A WINTER COLLECTION
In 1697, Peter the Great made a year-long journey to Western Europe; a feat which had until then never been undertaken by a Russian tsar. Whilst abroad, Peter’s time was spent absorbing culture and art through libraries and museums of Dresden and Amsterdam; activities which were to intoxicate his mind for the rest of his reign. On returning home to St Petersburg, Peter embraced the influences of Western Europe to become, for all intents and purposes, an enlightened emperor. He employed Russian agents and diplomats as his personal buyers, and by the end of his reign his collection spanned close to 400 works of art. The House of Romanov’s collection of treasures had been established, and was to be continued until their demise of power in 1917.
In 1762, Peter the Great’s grandson, Peter III, was forced to abdicate by his wife, Catherine II the Great. Catherine would prevail to be the greatest art collector of the tsar empire, possessing an immense desire to acquire an encyclopaedic art collection to be housed in her capital. Her encyclopaedia of art followed in the footsteps of Peter in that she continued an exclusively Western European model, favouring the West’s traditions and fashions. It was Catherine who commissioned the first small Hermitage to be built, and a year before its completion, ordered for the construction of second Hermitage, which was finished
in 1787. Her collection could now be housed beside her palace.
Catherine was a noted admirer of the great thinkers of the Enlightenment and, indeed, corresponded with French philologist Grimm and the philosopher Denis Diderot. The latter became one of Catherine’s most prosperous agents, helping to secure the purchasing of banker Pierre Crozat’s collection – the greatest private collection of French art at the time in 1770. This acquisition added works by Raphael, Rembrandt, Titian, Veronese, Giorgione, Van Dyck and Poussin to the tsarina’s impressive stronghold. Towards the end of Catherine’s reign, her museum was almost full, boasting nearly 4000 paintings, 4000 drawings and the personal libraries of Diderot and Voltaire, as a few of its highlights.
Principally, the Romanov collection became an ever-swelling combination of the art collections of others. Alexander I, for instance, purchased works from former empress Josephine’s private collection after her death, as well as her daughter’s, and the Spanish-heavy William Coeswelt collection in Amsterdam in 1814. With the acquisition of others’ works comes the acquisition of others’ tastes. When Peter the Great first visited Western Europe, he set the wheels in motion to begin appreciating
a ‘new’ type of art, far different to the dominant Russian style of religious painting demonstrated so masterly by the likes of Gury Nikitin and Dionisius. The new fashion was Western.
Today, the Hermitage boasts all the expected and respected glitterati, but a look at the list of works perhaps invokes disappointment rather than awe. The tsars, for all their power, wealth, and intellectual exploits still chased the ‘correct’, well-stamped out hit parade of art history without defining their own particular tastes. The Romanov collection serves as a crude cultural colonisation; a greatest hits that perhaps prevented, or delayed, Russia’s own art debut. It is not necessarily telling about Russia, and its sentiments as a nation, but instead a chest-puffing, self-congratulatory example of the decadence of one family of rulers, concerned with themselves and their own power. Yet perhaps what is most unnerving about the obvious, unsurprising and perhaps even cold Romanov collection is that it is so similar to that of every other Western country.