The Hermitage or a “museum” in 1770 according to Catherine the Great
From Jack Allen
Why did Catherine the Great build the entire complex of the Hermitage ? This question could constitute the main thread in our presentation. Behind the origins of the Hermitage was the initial idea of creating a hanging garden and additional appartments outside the Winter Palace, although linked to it by a bridge. It quickly faded in the face of Catherine II’s social and cultural intense practices. One should consider that everything she created there aimed at influencing in one way or another the Russian aristocracy as well as at showing to the rest of Europe that she could be, in addition to being an empress, a woman of letters and taste.
Then can we define the Hermitage as a whole ? Certainly, its name suggests that it was a place to retreat, at least from the court, and thus a space where to behave under her own rules. In fact, the answer is probably contained in letters written in the 1780s by Catherine herself to Friedrich Melchior Grimm, her commissioner based in Paris, where she calls her Hermitage her own « museum ». What does a museum mean for Catherine ? And for the Hermitage in terms of architectural typology ? Can we in this case consider the paintings gallery of the Hermitage as a « museum » ? After tracing the history of the construction of the building complex, in order to highlight its architectural characteristics, the presentation will try to summarize how this place and the collections it holds were described during Catherine’s reign, including her very own point of view. Her use of the term « museum » must be related to the definition of the term in Diderot’s and Alembert’s Encyclopedia, that is to say the « museum of a woman of letters ». What if the Hermitage, even if it was not a « museum » in the way we conceive it today until the middle of the 19th century, has nevertheless been « Catherine’s museum » ?
Guillaume Nicoud is a postdoc researcher in art history and architecture at the Swiss National Science Foundation in the Archivio del Moderno, University of the Italian Switzerland, involved in the program “Milan and Ticino (1796-1848), Shaping the Spatiality of a European. Capital” (FNS Sinergia n°177286 ; and from 2016 to 2019 in the program ″The architecture of ″Moskovskij stil’Ampir″, n°IZLRZ1_164062). He specializes in the history of European cultural relations and interactions around 1800. His doctoral thesis, defended at the EPHE, EPSL, Paris in 2016, was entitled “A Gallery Stemming from the Enlightenment: The Imperial Gallery of the Hermitage and France from Catherine the Great to Alexander the Great (1762-1825)” (to be published). He is also a member of the SAPRAT team (EPHE/PSL, EA 4116), co-directs with Dr. Markus Castor the research program “Collecting in the 18th Century - Archeology of a Perfect Collection” at the German Center for Art History (Paris) and participates meanwhile in the publication of the First Catalogue of the Hermitage Paintings Gallery (Vol. I, St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum, 2018). His main publications are the exhibition catalog Jérôme Napoleon, King of Westphalia (Château de Fontainebleau, 2008, in coll. with Chr. Beyeler), Jérôme Napoléon et l’art et la culture dans le Royaume de Westphalie (Dfk Paris, 2 vol, in press, in coll. with J. Ebeling and Th. Smidt) and L’empire de Catherine la Grande; nouvelles approches (symposium proceedings, SPM, Paris, publication scheduled for spring 2021, in coll. with J. Kusber, K.S. Jobst, Fr.-D. Liechtenhan and A. Pufelska).