Founded by Catherine the Great and boasting over 4 million paintings, sculptures, documents, artifacts, and other items, the Hermitage Museum is the largest collection of art in Russia and one of the largest in the world. It is well worth a visit any time, but if you don't have plans, consider going this Thursday - the first Thursday of every month is free to all visitors.
The Winter Palace was constructed between 1754-1762 to be the residence of the Russian monarchs, starting with Empress Catherine the Great. An avid collector of art, Catherine the Great purchased over 200 paintings of European masters including Rembrandt, Rubens, Raphael, and van Dyck in 1764, which many consider to be the founding date of the museum. During her reign, she continued to collect many other important works, and thousands more were added to the collection during the next several hundred years. The Winter Palace was the primary residence of Russian monarchy until the revolution in 1917, when it was declared a museum open to the public.
The museum hosts a vast collection of Russian and international art and artifacts, ranging from ancient Egyptian artifacts to Impressionist paintings. Some of the most noteworthy paintings include Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son, da Vinci's The Madonna Litta (pictured), Picasso's Two Sisters, and Raphael's The Conestabile Madonna. Among the most important attractions in the Hermitage is the museum itself - the Winter Palace and the other buildings.
Although the Winter Place (Зимний дворе) (pictured, forefront) is without question the most famous building of the Hermitage and houses the museum's largest collection, the Hermitage Museum consists of six other buildings which are also worth exploring:
The Great Hermitage (Большой Эрмитаж) - Originally constructed from Catherine the Great to house the palace collections and library, the Great Hermitage now displays Italian Renaissance artwork.
The Small Hermitage (Малый Эрмитаж) - Next to the Winter Palace, this two-story building was where Catherine the Great liked to host evenings of entertainment with games and plays, which she called "small hermitages". Today, it hosts Western European paintings and decorative works of art.
The New Hermitage (Новый Эрмитаж)- Built in the mid-19th century, this was the first building in Russia that was originally intended to be an art museum. The rooms were specifically designed to match the exhibits they displayed, and many have been historically preserved.
The Hermitage Theater (Эрмитажный театр) - Commissioned by Catherine the Great in the 1780s to be a royal theater, this neoclassical building continues to host performances and house exhibits.
The General Staff Building (Здание Главного штаба) (pictured, background) - Built in the 1820s across from the Winter Palace to house several important ministries of the Russian empire, the General Staff Building now displays artwork from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.
The Menshikov Palace (Здание Дворца Меншикова) - The oldest of the Hermitage buildings and one of the oldest buildings in all of Saint Petersburg, the Menshikov Palace was built between 1710-27 on Vasilyevsky Island.
Current Temporary Exhibits
In addition to an inexhaustible permanent collection, the Hermitage also hosts a variety of temporary exhibits. Currently, these include an exhibit of Orthodox artifacts from the Holy Lands, articles from the Hermitage's textile collection from prehistory to 20th century, an exhibition of royal engravings from the 18th century, an exhibit of the porcelain works of Inna Olevskaya, among other temporary exhibits. Check the Hermitage's website regularly for more details and new exhibitions.