In 1764, on the banks of the Neva River, Catherine the Great tucked her new art collection into the Winter Palace after purchasing the first handful of paintings. Some 88 years later, the gathered masterpieces of Russian royalty were displayed to the public for the first time on February 5, 1852. The State Hermitage, known commonly throughout the world as the Hermitage Museum, has since become one of the oldest and largest galleries of its kind on the planet.
Known for her desire to move the Russian people into the modern age through improved education and deeper connection with the larger cultural scene of Europe, it was only natural Catherine the Great would reach back toward her roots in the Prussian Empire to help her create an atmosphere of enlightenment at her court. Connecting with Berlin art dealer Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky, she purchased a collection created for her enemy Frederick II of Prussia. Filled with at least 200 paintings, many of them from the Dutch masters — Rembrandt and Rubens, in particular — it formed the basis for a royal repository to rival most held by her European contemporaries.
For nearly three decades, until her death in 1796, the Russian Empress sought out the best available works of art anywhere in Western Europe determined to fill the Southern Pavilion of the Small Hermitage, an addition to the Winter Palace under construction on her orders. Even with vast expansion, Catherine’s penchant for buying soon brought her collection near 90,000 paintings, books, drawings, gems and coins, all of it for her private enjoyment — very few people were invited to see what she acquired.
Through the first half of the 19th century, Catherine’s heirs focused on diversifying the collection. Artifacts dating to the Greek, Roman and Egyptian periods soon became part of the archive. At the same time, sculptures from Italy and additional pieces from Rembrandt filled the registry. (The Hermitage contained the largest group of Rembrandt’s paintings and etchings anywhere in the world. Far more than even his homeland, the Netherlands.)
After a fire in 1837, Emperor Nicholas I declared the Hermitage would be open to visitors as soon as possible. Hiring German architect Leo von Klenze to create a museum, he simultaneously ordered his representatives to scour the continent for even more of the best art and antiquities from all over Europe. Following the completion of construction in 1851, the New Hermitage opened for public viewing on February 5, 1852.
The Russian royal family was not done yet, however. For the next 60-plus years, agents of the tsar searched for more vases and sculpture, purchasing a number of statues, as well as the paintings Madonna Litta by Leonardo and Connestabile Madonna by Raphael. Riding the wave of new technology, curators soon added photographs, too.
When the October Revolution occurred in 1917, the Imperial Hermitage and Winter Palace received special status as museums of the state almost immediately. With the Soviet ideal of wealth redistribution coming to the fore as the years wore on, masterpieces in the various royal mansions and homes of Russian nobility were quickly assimilated into the larger Hermitage Museum or quietly sold. As the Germans neared St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad) in 1941, Soviet officials hurriedly loaded two trains with as much art as possible and shipped them east to Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg).
Throughout the post-war period and well beyond the fall of the Soviet Union, the Hermitage Museum remained a major gallery on the world art scene. Over the decades, the collection has expanded as works recovered from Germany during World War II were revealed and newer pieces from modern masters have been acquired. Today, there are more than 3 million works of art and artifacts in the Hermitage collection, some of them spread across dependencies in the Netherlands, Italy and Lithuania.
Also On This Day:
1576 – Henry of Navarre switches allegiance from Catholic to Protestant in the French Wars of Religion
1869 – The world’s largest alluvial gold nugget, the 241-pound “Welcome Stranger,” is found in Moliagul, Australia
1917 – The Federal Republic of Mexico is established, creating the country’s current government
1958 – A hydrogen bomb is lost by the United States Air Force near Savannah, Georgia
1985 – The mayors of Rome and Carthage meet in Tunis, Tunisia to sign a peace treaty, officially ending the Third Punic War after 2,131 years
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