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St Petersburg. Russia's pre-eminent collection of art and antiquities, one of the world's greatest museums. It takes its name from a pleasure pavilion (now known as the Little Hermitage) created in the late 1760s for the Empress Catherine II (Catherine the Great) (1729–96; ruled from 1762) as an extension to the recently built Winter Palace, providing a place to entertain friends and display some of her art treasures (‘hermitage’ meaning ‘place of retreat’). In 1787 Catherine completed another similar extension (now known as the Old Hermitage). Apart from a devotion to antique gems, she had little personal enthusiasm for art, but she bought voraciously for the sake of prestige and at her death the imperial collections contained about 4,000 pictures, as well as many other treasures. In 1837 the Winter Palace was ravaged by fire, but the Little and Old Hermitages were saved. The palace was extensively reconstructed in sumptuous style and Nicholas I added a custom-built museum, designed by the German architect Leo von Klenze. This building, known as the New Hermitage, was opened to the public in 1852. After the 1917 Revolution the imperial collections were nationalized and the whole vast palace complex was gradually turned into a museum, known as the State Hermitage. In the 1930s the Soviet government sold numerous works from the museum, including celebrated masterpieces, to raise foreign currency; Andrew Mellon was among the major purchasers. In spite of these losses, the Hermitage's collection of Western painting is rich in virtually every period and school, but perhaps most notably in 17th-century Dutch and Flemish painting and in French painting of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (almost all the great Impressionists and Post-Impressionists are well represented). Many of the French paintings come from the collections of two Moscow businessmen who were among the outstanding collectors and patrons of their time: Ivan Morozov (1871–1921) and Sergei Shchukin (1851–1936). They commissioned new works as well as buying through dealers. Matisse was a particular favourite of both men, and Shchukin's interest also extended to Cubism. After the Revolution their collections were nationalized and later distributed between the Hermitage and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. Although primarily famous for its paintings, the Hermitage includes much else, notably extensive collections of Central Asian and Oriental art.

Subjects: Art.

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