The State Hermitage Museum, to give it its official title, is quite simply the finest in the world. With more than three million exhibits spread across its five interlinked buildings containing over 400 halls, it is not small. Those wanting a quick visit should allow at least four hours. If you’re looking for something more substantial, but are restricted to a single day, Wednesday has the longest opening hours, with a start at half-past ten and a closing time of nine o’clock in the evening. As is standard practise for museums all over the world, the Hermitage is not open on Mondays.
On entering, it’s wise to pick up a plan of the museum at the reception desk. This shows the layout of the halls and their numbers. It might seem a bit geeky to tick off the halls as you make your way through the museum, but it’s not the worst idea, as it’s all too easy to end up going round in circles. There is also the possibility of running into large groups, so there are some rooms that you’ll probably want to revisit once they are a bit quieter.
Even if the extraordinary collections were to be removed, the visitor would still be stunned by the décor. The buildings would be worth seeing purely for their magnificence, particularly in the original Winter Palace. The famous Jordan Staircase is a flamboyant concoction of marble and gold and the Pavilion Hall is looked over by 28 crystal chandeliers. It’s worth taking a little extra time to look at the exhibition halls in their own right, as one can be overwhelmed by the art displayed within them and to miss the sheer beauty innate to the halls.
The Pavilion Hall is home to the astonishing creation that is the Peacock Clock. It was designed by the London goldsmith James Cox and presented to Catherine the Great in 1781. The clock still functions, the huge gilded peacock spreading its wings as the other attendant creatures also perform for astonished visitors.
While it’s tempting to head straight for the paintings, there is a fine collection of antiquities to see. The Greek, Roman and Egyptian discoveries would make for an impressive museum by themselves. There is also a spectacular collection of gold, silver and royal jewels in the aptly named Treasure Gallery.
The first floor is, essentially, a Who’s Who of art. There is a solitary work by Michelangelo, his sculpture Crouching Boy, and this is possibly the most photographed piece in the entire museum. The muscle definition on the figure is remarkable, though note the unfinished feet!
From Italy, Tintoretto, Leonardo, Lippi, Caravaggio and Canaletto. From Spain, Goya, Velazquez, El Greco and Murillo. Flemish art is represented in large numbers by Van Dyck, Rembrandt, various members of the Brueghel clan and Rubens. Duck Holiday was especially delighted to see a work by the Dutch artist Jacob Duck. Even Britain, a country not renowned for producing great artists, shows what can be done in the shape of works by Morland, Reynolds and Gainsborough.
The empresses Elizabeth and Catherine were notable Francophiles and this is reflected in the huge French collection. Only the Louvre holds more French art than the Hermitage. The Renoir portraits are especially noteworthy and include his delightful Young Woman with a Fan. Other types of fans, those of Impressionism and post-Impressionism will have a field day among the Monets, Matisses, Cezannes and Gauguins on the museum’s second floor. The Impressionist gallery is not solely French; Picasso and van Gogh also feature strongly.
As residents of Fife, it was pleasing to see nine portraits by the Fife native Christina Robertson. She was highly respected at the Russian imperial court in the middle of the 19th century and ended her days in St Petersburg. Her grave is in the city. There are also four works, including a self-portrait, by another woman, the renowned Swiss artist Angelica Kauffman.
Another Briton, George Dawe, painted portraits of no less than 329 generals who were engaged in the campaign against Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. Like Christina Robertson, he relocated to St Petersburg and his work can be seen in the Military Gallery.
Back among the Italian collection, look out for the superlative view of Venice created by Canaletto, bearing the snappy title The Reception of the French Ambassador Jacques–Vincent Languet, Compte de Gergy at the Doge’s Palace, 4 November 1726. There is an interesting little exercise to undertake here. Walk slowly back and forth in front of the painting and keep your eyes focussed on the buildings. Their distance from the edge of the painting seems to change as you go from side to side.
Another diverting little game for the visitor from Britain is to look out for the collection of art acquired from Houghton Hall. This was the Norfolk home of the British Prime Minister Robert Walpole, whose legacy was somewhat squandered by his successors. The collection was sold to Catherine the Great, but as a BBC4 documentary revealed recently, some sketches were found at Houghton Hall, showing not only the paintings, but where they were located in the house. The Hermitage generously agreed to a request for a loan of the collection, and for a year, the pictures were restored to their original places on the walls of Houghton Hall. They are now back in St Petersburg, but the visitor can see from where paintings were acquired by the descriptions accompanying them. A considerable number of them are by Van Dyck, including the many portraits undertaken during his time as court painter to Charles I in England.
There are, naturally enough, several shops within the museum. These sell a wide range of books, prints, gifts and other artefacts and are not, in general, particularly expensive. The potential visitor should note, however, that it’s advisable to have a good breakfast if you’re intending to spend all day at the Hermitage. The café is, quite frankly, a bit rubbish and the queues can be rather long. The prices aren’t outrageous, but it’s not really up to much. Far better to hold on for a decent meal in one of the many excellent restaurants in St Petersburg. There should, after all, be plenty to discuss over a pleasant dinner and a bottle of Georgian wine. It’s best to prepare for a long day, but it should be a richly rewarding day.