The State Hermitage Museum (Государственный Эрмитаж, Gosudarstvennyj Èrmitaž) in Saint Petersburg, Russia is one of the largest museums in the world, with 3 million works of art (not all on display at once), and one of the oldest art galleries and museums of human history and culture in the world. The vast Hermitage collections are displayed in six buildings, the main one being the Winter Palace which used to be the official residence of the Russian Tsars. International branches of The Hermitage Museum are located in Amsterdam, London, Las Vegas and Ferrara (Italy). The Hermitage holds the Guinness World Record as having the world's largest collection of paintings.
Strong points of the Hermitage collection of Western art include Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Rubens, van Dyck, Rembrandt, Poussin, Claude Lorrain, Watteau, Tiepolo, Canaletto, Canova, Rodin, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Cézanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso, and Matisse. There are several more collections, however, including the Russian imperial regalia, an assortment of Fabergé jewellery, and the largest existing collection of ancient gold from Eastern Europe and Western Asia.
Catherine the Great started her famed art collection in 1764 by purchasing paintings from Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky, after his bankruptcy in the year before. Gotzkowsky provided 317 paintings, including 90 not precisely identified, to the Russian crown, to satisfy debts so great that he was on the verge of bankruptcy. The collection consisted of Flemish and Dutch masters such as Rembrandt (13 paintings), Rubens (11 paintings), Jacob Jordaens (7 paintings), Antoon van Dyck (5 paintings), Paolo Veronese (5 paintings), Frans Hals (3 paintings), Raphael (2 paintings), Holbein (2 paintings), Titian (1 painting), Jan Steen, Hendrick Goltzius, Dirck van Baburen, Hendrick van Balen and Gerrit van Honthorst formed the basis and the beginning of the collection in the Hermitage. One of the Rembrandts in the possession of Gotzkowsky was Ahasuerus and Haman at the feast of Esther.
Russian ambassadors in foreign capitals were commissioned to acquire the best collections offered for sale: Brühl's collection in Saxony, Crozat's in France and the Walpole gallery and Lyde Browne marbles in England. As her collection was growing through the 1760s, Catherine commissioned the French architect Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe to build an extension to the Winter Palace. The building was completed in 1769. In the tradition of Peter the Great and Empress Elizabeth, she called the structure "my hermitage" (today, this extension is known as the "Small Hermitage"). Very few people were allowed within to see its riches—in one of her letters she lamented that "only the mice and I can admire all this."
Already her collection was filling the halls—in her lifetime she acquired 4,000 paintings from the old masters, 38,000 books, 10,000 engraved gems, 10,000 drawings, 16,000 coins and medals and a natural history collection filling two galleries—so in 1770 she commissioned another major extension. Built in two phases, by Yury Velten, this expansion was known as the Old Hermitage. She also gave the name of the Hermitage to her private theatre, built nearby between 1783 and 1787 by the Italian architect Giacomo Quarenghi.
Gradually, imperial collections were enriched by relics of Greek and Scythian culture, unearthed during excavations on Pereshchepina, Pazyryk, and other ancient burial mounds in southern Russia. Thus started one of the world's richest collections of ancient gold, which now includes a substantial part of Troy's treasures unearthed by Heinrich Schliemann and seized from Berlin museums by the Red Army in 1945.
To house the ever-expanding collection of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian antiquities, Nicholas I commissioned the neoclassicist German architect Leo von Klenze to design a building for the public museum. Probably the first purpose-built art gallery in Eastern Europe, the New Hermitage was opened to the public in 1852.
As the Tsars continued to amass their art holdings, several works of Leonardo da Vinci, Jan van Eyck, and Raphael were bought in Italy. The Hermitage collection of Rembrandts was considered the largest in the world.
The imperial Hermitage was proclaimed property of the Soviet state after the Revolution of 1917. The range of its exhibits was further expanded when private art collections from several palaces of the Russian Tsars and numerous private mansions were being nationalized and then redistributed among major Soviet state museums. Particularly notable was the influx of old masters from the Catherine Palace, the Alexander Palace, the Stroganov palace and the Yusupov Palace as well as from other palaces of Saint Petersburg and suburbs. Later Hermitage received modern art from private collections of Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov which were nationalized by the Soviet state. New acquisitions included most of Gauguin's later oeuvre, 40 Cubistic works by Picasso, and such icons of modern art as Matisse's La danse and Vincent van Gogh's The Night Café. After WWII the Hermitage received about 40 canvases by Henri Matisse as a gift from the artist to the museum. Other internationally known artists also gave their works to the Hermitage.
This period in Hermitage's history came to an end in 1945. At that time the government attempted to compensate recent losses by transferring to the museum some of the art captured by the Red Army in Germany during World War II. The most highly priced part of the booty were 74 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings taken from private collections of German business elite. These paintings were considered lost until 1995 when the museum unveiled them to the public as "Hidden treasures" revealed. The Russian government maintains that these works provide just a small compensation for irreparable losses inflicted on Russian cultural heritage by the German invasion in WWII, including the almost complete destruction and looting of Tsar's palaces in Peterhof, Oranienbaum, Pavlovsk, Gatchina, and Tsarskoe Selo, as well as other cities and towns under the Nazi occupation. Moreover, the State Duma passed a law forbidding return of disputed works to their owners in case they were guilty of financing the Nazi regime.
The Hermitage and much of its collection were featured in the 24-hour long Japanese documentary film, the largest film ever about the Hermitage, made in the 1990s. The Winter Palace and other buildings of the Hermitage and its interiors were filmed in several Soviet documentaries and educational films, as well as in numerous feature films, such as the James Bond film Golden Eye, Anna Karenina, and other movies. The most recent movie made in the Hermitage was Russian Ark, a single-shot walkthrough with period re-enactments by actors in period-style costumes, spanning three hundred years of court meetings, balls and family life in the Winter Palace.
In July 2006, the museum announced that 221 minor items, including jewelry, Orthodox icons, silverware and richly enameled objects, had been stolen. The value of the stolen items was estimated to be approximately $543,000; by the end of 2006 some of the stolen items were recovered.