After the fire of 1837
Late in 1837 the palace suffered a terrible fire. It began in the Field Marshals' Hall on 17 December and raged for over thirty hours, leaving behind black charred walls. The Tsar's family and the court moved to the Anichkov Palace. By Easter 1839 the Winter Palace had been restored. The chief architects of the commission specially created to direct the work were Vasily Stasov, who was entrusted with restoring the state rooms, and Alexander Briullov, who was asked to decorated the living apartments.
During the restoration of the building new materials and types of construction were employed that were supposed to exclude the possibility of another fire breaking out. The palace was now heated by a hot-air system devised by the engineer Nikolai Ammosov. Air heated in pneumatic furnaces down in the cellars was delivered to the rooms through special ducts. The ceiling joists of the larger rooms and the rafters of the roof were made of metal; wooden beams were replaced by brick vaulting.
In the main the work to restore the inner decoration followed the concept of returning things to the way they were: the state rooms, staircases, Great and Small Churches were to recover their historical appearance, an approach that stressed the continuity of imperial power. In addition, the rooms that were regarded as memorials were also to be recreated.
The appearance of many interiors restored by Stasov was close to that before the fire. Yet in them one can sense the hand of a master belonging to a different era. When working on the state rooms of the Neva enfilade, for example, Stasov invested them with characteristic features of late Classicism. His designs are almost entirely devoid of variety of colour: white predominates in the new decor of the halls. The striking combination of white Carrara marble and gilded bronze and fine architectural proportions are the distinguishing characteristics of the majestic St George Hall.
Gold abounds in the decoration of the Armorial Hall (the design of the chandeliers incorporates the coats of arms of the 52 Russian provinces of the period). The appearance given to this hall, whose entrances are flanked by sculptural groups of early Russian warriors, was a continuation of the policy of turning the residence into a monument to the political and military history of the empire. This same policy had earlier influenced the design of the halls in the Great Enfilade that were recreated with only minor changes after the fire.
After the fire one more memorial hall was created - the Alexander Hall - in honour of Alexander I and the victory over Napoleon. Alexander Briullov, an outstanding exponent of the eclectic approach to architecture, combined in the design of the hall the grandeur of Byzantine architecture and the refinement of the Gothic. The end wall bears a medallion containing a portrait of Alexander in profile in the guise of the Slavonic deity Rodomysl. The frieze running around the hall contains enlarged reproductions of the celebrated medals by Count Fiodor Tolstoi bearing allegorical depictions of events during the War of 1812 and the foreign campaigns of 1813-14. The hall was approached through five rooms of paintings devoted to Russian victories in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In 1839, at Easter Day, the reconstructed Winter Palace was consecrated. The Easter service was held in the Great Church. The traditional procession, in which the imperial family, courtiers, clergy and a huge group of choristers took part, passed through all the state rooms of the palace. Those involved in the restoration work - members of the commission, officials, architects, artists and also the craftsmen - were invited to the palace and given medals inscribed "Zeal overcomes all" and "My thanks" by Nicholas I. The imperial standard was hoisted above the residence, proclaiming the Emperor's presence in his capital, and the standards of the Guards regiments were carried into the palace.
During the restoration work there was an obvious effort to separate the state rooms from the living apartments in order to detach the ritual of official and social receptions from the domestic life of the imperial family. Eight residential apartments were set aside in the palace for members of the imperial family and the Minister of the Court, as well as spare apartments for guests. The north-west corner block, all storeys of which were linked by a staircase and lift, contained the rooms of Nicholas I, his wife and their daughters. The Tsar's sons lived in the second storey of the western wing whose windows overlooked the Admiralty.
Empress Alexandra Fiodorovna's rooms were on the second storey and served as a continuation of the Neva enfilade. Their refined luxury was combined with complex styling in which Briullov used motifs borrowed from Ancient, Moorish, Gothic and Renaissance architecture. Particularly splendid was the finish of the Malachite Room that was unequalled in the palace. The combination of the bright colour of malachite, abundant gilded decor and the crimson drapery produced an exceptionally striking interior.
The whole family would spend time in the Empress's apartment in the Winter Palace, gathering there for meals and celebrations. Almost every evening there were soirees here at which there was much music-making. The Emperor himself took part in the domestic concerts, playing the flute extremely well. The drawing-room was a popular place to read the latest literary novelties or play cards. Besides members of the imperial family, many of their retinue could be found here.
Nicholas I's apartments, located in the third storey as before the fire, were restored “with their former simplicity”. Their decor underlined the occupant's role as a statesman. In the study, the walls of which were painted dark green, the main decorative elements were paintings and sculptures. These included battle scenes inspired by events in Russian history, portraits of Peter the Great, Alexander I and members of Nicholas's own family.
The Emperor had a second study on the ground floor that was a narrow room with dark wallpaper and no ornamentation. In it stood a desk and a folding camp bed. "On winter days, at seven in the morning, people passing the Winter Palace along the embankment could see the Tsar sitting at his desk in the study, ... reading, signing and sorting through the great heap of papers that lay before him," a contemporary wrote. In later years the Emperor preferred this room to his state apartments. It was here that Nicholas I died in 1855.