Catherine the Great art collection at the Hermitage


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She was the most powerful woman in the world. An avid reader who has maintained a long correspondence with the main philosophers of his time. She has written plays, children’s literature and a dissertation. She embraced scientific innovation and oversaw one of the first vaccines for smallpox. And, oh yes, she expanded the Russian Empire by over 200,000 square miles.

It’s no wonder that Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796, received so much academic attention and, lately, the inspiration for television series (Hulu’s season 2 Great debuts tonight). But one of his most enduring accomplishments, if not overlooked, is often relegated to the footnote. From 1764, she began a buying frenzy that lasted for years and eventually resulted in one of the most important art collections in the world, now the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

Hermitage Museum of the Winter Palace
The Winter Palace, a former Russian royal palace in St. Petersburg, is now the Hermitage Museum.

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She was, by her own description, “greedy” when it came to acquiring art and she spent millions of rubles on paintings by old masters and contemporary artists, eventually procuring more than 4 000 paintings as well as countless statues and works of elaborate automatons.

Today, the Hermitage is a multi-building institution that houses over 3 million works of art, only a fraction of which is on display at any one time. The main complex includes the Winter Palace (former residence of the Romanov family) and adjacent buildings including the Little Hermitage, the Old and New Hermitage and the Hermitage Theater. The collection survived the revolution, invasion and infestation of mice (see below). Like most of Empress Catherine II’s endeavors, art accumulation was part of a larger strategy (one initiated by a predecessor, Peter the Great). In the 18th century, European courts competed to be centers of artistic and scientific innovation. Having a world-class collection in the palaces of St. Petersburg has shown European leaders that Russia is on a level playing field.

the raphael loggias corridor inside the hermitage museum, saint petersburg, russia
The corridor of the Loggias Raphaël, inside the Hermitage Museum.

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His first purchase was a group of over 200 paintings, including works by Rembrandt and Rubens, assembled by a Berlin art dealer and dealer named Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky. He had assembled the parts at the behest of Frederick II so that the Prussian leader would withdraw from the purchase at the last minute (the price to be paid was high and Prussia was still recovering from the costly Seven Years’ War). This is the first in a series of major acquisitions in which Catherine will rush into and acquire a collection that had interested another European leader.

young woman with earrings
that of Rembrandt Young woman with earrings was added to the Hermitage collection in 1781.

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Although the Hermitage has been open to the public since 1852, it began as a private collection. Catherine had installed works of art and libraries in the “Petit Ermitage”, a pavilion that she had built next to the Winter Palace where she could host theatrical performances, social gatherings and dinners around a dinner party. huge table dressed in silver and Wedgwood porcelain. The table featured mechanical devices that raised and lowered the dishes in the kitchen below – a novelty that had the secondary benefit of allowing Catherine and her guests to converse freely without fear of being overheard by servants.

hermitage peacock clock
The Peacock Clock, built by British automaton expert James Cox, was acquired with the help of Prince Grigory Potemkin.


Russian courtiers mobilized to help the Empress in her new passion. Grigory Potemkin, the Russian prince, military leader and longtime lover of Catherine, helped her acquire the peacock clock, an automaton depicting an owl with a swiveling head, a crowing rooster and a peacock with golden plumage. The timepiece, designed by English craftsman James Cox, arrived in St. Petersburg in packaged pieces and took a Russian craftsman and inventor two years to assemble it. Potemkin died of a sudden fever at the age of 52. “A terrible fatal blow has just hit me in the head …” wrote the Empress to a friend. “My pupil, my friend, almost my idol, Prince Potemkin of Taurida, has passed away… you cannot imagine how broken I am. The clock is still running and is winding up and running for visitors to the Hermitage once a week (check the museum’s website for times).

cats of the hermitage museum
A cat in front of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.


Most of the Hermitage Museum’s collection is housed in former royal palaces (including the Winter Palace and Hermitages) located along the Neva. These large cavernous buildings were perfect for hosting royal events and housing rare works of art and fine tapestries and, since construction, mice who love to chew on both. Peter the Great’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth, was the first to set up a battalion of domestic cats, including larger specimens imported from Kazan, to deter invaders. There have been cats in and around the Hermitage ever since, although today they can be seen mostly in the grounds, in basements, and on their own Instagram page.

The Hermitage is the largest museum (by gallery space) in the world. Most beginners start at the Winter Palace in the main complex. Hours of operation and ticket requirements have changed due to pandemic restrictions. Visit the museum’s website for information on the new pre-registration requirements.

Below, old and contemporary photographs from the Hermitage Museum.

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An 1898 photograph of the museum’s modern sculpture gallery.

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The main staircase of the Winter Palace, photographed in 2011.

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An exhibition at the Hermitage in 1973 featured rare table decorations.

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