This is the third in my series on things to do in St. Petersburg, Russia.
As I said in my post on visiting St. Petersburg, a trip to the Hermitage Museum – the second largest in the world, after the Louvre in Paris – has long been on my bucket list. And I’m happy to report that the collection, housed in the sprawling green, white and gold Winter Palace, lived up to my high expectations.
From 1732 until the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Winter Palace served as the official residence of the Romanov royal family. The current building is actually the fourth Winter Palace built on the spot, in a style considered Elizabethan Baroque. Its first royal resident was, coincidentally, named Elizabeth, Peter the Great’s daughter. She funded the 2,500,000 ruble project through ever-rising taxes, even though Russian citizens were suffering deprivation from the Seven Years War.
As you can see from the pictures, the Winter Palace itself is as opulent and eye-popping as the art masterworks that lie inside (the photo above shows the famous Raphael Loggias). The collection started with Catherine the Great, who instructed agents in Amsterdam, London, Paris and Rome to purchase large lots of artwork when they came up for sale. Catherine the Great also enlarged the palace, adding on a wing that she called The Hermitage- signifying her private rooms where she could entertain friends and enjoy her collection without the watchful eye of the larger court.
When you plan your trip to the Hermitage, be prepared to spend a fair amount of the time (we were on a quick tour with one of the museum’s curators, but I could have lingered all day). The collection and building are a little exhausting (I feel this way at the Louvre too), but the sheer amount of masterworks are mind-boggling.
The Italian Skylight room, for example, is full of works from the Spanish artist Velazquez, with pieces by El Greco, Michelangelo, and Goya nearby. But it’s hard to concentrate on the art on the walls when you’ve got monster urns in front of you. Can you imagine having pieces like that in your home for your personal enjoyment?
The Hermitage has the largest collection of Rembrandt paintings outside the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. This is Danae, considered one of his finest, that is famous for another reason: In 1985, a man later judged as insane threw sulfuic acid on the painting and cut it twice with his knife. Art restorers started work on it that same day, and saved the masterwork.
The original Large Throne Room was destroyed in a fire in 1837. As one of the palace’s largest state rooms, it boasts a parquet floor made of 16 rare types of wood, arranged in a pattern that mirrors that on the ceiling.
The Hermitage has been open to the public since 1852, and Russian citizens receive a deep discount on the admission price (at $17.95, foreign tourists pay almost four times more than locals). You can buy tickets in advance online. If you have more time in St. Petersburg, you can pay just five dollars more and get a pass that allows you to go two consecutive days. It’s a good option for those who are prone to museum fatigue.
The Hermitage is free on the first Thursday of every month for an individual ticket. If you’re with a guided tour, you’ll still have to pay.
When the cruise ships come to town in the summer, crowds can get crazy. Your cruise ship may offer an after-hours guided option. My visit took place early in the morning in late September and there were no crowds to speak of.
The museum’s impressionist and modernist section are held in a different section of the building, one that seems strangely plain after all the excess you’ve seen before. Yet you don’t want to skip this part, as many of the Hermitage’s most famous paintings from Picasso, Monet, Kandinsky (seen above), Renoir and Degas are in this section.
The museum acquired many of the most valuable works by nationalizing (ie, stealing) collections from private collectors after World War II. It was also revealed in the 1990s that Soviet troops had stolen many pieces of artwork from German collectors and palaces during the same war.
The Gauguin room has 15 of the artist’s works, most of them painted in Tahiti. I hadn’t seen so many in one place.
The numerous Matisse paintings in the museum at least came from legitimate sources; beginning in 1967, Lydia Delectorskaya, Matisse’s muse, donated many of them to the Hermitage. I stood in front of The Dance for quite a while, taking it in. I always get a thrill when I see a painting in person that, until that point, has only lived in art books or magazines.
My trip to St. Petersburg was sponsored by The Eurail Group, but my opinions are my own.