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The State Hermitage Museum | © quinntheislander / Pixabay
The State Hermitage Museum | © quinntheislander / Pixabay
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A Tour of the Hermitage in 20 Artworks

Picture of Anastasiia Ilina
Updated: 18 October 2017
If you’re planning a trip to St Petersburg in Russia, you won’t want to miss the world-famous Hermitage Museum. With over 3 million artworks all housed in different halls and event buildings, it’s a challenge to know exactly what shouldn’t be missed. Here’s our guide to the must-see works on your visit.

Madonna Litta

Although the authorship of the painting remains unknown, based on sketches it is widely attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. The painting depicts a woman breastfeeding her newborn son. The face of the mother is almost lit up and a hint of a smile can be seen in the corners of her mouth as she lovingly looks down at the child. For the better part of the 19th century the painting was in possession of the Milanese house of Litta, thus giving it the name, and thereafter was gifted to the Hermitage by a member of the family.

Peacock Clock

The majestic life-size peacock clock was constructed in Great Britain by goldsmith and entrepreneur James Cox. The clock is an intricate piece of engineering: when wound up the peacock lifts its feathers, the owl opens its eyes and then the rooster calls. When the clock was first purchased by Catherine the Great, the mechanism suffered during transportation and had t be restored by Russian mechanics. It remains fully operational till today, but due to the fragility of the mechanism it is only wound up once a week, on Wednesdays.

Peacock Clock
Peacock Clock | © azugaldia/Flickr

Rembrandt’s Danae

A masterpiece by Dutch artist Rembrandt depicts Danae, a character from Greek mythology. She was the mother of Perseus, impregnated by Zeus in the form of a shower of gold. Originally the model for the painting was Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia, but her face was later changed to that of his lover, Geertje Dircx. The painting has had a tragic time in the Hermitage. In 1985 it was attacked with sulphuric acid and cut several times. Although the restoration was successful, much of the original painting was lost.

The Three Graces

The work of Italian artist Antonio Canova portrays the three daughters of Zeus: Euphrosyne, Aglaea and Thalia. This work is typical for the Neo-classical era, challenging the concepts of beauty and how women should be depicted. The three women are facing each other, carved from a whole piece of white marble with fine technique to replicate the smooth texture of their skin.

The Three Graces
The Three Graces | © Wikimedia Commons

Sarcophagus of Alexander Nevsky

When St Petersburg was first pronounced the capital at the start of the 18th century, the relics of Alexander Nevsky were brought over and the Alexandra Nevsky Lavra built to house them. During the turbulent times of the Russian Revolution, the relics of Alexander Nevsky were looted. The massive silver sarcophagus, weighing 1.6 tonnes, was taken apart and moved to the Hermitage Museum where it can be seen today.

Sarcophagus of Alexander Nevsky
Sarcophagus of Alexander Nevsky | © Courtesy of the State Hermitage Museum

The Return of the Prodigal Son

Another unmissable masterpiece of Rembrandt van Rijn was one of his final works. It depicts the scene from a biblical parable. The painting shows a scene of forgiveness: a father taking his son back in after he had wasted all of his inheritance and descended into poverty. The light focuses on the father’s loving face while the other figures are dimmed in the background. The composition brings forward the theme of compassion and filial love.

Return of the Prodigal Son
Return of the Prodigal Son | © Wikimedia Commons

Dance

This is one of the two paintings by Henri Matisse sharing the same name, the sister being located in the New York Museum of Modern Art. The large decorative panel was originally commissioned by Russian businessman Sergei Shukin for his mansion in Moscow where it remained until the Revolution. Before the commission, Matisse explored the concepts of movement and dance especially through folk dancing.

Conestabile Madonna

This small-scale painting of Italian artist Raphael depicts the Madonna holding her child while reading a book. The work remains incomplete. Art critics speculate that this was the last work of the young Raphael in Umbria before he moved to Florence, thus leaving it unfinished. It was a gift from the Russian emperor Alexander II to his wife Maria Alexandrovna.

