Catherine the Great’s Art Collection Is Installed at the Hermitage

Constructed as an annex to the Winter Palace where the empress of Russia could obtain privacy, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg evolved, because of Catherine the Great’s concerted purchasing efforts, to be a world-renowned museum housing many of Europe’s great artistic masterpieces.

Summary of Event

On November 6, 1796, Catherine the Great died in her bedroom—one of the 1,054 rooms composing the Winter Palace Winter Palace (St. Petersburg, Russia) in St. Petersburg. Having taken up residence there in 1762, she was the first Russian monarch to live in the Winter Palace, designed by the famous Italian architect Francesco Rastrelli Rastrelli, Francesco . The Winter Palace was constructed as a monument to Russia’s emergence as a great world power. However, it was also intended as a fitting symbol of Russia’s European orientation and cultural refinement. To this end, an annex to the Winter Palace, called the Small Hermitage, was built in 1764 by the French architect Jean-Baptiste-Michel Vallen de la Motte. The Hermitage was to serve not only as a luxurious refuge for Catherine and her intimates but also as a gallery where Catherine could display her ever-growing collection of art treasures. Between 1764 and 1796, Catherine amassed a collection of more than three thousand paintings and ten thousand drawings, many of them masterpieces, making St. Petersburg a rival of both Paris and Rome. [kw]Catherine the Great’s Art Collection Is Installed at the Hermitage (Nov., 1796)
[kw]Art Collection Is Installed at the Hermitage, Catherine II’s (Nov., 1796)
[kw]Hermitage, Catherine the Great’s Art Collection Is Installed at the (Nov., 1796)
Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg, Russia)
Art patronage
[g]Russia;Nov., 1796: Catherine the Great’s Art Collection Is Installed at the Hermitage[3280]
[c]Art;Nov., 1796: Catherine the Great’s Art Collection Is Installed at the Hermitage[3280]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Nov., 1796: Catherine the Great’s Art Collection Is Installed at the Hermitage[3280]
Catherine the Great
Rastrelli, Francesco Bartolomeo
Gotzkowsky, Johann-Ernst
Fel’ten, Yury
Vallen de la Motte, Jean- Baptiste-Michel

The Hermitage Museum, c. 1890’s.

(Geo. L. Shuman and Co.)

In 1762, when Catherine took the throne following the orchestrated murder of her husband, Czar Peter III, Peter III Russia had only a dozen major Western works of art, purchased in the first quarter of the eighteenth century by Czar Peter the Great. Peter the Great Since Peter dreamed of a first-class Russian navy, merchant marine, and port cities opening Russia’s “Window to the West,” the majority of his art purchases pictured European ports and seascapes. In contrast, while Catherine wanted as many European artistic treasures as could be obtained, she targeted her purchases toward classical themes, steering away from works that were largely religious in nature. To operate with opportunistic efficiency, Catherine used a cadre of art connoisseurs, diplomats, and cultural celebrities as her purchasing agents. Among them were Denis Diderot, François Tronchin, Friedrich Melchior von Grimm, and Prince Dimitry Mikhailovich Golitsyn.

Catherine’s first major acquisition was a collection of 225 Flemish and Dutch paintings purchased from King Frederick the Great Frederick the Great of Prussia, who was facing bankruptcy in the wake of his numerous wars to maintain control of Silesia. Catherine worked through the Berlin financier, Johann-Ernst Gotzkowsky, an adviser to Frederick, to arrange the purchase. Embarrassing to Prussia, the purchase in 1764 was a wonderful addition to the recently opened Small Hermitage. Other private collections from financially strapped aristocrats were identified and purchased en masse: In 1768, Catherine received from Brussels the private collections of the prince de Ligne and Count Karl Coblentz. In 1769, the collection of the Saxon minister Count Heinrich von Bruhl was purchased in Dresden, and in 1770, François Tronchin’s collection of 566 paintings by the masters was purchased in Paris. In 1771, Catherine added the collection of G. Braankamp of Amsterdam to her own. In the same year, construction began on a new building to become known as the Great Hermitage, designed by Yury Fel’ten(who had also contributed to the Small Hermitage).

In 1772, Catherine achieved a coup in Paris with the purchase of the world-renowned collection of the French banker Baron Pierre Crozat, which included masterpieces by Anthony van Dyck, Raphael, Titian, and Peter Paul Rubens. Catherine repeated her triumph in 1785 with the purchase of the collection of the Count Baudouin. Catherine’s raid on London caused a heated debate in the House of Commons; however, she emerged in 1779 with one of England’s greatest collections, the 198-masterpiece gallery (including 15 van Dycks) of Robert Walpole, Great Britain’s first prime minister. The purchase of the entire collection meant an instant fortune to Walpole’s financially strapped heirs. Catherine commemorated the event by providing Walpole’s grandson with an elegant portrait of herself painted by Alexander Roslin.

The portico of the Hermitage Museum, c. 1890’s.

