Nicholas I decided to call the "Imperial Museum" that was built on his orders and completed by 1850 the New Hermitage. In doing so he opened a new chapter in the history of the museum while at the same time continuing the policy of his remarkable grandmother, Catherine II. Her creation of a picture gallery in the Hermitage was intended to show the world that Russia was entitled to call itself a European power and its Empress an enlightened monarch. In the two galleries of the Small Hermitage and the entresols of the main floor of the Winter Palace, and later in the specially constructed building of the Large Hermitage, Catherine assembled magnificent collections.
In 1764, traditionally reckoned to be the date of the museum's foundation,
she acquired from the Berlin merchant Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky 225 paintings,
mainly by Dutch and Flemish masters. In the years that followed Catherine
II, using the advice of such recognized connoisseurs of art as Denis Diderot,
Francois Tronchin, Melchior Grimm, Prince Dmitry Golitsyn and many others,
purposefully put together her Picture Gallery. The Empress's acquisition
of family collections that had been assembled over the lifetimes of several
generations contributed as much to Russia's glory as victories on land
and sea. In Brussels in 1768 she bought up the collections of Dutch and
Flemish art that had belonged to the Prince de Ligne and Count Johann
Carl Cobenzl. Cobenzl's collection of drawings numbered more than 6,000
items, providing a picture of the character of almost all the European
schools. The collection of the Saxon minister Count Heinrich von Bruhl,
acquired in Dresden in 1769, contained more than 600 paintings, including
masterpieces by Rembrandt, Rubens, Poussin, Watteau and Ruisdael, as well
as a host of prints and drawings. The year 1772 saw the acquisition of
the Crozat collection that brought the museum works by Raphael, Giorgione,
Titian, Veronese, Rembrandt, Rubens and Van Dyck. This collection was
especially rich in paintings by French 17th- and 18th-century artists.
In 1779 one of the most significant events in the history of the Hermitage
took place - the purchase in England of the celebrated gallery of Sir
Robert Walpole. This acquisition provided the foundation for the Hermitage's
collection of 17th-century Italian art, as well as very significantly
enlarging its stocks of Flemish painting. Besides that the Hermitage gained
masterpieces by Poussin, Murillo and Rembrandt. In 1783 Catherine II acquired
in Paris the collection of Count Baudouin, numbering 119 paintings, chiefly
by Flemish and Dutch artists, including nine more Rembrandts.
There was virtually no sculpture in Catherine's Hermitage. The ancient works from the collection of the banker John Lyde-Brown, brought to Russia in 1787, as well as Michelangelo's Crouching Boy and works by Houdon adorned the Empress's favourite summer residence at Tsarskoye Selo.
The Hermitage collection that by the end of Catherine's reign had become one of the largest in Europe, gradually acquired the status of a palace museum under her son Paul I and grandson Alexander I. Among the acquisitions made by Alexander in 1814-15, the most significant was the collection of paintings and sculpture from Malmaison, the palace of Empress Josephine, Napoleon's first wife. The same period saw the purchase in Amsterdam of the well-known collection of the banker William Coesvelt that effectively marked the beginning of the collection of Spanish painting. An innovation was the creation of a collection of Russian painting. Later Nicholas I established a Gallery of the Russian School in the museum he had founded. It should be noted that, while the collections in Catherine's Hermitage were limited to paintings, medals, gemstones and jewellery, the New Hermitage was conceived as a universal museum. For that reason Nicholas I concerned himself with the acquisition not only of ancient and contemporary sculpture, but also of other works of art. During his visit to Italy in 1845 he commissioned statues from leading European sculptors. In honour of the Russian sovereign excavations were conducted in his presence at Pompeii. The King of Naples presented all the items found there to the Emperor and they came into the Hermitage. Archaeological researches were also being carried out in the south of Russia. In 1830, for example, the Kul-Oba barrow near Kerch was excavated and masterpieces of ancient art were found in the burial chamber. This event attracted the Emperor's attention to the archaeology of the northern Black Sea area which he recognized as a source of rare ancient artefacts for the Hermitage.
The foundation of the collection of ancient works was provided by sculptures from the Taurida Palace and Tsarskoye Selo. In 1849 the Emperor acquired from the Roman antiquarian Pizzati some 1,500 ancient vases and a large number of bronzes and terracottas. Two years later Nicholas bought a large collection of ancient and modern sculpture from the Demidovs' mansion. A further notable enhancement of the ancient collection was the purchase in 1852 of 54 sculptures and 330 vases from the Laval family. A completely new section of the Hermitage collection was formed by a small number of Egyptian antiquities. In the middle of the 19th century the Hermitage acquired sculptures, mosaics and paintings bequeathed by the diplomat Dmitry Tatishchev. It was Nicholas I who made what were practically the last major acquisitions of paintings abroad. In the 1830s he undertook significant purchases of works by Spanish artists. In 1850 the Barbarigo collection that included several Titians was bought in Venice. That same year paintings from the collection of King William of the Netherlands were acquired for the museum. In 1852 works by Italian and Spanish artists from the Soult collection were purchased in Paris.
An important event in the life of the Hermitage was the purchase in 1851-58 of the splendid collection of coins and medals assembled by the Petersburger Jakob Reichel. The acquisition of 5,000 Russian coins and medals doubled the size of the Russian stocks in the Muenzkabinett and the 43,000 Western European, Oriental and ancient coins and medals greatly improved the quality of the Hermitage collection that in 1850 had numbered 56,321 items.
As a result of Nicholas I's building and collecting activities a museum was created in Russia that in the quality and scope of its collections was the equal of the world's most famous museums.