Housed in a remarkably sized building, Russia’s State Hermitage Museum is the largest in the world by art gallery space, and second largest by overall size, with an impressively vast collection of artworks to go with it. The collection was initiated by Catherine the Great, who bought 225 paintings from an art dealer including work by Rembrandt, Rubens, van Dyck, Raphael, and Titian amongst many others. She commissioned several extensions to the Winter Palace and displayed the collection in the galleries that connected the buildings together, though it was far from a public art gallery at this time, with access reserved to the nobility and visiting dignitaries.
Catherine rapidly expanded the collection with thousands of paintings, books, art prints, drawing, natural history exhibits, and her favourites; gems. The Winter Palace continued to expand with it, adding the Imperial Hermitage buildings and a theatre to accommodate it all. Russian royalty would continue this pattern of collection and expansion, up until the October Revolution when the palace, Hermitage buildings and theatre were all proclaimed state museums. Over time they were eventually merged together into what we know today as the State Hermitage Museum.
Steady expansion of collection and space has continued; today there are around 3 million objects in the collection including the largest painting collection in the world, all housed across six buildings, visited by over 4 million people pre-pandemic. The museum also runs several dependencies established elsewhere in Russia and Italy, with Las Vegas and London also on the list through the early 2000s, though those dependencies have now closed. The State Hermitage is one of the ten most popular art galleries in the world, highly regarded within Russia and amongst the most admired in the world.
The collection of artworks at the State Hermitage art museum
The three million items includes a diverse range of objects from all over the world, with the bulk of art primarily from the 13th to 20th century. Reaching back into ancient history there are items from Egyptian and Classical antiquity, including Babylonian reliefs, Graeco-Etruscan vases, and pottery, sculpture, gems and murals from Ancient Greece. A Prehistoric art collection focuses on discoveries from Russia including items from the Paleolithic and Iron Age, and early examples of carpet and chariots. The jewellery so loved by Catherine reaches all the way from 4000BC to present.
The State Hermitage Museum holds the largest collection of paintings in the world, accompanied by thousands of art prints and drawings. The artworks range from Italian Renaissance painters like da Vinci, Veronese, and Titian, to Italian and Spanish art such as Michelangelo and El Greco, and Dutch Golden Age and Flemish Baroque work by van Dyck, Brueghel the Elder, and Rembrandt. A gallery of German, British, and Swiss paintings includes Gainsborough and Friedrich, while French artworks feature Cezanne, Sisley, Pissarro, and Degas.
It represents a huge slice of European art history, and, like many older art galleries, the interiors of the State Hermitage Museum themselves are stunningly beautiful, with rich cultural connections to Russian history.
Beloved in Russia, but sometimes maligned internationally
In spite of it’s stunning buildings and interiors, vast collections, and striking visitor and size statistics, the State Hermitage Museum sometimes falls victim to the Western world’s relationship with Russia at any given time. It has sometimes been accused of “artwashing” Russia’s international reputation; a PR tool for the government to cover up certain other aspects of foreign or domestic policy.
Within Russia, the art museum is close to universally adored, though even this could be politicised into patriotism; it’s a lot of politics for an outstanding collection of artworks. Even with questions raised over it’s modern political purpose, the State Hermitage remains one of the most visited, highest ranking, and widely admired art galleries in the world.