The Winter Palace is the "main facade" of the Hermitage Museum complex (the long building on the left, above). You walk 'through' the 3 large doors in the center and find yourself in a courtyard behind that facade... surrounded by 4 more buildings which together make up 'the Hermitage' complex. So when people say they were inside the Hermitage... they're usually saying, "They went inside the Winter Palace." The other part of The Hermitage which contains art is The General Staff Building (opposite the Winter Palace, across the square) and that's where they keep the Modern Art and Impressionists collections.
Of the buildings which comprise The Hermitage, The Winter Palace is the oldest. It contains many stately rooms from the 19th Century, as well as a lot of Russian art by artists. Then there's the 'Old Hermitage' housing the renaissance and baroque Italian collections, as well as the Flemish, Dutch and German wings; The 'Small Hermitage' (where the Greek & Roman and Egyptian galleries are); and there's an Opera house (which we opted not to see simply because we ran out of time). Taken as a whole, these buildings represent a formidable collection. It's huge. It is definitely a complex - a group of buildings. We didn't realize that at first.
As mentioned you enter through the Winter Palace facade and come into a great courtyard. Unfortunately for us the courtyard was under construction with scaffolding covering every square inch, but they seem to be renovating it to match the front exterior, which is gorgeous.
The Winter Palace is a SUPER important building in Russian history because it has played a part in almost every epoch over the last few hundred years. Conceived as a residence for Peter The Great (whom the city is named after... which makes sense because he founded it, after falling in love with Europe while traveling as a young prince, and then forced all the Russian Royalty from Moscow to move there, more or less at gunpoint, so they could have a 'more European' and civilized society). When he died it passed on to his heirs and the building was summarily used as a Palace for Russian royalty. During their revolution the revolutionaries, led by Lenin personally, stormed THIS very building with (very light) gunfire and they took all the royalty hostage. It was then used as a temporary Communist headquarters; later, in the Soviet era, it sat in squalor and disrepair while housing their (utterly uncared-for) art collection.
Most of their great works were collected or acquired by Catherine The Great - whose palace we saw and were amazed by - when she sent courtiers to the capital cities of London, Paris, and Rome with instructions to buy huge, fully intact, pre-existing and impressive art collections from 'real' collectors and down-on-their-luck royals, to fill the walls of her palaces (she didn't 'collect' so much as simply buy literally everything she could).
So much history has happened here. But we didn't come for the history; we came for the art. Nevertheless the "period rooms" (which are original to the building) which I ordinarily don't care much for in other museums were astoundingly beautiful.
So. Their collection. Let's start with Rubens. SO MANY RUBENS'!!! By my count somewhere around 30 or 40... including some of the nicest oil sketches by him I've seen in a long while. He and Tiepolo both had an amazing ability to sketch directly in oil, in full color, which was necessitated by workshop production demands in the case of Peter Paul Rubens.
He was so adept with his brush and so strong in his draftasmanship that he could bang out an oil sketch with dozens of figures twisting and turning, utilizing multiple light sources, then color it... walk away from it... return and make edits... all in a single day. His genius is broadly considered to be 'up there' with both Leonardo's and Michelangelo's and these galleries testify to the myriad reasons why. It was a treat to see so many fine examples of his sketching in oil. Generally you'll see 2 or 3 oil sketches in a STRONG collection; this place had at least a dozen. It was unreal!
Then there are the galleries stuffed with Van Dyck, Frans Snyder and Rembrandt... probably 20 or 30 canvases by each of them (many of them HUGE).
There are 2 Leonardo paintings (which generate an almost comically ridiculous flow of pedestrian traffic). There are a couple of Raphaels and even a Michelangelo sculpture.
Of the Mannerists we saw Del Sarto and Bronzino and Pontormo; there were several galleries dedicated to the Venetians filled with Titians and beautiful large scale Veronese and Tintoretto canvases. Even the Spanish are well represented by everyone from Velazquez and Murillo to El Greco and Goya.
Suspiciously absent, however, were any paintings by Durer. They had a small German collection, with several nice works by Lucas Cranach the Elder, a beautiful self portrait by the female painter Angelica Kauffmann, but no Durer. Which is odd because every other A-list museum (even the American ones) tend to have a Durer or two in their collection. My guess is that whatever Durer paintings there were, the Nazis stole when they plundered the 400+ museums of Russia. The Nazi art brigades were ruthless and methodical and regularly sent thousands of masterpieces back to Germany throughout the war. Hitler's favorite artist was Durer (he famously traveled back and forth from the front lines to his Swiss chalet high in the Alps with a collection of 13 Durer drawings looted from a Polish museum); so it would make sense that any paintings would be scarce so far North. Still - it struck me as odd.
Because of the considerable time I've spent at The Metropolitan Museum I especially enjoyed a group of massive Tiepolo paintings which I recognized as the pendent pictures to a group of Tiepolos owned by the Met and on permanent display atop their grand staircase. Not only were the size and subject matter the same, but the main character and color palette were unmistakably identical. It's fun to see pendant pictures, or preparatory sketches, or works from a series, first in one museum... and then see their brethren months (or years) later, someplace down-the-line. One of the joys of traveling and art appreciation I suppose.
The collection of Rembrandts is worth mentioning as it's fairly staggering. I don't think I've ever seen so many paintings by the Master in one gallery before... van Rijn is represented at every age and stage of his career.
There are works by a young Rembrandt, many works from a confident, energetic, mid-career Master, and then several stunning works of penetrating psychological depth from late in his life. His late works are the direct precursor of Van Gogh, who is said to have spent entire afternoons sitting motionless in front of Rembrandt's paintings, just soaking in the brushwork. Thick impasto globs of glistening oil are perched atop one another in a virtuoso build of raw emotional excess... he abandons the precision focus and optical-illusion-like embellishments of surface textures, which he made so famous in his youth, in favor of deeply moving narratives.
Goya similarly 'devolves' his chops to augment his mood and push his work to the next level. It's a risk, and not everyone is willing to take that risk, but he pulls it off so well that I've really come to admire the late works of Old Rembrandt. Broke, destitute, lonely and twice widowed Rembrandt... who buried everyone he ever loved (including his children) and whose painting style fell out of fashion and vogue. The old, lonely, soul whose style changed into something they called horrific and horrendous. But that 'horrific' style - for my money - constitutes one of the most beautiful cycles of work by one of the most talented and artistic souls to ever pick up a brush or burin. It's not his "best" work, but it's his best work.
Unfortunately my camera died abruptly and I forgot my spare battery. So I didn't take as many pictures as I otherwise would have. Without our cameras we also saw the Greek and Roman section and walked around the Russian section, as well as the French neoclassical and antique Egyptian galleries. The Egyptian collections of The British Museum and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York are both much, MUCH more impressive... but neither can compete with the painting collection