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"We know what a literary heyday we have to consider Emperor Nicholas's reign, when the great names in Russian letters were closely linked with the names of great artists, excellent architects and first-rate musicians." Those lines, written in the 19th century, very accurately reflect the age that saw the creation of the New Hermitage - the "public museum" in which Emperor Nicholas I made accessible to the public the magnificent art collections of the Russian monarchs.
In 1838 Nicholas I made a journey to Germany in order to visit his crowned relatives. The Emperor was accompanied on his visits to the museums of Munich - the Glyptothek and Pinakothek - by the prominent Bavarian architect Leo von Klenze who had designed the buildings. The museums made a strong impression on Nicholas. He appreciated the basic idea of the innovative architect, which was to produce an architectural and decorative ensemble worthy of the works to be kept there. Nicholas was also attracted by the rational layout of the buildings that had been designed to meet all the technical requirements with regard to heating and lighting. The Emperor spent several hours in conversation with Klenze, discussing matters relating to the Hermitage. It was not only that the collections had become cramped in the Hermitage of Catherine's time, but also that Nicholas I intended to create a new museum open to the public. The result of the talk was a decision to build in St Petersburg a museum building to house the collections of painting and sculpture, ancient monuments, drawings and engravings, coins and medals, gemstones and more. Leo von Klenze was invited to Russia.

In July 1839 the "Proposal on the establishment of the museum..." was approved, laying down that the project drawn up by Klenze should be realised by the Winter Palace Building Commission headed by the chief architect Vasily Stasov. The commission included the prominent architects Alexander Briullov and Nikolai Yefimov, while the creator of the project undertook to monitor the construction, making occasional visits to St Petersburg. The story of the eleven years of construction that began in 1840 is one of many conflicts between the high-handed, stern Stasov, who was obviously unhappy at a foreigner being called in, and Klenze, who feared that his design would be distorted. The architects exchanged acrimonious letters, but the deciding word in their disputes belonged to the Emperor.

As a result Klenze was obliged to accept certain changes to the project. The museum was to be erected in immediate proximity to the imperial Winter Palace, on the plot of land between the Small Hermitage and the Winter Canal. Klenze proposed demolishing all the buildings that then existed on this site, including Catherine's Large Hermitage (Yury Velten, 1770-87) and the Raphael Loggias block (Giacomo Quarenghi, 1783-92). On the insistence of the commission, however, the Large Hermitage was spared, thus depriving the new building of a northern suite of rooms and a main facade overlooking the Neva. The Raphael Loggias block was placed in a new architectural setting and became an inseparable part of the New Hermitage building. The St Petersburg architects also insisted on some changes to fit the building better for the harsh northern climate and on the use of materials more suitable from that point of view. In the new layout, the southern side of the building, facing onto Millionnaya Street, became the main facade with the grand entrance accentuated by a portico with stone atlantes, carved from Serdobol granite to the designs of the sculptor Terebenev. Klenze had an exceptionally high opinion of the sculptor's work: "The beauty and noble style of these sculptures, the purity and precision of the work and the gleam of the polishing leave nothing to be desired..."

Leo von Klenze gave the building erected in what he himself described as the "Neo-Grecian" style an austere, monumental appearance. The edifice is adorned by statues and bas-reliefs depicting famous artists, architects and sculptors of the past. The large surfaces of the facades are enlivened by ornamental decor featuring ancient, Renaissance and Baroque motifs. According to the project, the lower floor was intended to house the ancient collections, ancient and modern sculpture, the display of drawings and prints, as well as the library. In the finishing of the halls on this floor Klenze employed the techniques of ancient architecture: granite and marble colonnades, walls faced with stucco indistinguishable from marble, and ornamental murals. The interiors of the upper floor, finished with truly palatial splendour - the central Skylight Rooms and adjoining rooms - were allocated to the display of painting and applied art. The main staircase with a majestic colonnade on the upper floor created a special feeling of solemn grandeur. Visitors ascending it sensed that they were entering a temple of the arts.

The New Hermitage was impressive for the magnificence of its halls and the rich variety of its collections. "If we could describe the beauty and majesty of the place, which is scarcely possible, our friends would consider it exaggeration. Of course, we could obtain no more than a general impression, although we probably walked a mile or more around the galleries and rooms and halls, finished in a luxurious, yet at the same time austere style. Some are devoted to medals and coins... others to sculpture classical and contemporary. The greater part, though, to paintings... Still what is most striking is the luxurious character of the furniture in the rooms, the wealth and great care taken in the working of a host of Italian marble columns, usually made from a single piece, the beauty of the ceilings..." Such were the impressions of an early visitor.

The New Hermitage was created under the watchful eye of Nicholas I. The Emperor went into all the questions and carefully studied the plans and drawings sent by von Klenze. The architect produced more than 800 sketches, reflecting every detail of the finishing of the rooms, the furniture and even the displays which he sought to harmonize with the interior. The beauty and luxury of the museum rooms not only emphasized that the Hermitage was a part of the imperial residence, but also invested it with the significance of a work of art. In memory of the creator of the museum, a plaque inscribed "Erected by Emperor Nicholas I in 1850" was placed above the main staircase of the New Hermitage. The museum was opened to the public in February 1852.

 


Portrait of Nicholas I
Franz Kruger

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The architect Leo von Klenze
1784 - 1864

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View of the New Hermitage from Millionnaya Street
Photograph by Dmitry Belous

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Plan for the first and second storeys of the New Hermitage
Leo von Klenze

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Design for the northern façade of the New Hermitage seen from the Neva
Leo von Klenze

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Design for the portico of the southern façade
Leo von Klenze

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Murals in the 4th (1st) Room of Coins and Medals in the New Hermitage
Leo von Klenze

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