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Travelling from Home: The Hermitage

Updated: Oct 27, 2021

Getting life back to normal and being so busy with work has meant that I have found myself run of my feet over the past month. I haven’t had time to read or research as much as I’d like but when I randomly selected a museum guidebook from my shelf I was pleased to discover it was a quick read.

The Hermitage in 1 Hour Guidebook (published 2013)

With a title “The Hermitage in 1 Hour”, I thought this was a good book to spend a little bit of time (I was guessing about an hour) reading. It was great to take a trip back to the Hermitage and have a little break from the hustle and bustle of life. I spent longer than an hour reading it as I found myself Googling some of the galleries and artworks to learn more but if I didn’t do that then it is definitely a quick read, (as you can see from the picture here I am that person who marks pages of interest with post-it notes).

I visited the Hermitage back in 2014 and I really enjoyed my visit as it was somewhere I studied a lot (the building not the museum aspect) so seeing it in person was a great experience. I must admit that I loved the building more so than the artwork held within but through reading this quick guidebook it did remind me of some of the works I did enjoy.

I should mention that the building was the official home of the Russian monarchs from 1732 to 1917 so the history extends far beyond its time as a museum. For the benefit of this quick blog though I’ll keep a discussion of the building’s history for another time and focus on the Museum held within today. Having said that the building has been home to a public museum since 1852 but that is a story for another day.

My tourist photo outside the Hermitage, 2014 (note the lack of people - it was VERY early)

I’ve never made it a secret that there is a reason I’m a Museum Curator by preference not an art curator so I don’t generally go out of my way to visit art galleries, even if they are a “must see” tourist attraction but I do love historic buildings so that’s what drew me in here (I also studied the Romanovs and the Russian revolution for my HSC so it was a type of pilgrimage for me).

When I picked this book randomly from my shelf, I didn’t realise it was just one of many tour guidebooks on offer by the Hermitage but I’m guessing the reason I chose to purchase this guidebook over the others back in 2014 was because it featured masterpieces and the state rooms (definitely up my ally)!

Here goes a quick recap of my visit the Hermitage, inspired by this guidebook!

When I went back to my photographs from my visit almost all of them were of one of two things:

1. The outside of the building (it is beautiful, the colours and the detail are amazing so there is no surprises with this - exhibit A my photograph above)

2. The Main Staircase which is one of the most opulent rooms I’ve ever seen in my life (see below)

The Main Staircase of the Hermitage, 2014

Once I looked beyond the countless number of these photographs I saw quick snaps of the Twelve Column Hall (pictured below left), the Corridor of Raphael Loggias (which is a copy of a hallway in the Vatican and pictured below right), numerous architectural features whose rooms I can’t identify (big face palm here the Museum person in me knows I should have named these photographs) and a really beautiful door, whose location again I can’t identify.

The one thing I have no photographs of is any of the artworks and that is because photograph is not permitted in most areas of the Museum. I remember each room was patrolled by a very stern guardian who would tell you if photography was allowed in that room or not.

One room that I have no photographs of but was fascinated by is “The Gallery of 1812” also known as the Military Gallery of the Winter Palace. Created as a memorial to the 1812 Patriotic War (Russia v. Napoleon) this was one of the rooms sadly destroyed by a major fire in 1837. It was restored to its original design with one of the main features being 332 portraits of the Commanders of the Russian and allied armies. What fascinates me about this exhibit is that 13 of the portraits are blank as the men died without leaving any imagery of themselves.

Isn’t it interesting that this is one of the main galleries I remember, one with a lot of history but more about the history than the artworks within. Since reading the guidebook and being reminded of this gallery it has piqued my interest so I may need to explore this gallery in another blog at a later date so stay tuned!

Okay I’ll talk about art now, given that’s what is inside and what this guidebook was about!

When reading the guidebook, it wasn’t until I got towards the end that I began to remember some of the artworks that I did like. Interestingly, these are all from the Flemish, Dutch, German and French schools– so all very western European (I am of Eastern European background so I’m really going against my genetics here but as we all know art is subjective to the individual)!

Here are my pick of the Hermitage’s works (I’ll be honest, you’ll see a pattern straight away and I’ve opted to just list three works):

Flora by Rembrandt (1634).

This work depicts the artists wife shortly after they were married and she is likened to the Goddess of Spring. It is a beautiful piece that showcases her femineity. Catherine II personally acquired the work during her lifetime and it then entered the Hermitage collection. Knowing that it was a piece owned by Catherine only adds to the works story in my opinion and does colour my opinion of the work as the owner of a work is often just as important as the piece itself.

A Stolen Kiss by Jean Honore Fragonard (1780s).

This piece shows a private moment between lovers and while I was drawn to it previously, I must admit that I now list it here having read the story of the artwork’s previous owner in the guidebook. It was first owned by Polish King Stanislaw who had an affair with future Russian Empress Catherine II. It is said that this work reminded him of their brief relationship. Again, the story of the owners plays a part in understanding the history of the piece. In 1817 the work was sold to Tsar Alexander I from where it entered the Hermitage collection. Following the war years though the Polish government sought to have it returned to the nation but it remains in the Hermitage collection and other similar pieces were returned to Poland instead.

The Embarrassing Proposal by Antoine Watteau (c. 1716).

What can I say about this work? I simply like it. It’s a casual image of some very well dressed individuals who appear to be enjoying time in nature. Interestingly x-ray’s of the canvas show that there were originally six figures in the artwork including a woman playing a guitar.

These three works were mentioned in the guidebook so I’m going off my memory here of my preference for them over others as it has been seven years since I visited!

I hope you’ve enjoyed joining me on this VERY quick trip through the Hermitage and I hope you’ll join me for future snippets on the history of the building and those who called it home.

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