Hermitage Collections in the 19th Century
From the Palace Collection to a Public Museum
When Alexander I ascended the throne, he declared that he would rule "in accordance with the law and heart of his wise grandmother", and he paid much attention to Catherine's Hermitage that was awarded the status of palace museum and was opened to the public. The tastes of the Emperor, who preferred French art, were reflected in his first purchases for the Museum - 10 canvases by the landscape painter Hubert Robert and 5 paintings by Joseph Vernet.
In 1814 the allied armies entered Paris. Alexander I, who showed his consideration for the wife of Napoleon, Josephine, and supported her, received from her as a token of her gratitude one of the most famous gems from Classical Antiquity - the Gonzaga Cameo. After the death of the owner of the Malmaison Palace, the Russian Emperor bought from her heirs pictures that Josephine had acquired in the course of the Napoleonic wars. Thus the Hermitage came into possession of The Holy Family by Andrea del Sarto, two pictures The Descent from the Cross by Rembrandt and by Rubens, a series of canvases by Claude Lorraine devoted to the hours of the day, paintings by 17th-century Dutch artists and 4 statues by Canova.
When Alexander I was in Amsterdam in 1814, he showed his perfect artistic taste when he inspected the collection of the English banker Coesvelt. He selected for the Hermitage several wonderful paintings, including the Portrait of Count-Duke of Olivares by Velasquez, The Girlhood of the Madonna by Zurbaran and a Still Life by Pereda. Like Catherine II before him, Alexander I commissioned agents - diplomats and military officers - to purchase works of art abroad. At the same time, his numerous purchases of works by Russian artists made it possible to open a Gallery of the Russian school of painting in the Hermitage Museum.
Nicholas I was no stranger to art. As his wife remarked, he "was preoccupied with the painting of battle scenes". He amused himself by adding figures of Russian cavalry men to the landscapes by Dutch and Flemish artists. The catalogue of pictures he possessed shows 666 canvases, of which 650 paintings depicted people wearing a military uniform.
The Hermitage collection was significantly enlarged during the reign of Nicholas I. In 1831 and 1834 a number of paintings by Spanish artists were acquired from the collections of Manuel de Godoy, minister of Spanish King Carlo IV, and of Paez de la Cadena, the Spanish ambassador in St Petersburg. These purchases reflected Russia and Europe's interest in Spain at the time and rounded out the Hermitage collection of paintings from the Spanish school.
The Russian diplomat Dmitry Tatishchev, who died in Vienna in 1845, bequeathed his collections of weapons, sculpture, mosaics and paintings to the Hermitage Museum. Among the most valuable items from the Tatishchev collection were Spanish and Netherlandish paintings, in particular diptychs by Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin, as well as paintings by Jan Provost. This rich collection possessed a dactylotech - a casket for gems containing antique carved stones and works of Renaissance and Neoclassical artists set in precious mountings.
In 1850 paintings from the Barbarigo Palace in Venice, where Titian died in the late 16th century, were purchased. Except for Danał and The Flight into Egypt, all of the Titian paintings in the Hermitage originate from this collection.
In 1852 the curator of the Picture Gallery of the Hermitage Fiodor Bruni went to The Hague to participate in the auction of the collection of the Netherlandish King William II. He bought Columbine by Francesco Melzi, The Descent from the Cross by Jan Gossaert, St Luke Drawing a Portrait of the Virgin by Rogier van der Weyden and St Lawrence by Zurbaran.
For his private collection, Nicholas I purchased paintings by the German artist of Romanticism Caspar David Friedrich. Canvases by Russian artists of the 19th century were included not only in his private collection, but they also decorated the room of Russian art in the New Hermitage.
For the first time after Catherine's purchases, the Archaeological Commission for the Search of Antiquities renewed its activities in Italy. In 1851 the Hermitage Museum's holdings of antique art were enriched by the acquisition of the Laval family collection consisting of 54 statues and 330 vases. In the same year Anatoly Demidov sold more than 50 statues to Nicholas I for the decoration of the New Hermitage. Among them were huge portraits of the Roman emperors - Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius and Antoninus Pius.
Nicholas I exhibited a warm interest in archaeological finds, which was characteristic of the epoch of Historicism. In 1840 the Emperor visited Kerch, the ancient capital of the Bosporan Kingdom, and there he was presented with a golden mask and other precious objects from the tomb of King Rhescuporis. In 1845 the King of Naples presented Nicholas with archeological finds that were unearthed in Naples in his presence.
The passion for Egyptian civilization that flourished throughout Europe after the Egyptian campaign of the Napoleonic Army in 1798 resulted in the purchase of Egyptian statuettes from the collection of Countess Laval and of the statue of the goddess Sekhmet-Mut, which had been brought over by the Russian traveller Alexei Norov and was kept in the Academy of Arts. In 1852 Nicholas I's son-in-law, Duke Maximilian of Leuchtenberg, presented to the Museum two huge stone sarcophagi and a sculptural family portrait of Amenemhet.
By the end of the reign of Nicholas I, the public Museum of the New Hermitage, which already possessed one of the world's best collections of Western European art, built up new collections - of the works of Classical Antiquity and of Oriental art, the Gallery of Jewellery and the Gallery of Peter I - and became famous throughout Europe.