Conestabile Madonna
Conestabile Madonna | © Wikimedia Commons

Poppy Field

Claude Monet produced a number of landscape paintings at his house at Giverny. Many of those canvases featured fields of poppy and one those is now hosted in the Hermitage. In the style of late 19th century Impressionism, attention to detail gives way to conveying ideas and feeling, making Monet one of the most consistent leaders of the movement.

Titian’s Danae

Titian and this students produced a number of paintings on the same theme, one of them now housed in the Hermitage. The scene portrays the moment of seduction of Danae by Zeus, when he appears to her in the form of a shower of gold.

Saints Peter and Paul

A late 16th century century painting of Spanish artist El Greco. The figure on the right is apostle Paul, depicted during the sermon with his hand on the book. His face is determined and calm. Peter, on the other hand, is juxtaposed as looking weak and disoriented. The images step away from the traditions of depiction of holy figures. They are not idolised and their flaws evident in the painting. For this reason during his time the works were rejected by the Spanish king.

Saints Peter and Paul
Saints Peter and Paul | © Wikimedia Commons

Composition VI

In the painting that may seem a blur to the layman viewer, Kandinsky has dissolved many images including nudes, animals, palm, rain etc. Despite the complexity of the work, it was completed within a span of three days and thus a Kandinsky monumental masterpiece was born, making the artist a notable figure of the Abstract movement.

Composition VI
Composition VI | © Wikimedia Commons

Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss

The elegant and sensual sculpture of Antonio Canova shows the two mythological characters at the moment of Psyche’s awakening after Cupid’s Kiss. The difference between the smooth marble of the lovers’ skin and the rough texture of the rock they lie upon reveals the skillful technique of the Italian artist.

Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss
Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss | © Wikimedia Commons

The Lunch

One of the early paintings of Spanish artist Diego Velasquez. The painting depicts a simple lunch table with two pomegranates and a piece of bread. The detailed work of the artist brings forward even the smallest creases in the table cloth and on the collars of the men. The lighting of the painting brings alive the facial expressions of every character, highlighting every wrinkle.

Place de la Concorde

An unusual sidetrack for Edgar Degas from his customary paintings of ballerinas. The painting portrays the Lepic family and their dog crossing the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The awkward positioning of the figures and the unusual use of space suggest the first influences of photography. After World War II the painting was considered lost for decades, until the Russian authorities located it and placed it in the Hermitage Museum.

Place de la Concorde
Place de la Concorde | © Wikimedia Commons

Bacchus

The vibrant and truthful depiction of human bodies can help identify with no mistake that the work is from the hand of Peter Paul Rubens. The theme of Bacchanalia was a typical one, although Bacchus himself was an uncommon character on his paintings. Rubens depicts the corrupting feast filled with wine, lead by the god of wine himself.

The Lute Player

Caravaggio is a master of the Italian Baroque. The Lute Player is an early work of the master filled with symbolism of romance and tenderness. The musical instruments depicted, the lute and other on the table, transfer the feeling of momentary pleasure. Caravaggio himself considered the work one of his most successful.

The Lute Player
The Lute Player | © Wikimedia Commons

Lady in a Black Dress

The artwork depicts what may be called a typical ‘Renoir woman’, which was the subject of many of his paintings. Despite her dress being evidently black, there are shades of grey revealed in the creases, creating a play of light and colour. The face of the woman is of less detail with characteristic free strokes of the artist.

Judith

The painting Judith by Italian artist Giorgione is one of the few owned by the State Hermitage Museum. The artwork was restored in the 19th century, as it was covered by a thick layer of dark yellow varnish. The restoration was only completed in 1971 bringing the work as close as possible to its original look. The motif of the painting links back to the deuterocanonical Book of Judith.

Memory of the Garden at Etten (Ladies of Arles)

A work of Vincent Van Gogh first intended for decoration in his own home. The artist had spent a prolonged period of time in Arles, where the work was made. His father was serving as pastor. The painting marks the formative years of the artist as it was at this time, in the 1880s, when he decided to commit his career to art.

Memory of the Garden at Etten
Memory of the Garden at Etten | © Wikimedia Commons