Between 1764 and 1775, the empress undertook, in competition with rulers whose storehouses of art greatly surpassed Russia's, to acquire some of the world's finest works of art. Sometimes acquiring entire private collections outright, she quickly filled her gallery with masterpieces from all over the world. This original gallery
section of the Hermitage, completed in 1770 by Vallin de la Mothe, is now known as the Maly (Little) Hermitage. It's attached to the Stary (Old) Hermitage, which was built in 1783 by Yuri Felten to house the overflow of art (it also contained conference chambers for the tsarina's ministers). Attached to the Hermitage by an arch straddling the Winter Canal is the Hermitage Theater, built between 1783 and 1787 by the Italian architect Giacomo Quarenghi. Yet another addition, the New Hermitage, was built between 1839 and 1852 under Catherine's grandson, Nicholas I; it became Russia's first public museum, although admission was by royal invitation only until 1866. Its facade is particularly striking, with 10 male figures cut from monolithic gray granite supporting the portico. Today's Hermitage is one of the world's richest repositories of art; it was continually enlarged with tsarist treasures and acquisitions, all later confiscated and nationalized, along with numerous private collections, by the Soviet government after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
The entrance to the museum is through the main gates on Palace Square; during peak tourist season and at times of special exhibitions you may encounter long lines. Note that ticket-takers are strict about checking oversize bags and about foreigners trying to enter on Russian-rate tickets.Those experienced employees can easily tell foreigners even if you try to keep silent.
With more than 400 exhibit halls and gilded salons, it's impossible to see everything here in a single day. Since you probably only have a few hours, be sure to take in the major attractions, which include Egyptian mummies and Scythian gold; the splendid halls of Russian tsars; the Peacock Clock; the great paintings of Leonardo, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and Velázquez; and the outstanding collection of Impressionists and Postimpressionists.
The museum's eight sections are not clearly marked, and the floor plans available are not very useful, though they are in English as well as Russian. To orient yourself before your trip, you can go on a virtual tour of the museum on the website. Don't be shy about asking the guards to point you in the right direction. There's also a helpful information desk in the main hall, before you go into the museum, where you can ask specific questions.
There are three floors to wander through: the ground, first, and second. The ground floor covers prehistoric times, displaying discoveries made on former Soviet territory, including Scythian relics and artifacts; art from the Asian republics, the Caucasus, and their peoples; and Greek, Roman, and Egyptian art and antiquities. On the ground floor, head for the Hall of Ancient Egypt, the Pazyryk exhibition, and the Hall of the Big Vase. The first contains the remains of a mummified priest; the second, a mummified Scythian tsar and his horses as well as the most ancient carpet in the world; the third, a magnificent example of Russian stone-carving—the huge Kolyvan vase in the center of the hall. It's 2.57 meters (2.81 yards) high and weighs 19 tons.
Possibly the most prized section of the Hermitage—and definitely the most difficult to get into—is the ground floor's Treasure Gallery, also referred to as the Zolotaya Kladovaya (Golden Room). This spectacular collection of gold, silver, and royal jewels is well worth the hassle and additional extrance fee. The collection is divided into two sections. The first section, covering prehistoric times, includes Scythian gold and silver treasures of striking simplicity and refinement recovered from the Crimea, Ukraine, and Caucasus. The second section contains a dizzying display of precious stones, jewelry, and such extravagances as jewel-encrusted pillboxes and miniature clocks, all from the 16th through the 20th centuries.
Through the entrance hall you can reach the first-floor galleries by way of the Jordan Staircase, a dazzling 18th-century creation of marble, granite, and gold. One of the first rooms you pass through on the first floor is the Malachite Room, with its displays of personal items from the imperial family. In the White Dining Room the Bolsheviks seized power from the Provisional Government in 1917. Balls were staged in the Great Hall and in the smaller Concert Hall (which now also holds the silver coffin—but not the body—of the hero Alexander Nevsky). The Pavilion Hall on the first floor is known for the wondrous Peacock Clock. Every Wednesday at 7 pm you can usually see the clock's figures move and sound; the event attracts large crowds. The hall itself, with 28 crystal chandeliers, is impressive in its own right. The Knights' Room is also on this floor, displaying armor that includes a child-size version and one made for a horse. The first floor also has many rooms that have been left as they were when the imperial family lived in the Winter Palace.
A wealth of Russian and European art is also on this floor: Florentine, Venetian, and other Italian art through the 18th century, including Leonardo's Benois Madonna and Madonna Litta (Room 214), Michelangelo's Crouching Boy (Room 229), two Raphaels, eight Titians, and works by Tintoretto, Lippi, Caravaggio, and Canaletto. The Hermitage also houses a superb collection of Spanish art, including works by El Greco, Velázquez, Murillo, and Goya. Its spectacular presentation of Flemish and Dutch art contains roomfuls of Van Dycks, including portraits done in England when he was court painter to Charles I. Also here are more than 40 canvasses by Rubens (Room 247) and an equally impressive number of Rembrandts, including Flora, Abraham's Sacrifice, and The Prodigal Son (Room 254). His famous Danaë, which was mutilated by a knife- and acid-wielding lunatic in 1985, was put back on display in 1997. A smattering of excellent British paintings, extending also to the next floor, includes works by Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, and George Morland.
Reflecting the Francophilia of the empresses Elizabeth and Catherine, the museum is second only to the Louvre in its collection of French art. The scope is so extraordinary that the collection must be housed on both the first and second floors. Along with masterpieces by Lorrain, Watteau, and Poussin—including Poussin's Tancrède et Herminie (Room 279)—there are also early French art and handicrafts, including some celebrated tapestries.
On the second floor, you can start with the French art of the 19th century, where you'll find Delacroix, Ingres, Corot, and Courbet. You then come to a stunning collection of Impressionists and Postimpressionists, originally gathered mainly by two prerevolutionary industrialists and art collectors, Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov. They include Monet's deeply affecting A Lady in the Garden, Degas's Woman at Her Toilette and After the Bath, and works by Sisley, Pissarro, and Renoir. Sculptures by Auguste Rodin and a host of pictures by Cézanne, Gauguin, and van Gogh are followed by Picasso and a lovely room of Matisse, including one of the amazing Joys. Somewhat later paintings—by the Fauvist André Derain and by Cubist Fernand Léger, for example—are also here. Rounding out this floor is the museum's collection of Asian and Middle and Near Eastern art, a small American collection, and two halls of medals and coins.
The best deal is to buy a two-day combined-entrance ticket, which allows you to visit the State Hermitage Museum and three other museums: the original, wooden Winter Palace of Peter the Great, accessible through a tunnel from the museum (historians believe this tunnel is the site where Peter died); the General Staff Building; and Menshikov Palace.
Tours in English (of several sections of the museum or just the Treasure Gallery) are available. Tours are normally given once or twice a day around noon, 1, or 2 pm, but make sure to call a day before to figure out the exact time. Tours tend to be rushed and you may want to return on your own. Consider hiring a private guide from outside the museum instead—their licensing requires a year of study and training and they'll take their time explaining the artwork to you.