Art Around the World

From Russia with Love

By Tom Gross, December 12, 1999

The financially-strapped Hermitage museum of St. Petersburg, Russia, has come up with a novel way of earning hard currency to supplement its meager supply of roubles. The museum, which is the world’s largest, and contains one of the finest collections of art ever collected, is to open a permanent branch abroad in London, England.

The move not only heralds an innovative new way of raising revenue, but means that western art-lovers will no longer have to make the long trek to St. Petersburg, which lies in an icy region of northern Russia by the Gulf of Finland, in order to view some of Russia’s imperial magnificence.

The Hermitage, which now belongs to the Russian state, was founded in 1764 by Empress Catherine the Great. Over the two centuries that followed, the collection, originally comprising just 25 paintings that the Tsarina owned herself, grew to be the world’s largest.

Some 3 million items were acquired, covering the development of world paintings and culture from the Stone Age to the 20th century. It is now housed over five magnificent buildings.

There is so much to see that one Austrian visitor demanded to be led through the museum blindfolded, until he reached the Rembrandts since he was determined not to be distracted by the rest of the spectacular exhibits on the way.

The collection is so vast that no more than 15 percent of the works can be displayed at any one time. So some exhibits will now be moved to Somerset House, an 18th-century mansion on London’s Strand alongside the River Thames, and which is currently home to the Courtauld Gallery and the Courtauld Institute of Art, Britain’s leading art history college. The Hermitage will take over eight rooms in Somerset House, which it plans to use for rotating exhibitions from its vast collections.

The Hermitage has mounted temporary exhibitions abroad before. For example, “From Monet and Renoir to Matisse and Picasso from the Hermitage Collection” an exhibition devoted to French art from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century, and which includes over 20 works by Matisse and 15 by Picasso, is being held at the Quirinal palace in Rome from December 15, 1999 to June 15, 2000.

But the idea of a permanent exhibition is something new, and if it proves a success in London, the Hermitage may in the future consider opening branches in the United States and elsewhere.

Article copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.