(Geo. L. Shuman and Co.)

While Catherine’s agents had the resources of a royal treasury at their disposal, enabling them to purchase entire collections, they also targeted specific pieces at auctions held throughout Europe to add breadth or specific themes, usually of a pastoral or classical nature, to the Hermitage collection. The French Revolution and the subsequent emigration of many French aristocrats (émigrés) provided numerous opportunities for the strategic purchase of art in sets and individual pieces.

Catherine commissioned famous artists of her day, such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, Jean-Baptiste Chardin, and Claude-Joseph Vernet, to add to the Hermitage collection. She also commissioned works by relatively unknown émigré French female artists, such as Marie Anne Collot and Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. Moreover, art for Catherine included not only paintings and drawings but also antiquities. In 1787, a large collection of classical busts and reliefs was purchased from the director of the Bank of England, adding to the collection of the Hermitage’s classical busts and sculptures. The Crimea, which Catherine annexed Crimea and antiquities in 1783 following two wars against the Ottoman Empire, was carefully pruned by archaeologists for Greek and Scythian artifacts to be put on display. Catherine’s eclectic artistic interests also included cameos, coins, medals, ceramics, porcelains, and engraved gems (which eventually numbered thirty-two thousand). She also acquired books. Catherine purchased the private libraries of the two leading Enlightenment philosophes, Denis Diderot and Voltaire. The resulting thirty-two-volume collection was also housed in the Hermitage.

The need to accommodate Catherine’s cornucopia of art caused the Hermitage to expand into four connected buildings. The final addition was the Hermitage Theater, completed in 1787. There, Russia’s elite and foreign dignitaries attending theatrical performances could be entertained in the art exhibition galleries. Catherine, who led Russia to annex more than 200,000 square miles during the course of her reign, nearly doubling its population, presided over an equally impressive growth of her capital city as a major European cultural center.


During the first quarter of the eighteenth century, Peter the Great built a new capital of Russia in a marshland. St. Petersburg St. Petersburg, Russia[Saint Petersburg, Russia] was intended to create a new identity for Russia as a powerful state with an economic and cultural destiny closely linked to the major states of Europe. During the second half of the eighteenth century, Catherine, a German by birth, devoted great effort to synthesizing and augmenting Peter’s work.

In her memoirs, Catherine considered the Hermitage as her little retreat, where she could delight in her things, which were shared largely with the palace mice. However, it is clear that her real joy came from the image her things created. Possession of so much of the great art of Europe enhanced Russia’s identity as a sophisticated and culturally advanced European state. The great collection of the Hermitage was part of a royal residence rivaling Versailles in grandeur and elegance. The imperial palace itself was part of a city directed by Catherine to be expanded in a colossal manner according to neoclassical styles of the time. Less than a century old, St. Petersburg would stand as Europe’s most modern capital city.

From the start of her reign, Catherine courted leading Enlightenment figures such as Denis Diderot and Voltaire. She used them to project an image of herself as an enlightened “First Servant of the State” ruling according to the rational principles of natural law. The identity of that state was European and culturally advanced. Catherine also embraced new scientific knowledge of the time, such as smallpox vaccination, in part to project a modern image. Catherine’s French-speaking court nobles, elegantly dressed in the latest Parisian fashions, completed the remake of Russia’s image. The fact that the overwhelming majority of Russians were illiterate and impoverished serfs remained obscured.

Following Catherine’s death in 1796, the Hermitage was considered an imperial museum by her son, Czar Paul I Paul I[Paul 01] (r. 1796-1802), and grandson, Czar Alexander I Alexander I (r. 1801-1825). Catherine’s imperial successors added to the collection and appointed talented museum curators. Limited public viewing of the collection began in the mid-nineteenth century; however, it was not until after the Revolution of 1917 that the Hermitage became a public museum. Today, visitors can view 120 rooms comprising one of the world’s great museums.

Further Reading

  • Alexander, John T. Catherine the Great: Life and Legend. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. A readable and balanced narrative history of Catherine’s life and works. Index and bibliography.
  • Lincoln, W. Bruce. Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia. New York: Basic Books, 2002. As scholarly analysis of the growth of St. Petersburg as Russia’s cultural center by a leading Russian historian showing that St. Petersburg was in many ways closer to major European cities than other Russian cities. Index and bibliography.
  • Steward, James. Treasures of the Hermitage. New York: Merrell, 2003. A study of the development of the Hermitage collection; 250 color illustrations, index, and bibliography.

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Development of Great Britain’s Office of Prime Minister

Foundation of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences

Foundation of St. Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet School

The Antiquities of Athens Prompts Architectural Neoclassicism

Catherine the Great’s Instruction

Founding of Bolshoi Theatre Company

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Catherine the Great; Denis Diderot; Frederick the Great; Peter the Great; Peter III; Sir Joshua Reynolds; Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun; Voltaire; Robert Walpole. Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg, Russia)
Art patronage