The Hermitage is a travel destination, artwork, and history unto itself. One could spend days in the labyrinthine rooms and anterooms and never see all the art on display – and this is not to mention that in its vaults rests about 20 times more art than even these rooms can hold.
It occupies several buildings whose history began in 1754, when the Empress Elizabeth commissioned the grand Winter Palace, now the Hermitage’s main building. Completed in 1762, it became the royal residence that year when Catherine the Great lead a successful coup against her husband, Peter III. Soon afterward she began collecting art with a ferociousness that only a ruler of her stature could. In one transaction with British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole, she exchanged a single portrait of herself for fifteen paintings by renowned Dutch artist Anthony Van Dyke. In other transactions, she purchased vast collections in their entirety from European aristocrats.
However, these would remain for the private viewing of ruling classes until 1852 when the Imperial Museum was opened in the New Hermitage after Nicholas I ordered that building rebuilt, expanded, and that a new public entrance be installed. Opening public galleries had become fashionable among European royalty and it could be said the rather unremarkable Nicholas was simply “keeping up the Joneses.”
The collections continued to expand at a phenomenal rate, including purchases of art by Raphael and da Vinci in the later 1800s and early 1900s. At the beginning of WWI, most of its art was transferred to Moscow for safekeeping and much of the Winter Palace became a military hospital.
After the February Revolution, the Provisional Government nationalized all palaces and the art held in them, establishing the Committee on Art and History to begin a massive inventory. This inventory would not be completed, however, as the staff were soon barricading the museum against possible looting and rioting in the Bolshevik Revolution. Thankfully, the famous shelling of the Winter Palace by the cruiser Aurora, did not affect the New Hermitage or its art, much of which was still in Moscow anyway. To their credit, the Bolsheviks dispatched an armed detail to guard the building and its art soon after taking control.
The Bosheviks also immediately declared the Winter Palace a museum. It became the headquarters for the new Commissariat for Education, hosting galleries (the art returned from Moscow in 1920), films, lectures, concerts, and a Museum of the Revolution. Several rooms were left as a memorial to remind people how well the Tsars lived while their people were starving. Many still remark that the entire Hermitage bears excellent witness to the phenomenal social gap that helped spark revolution in Russia.
1920-1930 saw a further swelling of the Hermitage collections from art confiscated from such famous Russian nobles as Stroganov and Sheremetyev. Other collections were taken from less famous but still important names like Count Alexey Bobrinsky, who was the former chairman of the Archaeological Society of Russia and whose “contributions” greatly bolstered the displays of ancient art. At the same time, still more works were transferred to the Hermitage from places such as the Russian Museum, which the communists wanted to be fully specialized in Russian Art. It remains so to this day.
A reversal of this inflow occurred in the early 1930s. Consolidating their massive and increasingly expensive totalitarian state, Soviet officials were quick to find creative sources of income and the bulging vaults of the Hermitage soon became a target. In addition to the auctions abroad, art was often presented to foreign dignitaries and “friends of communism” as free or nominally priced gifts. One such recipient was Andrew Mellon, the first Secretary of the US Treasury. Twenty one paintings, including four of Cathrine’s Van Dykes, would later find their way to the collections of the National Art Gallery in Washington D.C through his “purchases.” At the same time, many works were transferred to found new museums across the USSR.
In 1941, Hitler invaded Russia. His army had express orders to “wipe the city of St Petersburg from the face of the earth” and his army advanced on it with frightening speed. The city’s museum was saved by the actions of its residents. Then Hermitage director, Iosif Orbeli, describes the day the war started: “On the 22nd June, 1941 all the Hermitage staff were summoned to the museum. Research workers, security guards and technical personnel — everyone took part in the packing, spending no more than an hour in 24 on eating and resting. From the second day on hundreds of people who loved the Hermitage came to help us… Those people had to be ordered to eat and rest. The Hermitage was dearer to them than their own health and strength.”
The Sverdlovsk Art Gallery (now the Ekaterinburg Fine Arts Museum) was declared a branch of the Hermitage and three massive trainloads of art were prepared in record time thanks to this “self mobilization of the Leningrad intelligentsia,” as artist Ludmila Ronchevskaya would call it.
Despite their best efforts, only two of the three trains made it out of Leningrad before the Nazis surrounded the city. The third train was also kept safe, however, due to the city’s remarkably successful 847-day standoff, enduring starvation and fuel shortages. Damage to the Hermitage was minimized by the artists who took shelter there and worked to clear the rubble and remove charred flooring after each bombing. In addition to this, they also sought to record the history of the Hermitage during the war in a series of sketches and photographs, many of which the Hermitage still has in its collections. In addition, they helped clear bodies and survivors when surrounding buildings were hit, and hosted as many as 12,000 people in bomb shelters constructed in the the Hermitage’s “indestructable” basement vaults.
In 1945, the museum was reopened. The same artists who had preserved the building restored many rooms in record time to house the returning paintings, which were loaded and shipped almost immediately after the peace was signed. In the years that followed, the Hermitage returned to its previous growth, acquiring new collections and even additional buildings such as the Menshikov Palace which now displays Russian cultural artifacts from the 18th century, contemporary with when the building was built.
The censorship which gripped the arts in the USSR was remarkably light on the Hermitage, which held an exceptionally high status. This status, however, did not stop the institution from being under funded, especially in the latter years of communism. Soon after the fall, the Hermitage formed partnerships with other major galleries across the globe and formed the “Friends of the Hermitage Foundation,” receiving substantial amounts of aid to renovate its facilities and particularly its environmental and security systems.
The Hermitage now has a permanent partnership with the Guggenheim in New York and maintains permanent show rooms in London (Somerset House), Las Vegas (Guggenheim-Hermitage Museum), and Amsterdam (Hermitage-Amsterdam Exhibition Complex). It has also received a substantial technology grant from IBM for a digital image studio and a new interactive website. The complex also continues to host a theatre (built 1783), an orchestra (1989), a music academy (1997), a center for education and Internet technology (1997), in addition to shops, cafes, and other services.
Plans to further expand its facilities in St. Petersburg and around the globe continue to go forward.