intimate receptions hosted by Catherine the Great and for the purpose of entertaining the imperial family and close friends.
While the collection was amassed mainly by the Czarina Catherine the Great in the late 18th Century and showed her love of French art and antiques. Over the years, the collection has grown significantly. Today, the Hermitage collection is four times larger than it was in 1917.
I visited the Hermitage on several occasions in both 2009 and 2011. Of course, I was excited, even moved, to be at the site of some of the best art in art history. Like many others, my immediate reaction upon entering the museum was horror when I saw a dripping air conditioning unit and a wide open window within mere inches of Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son and the portrait of his wife, Saskia. Photographs were not allowed in the museum to protect the art from flashing light yet the hot, bright gallery lights (like high beams on each painting) were shining right onto several fragile works of art.
During my summertime visit, the museum was quite warm with no signs of any HVAC mechanicals in use. The galleries were crawling with museum guards and crowded with tourists. I realized after visiting the museum time and time again that these conditions were typical of the Hermitage.
The amazing aspects of the Hermitage museum include the breathtaking gold reception room, rebuilt after World War II, featuring 9 kg of gold. I have been known to say that when you visit the Hermitage and experience all the gold there, it makes other museums look poverty stricken!
The War gallery features rows and rows of oil portraits of various Russian military figures including Czar Alexander I, circa 1812. The beautiful marquetry (inlaid wood) decorated hard wood floors which mirror the ceiling design. There is a rule that visitors must avoid stepping on the double headed eagle symbol of the Russian Empire intricately carved into the Hermitage’s reception room floor.
And then, there is the collection. The collection! The paintings, sculptures, and breathtaking works of decorative art are unsurpassed in most major international museums. The collection is encyclopedic and surely an art lover’s dream experience. For instance, Renaissance masterpieces are represented by works by Bronzino, Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo. Titian, the Venetian master, is represented in the collection by an unbelievable eight (8) masterpieces—the works in this gallery alone rival that of Italy’s Uffizi Gallery and the spectacular Vatican museum collections.
Rembrandt, the Dutch baroque genius, is recognized with wall after wall of large scale paintings including Holy Family, Self Portrait, Portrait of an Old Woman, Saskia as Flora, among others. French art of the 18th Century by Fragonard, Boucher, Vigee Le Brun were featured in galleries where fine examples of French chaise lounges, tables, and Sevres porcelains were also on display.
The Impressionist and modernist collections were extraordinary additions with major and mature works in multiple galleries by the big names of late 19th Century painting including Renoir, Monet, Manet, Degas, Matisse, Courbet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Picasso to name a few. Some of these works of art have never been loaned to other museums for important exhibitions forcing art lovers to make the pilgrimage to St. Petersburg in order to view the works of art. It’s certainly worth the trip!
Ph.D. antiques appraiser, author, award-winning TV personality and TV talk show host, Dr. Lori presents antiques appraisal events nationwide. Dr. Lori is the star appraiser on Discovery’s “Auction Kings.” Check out Dr. Lori’s event schedule at www.DrLoriV.com, www.facebook.com/doctorlori or call (888) 431-1010.