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

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

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The Winter Palace, a former Russian royal palace in Saint 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 getting over 4,000. paintings as well as countless statues and elaborate works of automatons.

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

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The corridor of the Raphaël Loggias, 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 dealer and art dealer named Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky. He had collected the parts at the request of Frederick II so that the Prussian leader backed out of the purchase at the last minute (the price was high and Prussia was still recovering from the costly Seven Years’ War). It was the first in a series of major acquisitions that Catherine would rush into and acquire a collection that had interested another European leader.

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by 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 works of art and libraries installed in the “Petit Ermitage”, a pavilion she had built next to the Winter Palace where she could organize theatrical performances, social assemblies and dinners around a huge table dressed in silver and Wedgwood porcelain. The table had mechanical devices which raised and lowered the dishes in the kitchen below – a novelty which had the secondary benefit of allowing Catherine and her guests to converse freely without fear of being overheard by the servants.

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

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The Russian courtiers have a jockey to help the Empress in her new passion. Grigory Potemkin, the Russian prince, military leader and Catherine’s longtime lover, helped her acquire the Peacock Clock, an automaton featuring a swivel-headed owl, a crowing rooster and a peacock with golden plumage. The timepiece, which was designed by English craftsman James Cox, arrived in St. Petersburg in boxed parts and took a Russian craftsman and inventor two years to assemble. Potemkin died of a sudden fever, aged 52. “A terrible mortal blow has just struck me on the head…”, wrote the Empress to a friend. “My pupil, my friend, almost my idol, Prince Potemkin of Tauride, is dead…you cannot imagine how broken I am.” The clock is still running and is wound up and started for Hermitage visitors once a week (check the hours on the museum website).

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A cat in front of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.

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Most of the Hermitage Museum’s collection is housed in former royal palaces (including the Winter Palace and Hermitages) located along the Neva River. These large, cavernous buildings were perfect for hosting royal events and housing rare works of art and beautiful tapestries and, since construction, mice who like to chew on both. Peter the Great’s daughter, Empress Elisabeth, was the first to install a battalion of domestic cats, including some 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 the 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. Check the museum’s website for information on new pre-registration requirements.


Below are old and contemporary photographs from the Hermitage Museum.

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An 1898 photograph from the Museum’s Gallery of Modern Sculpture.

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

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A 1973 Hermitage exhibit featured rare table settings.

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