A Rare Hermitage Museum Catalog

  • Posted on Aug 26, 2012 by

Collecting a rich array of scholarly research materials for the study of Western art held by museums and galleries all over the world has always been one of the core missions of the Frick Art Reference Library. It should come as no surprise then that the Library has one of the most comprehensive collections of catalogs of European fine arts from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, with an especially rich selection of nineteenth-century imprints.

St. Petersburg, the city conjured up on the coastal marshes of the Gulf of Finland by Emperor Peter the Great in the beginning of the eighteenth century, has always represented a policy of European orientation in Russia. In the realm of culture, nothing epitomizes these tendencies better than the Hermitage Museum. Founded as the private collection of Empress Catherine the Great by a series of art purchases from Prussia and France in the 1760s, the museum opened its doors to the public in 1852 as the Imperial Hermitage and was turned into a state institution in the wake of the October Revolution in 1917. By the end of the nineteenth century, through major acquisitions by Catherine the Great and her successors, the museum had become one of the most acclaimed treasure troves of European art anywhere in the world. The Frick has a typescript of a substantive article by the art critic and later Keeper of the Wallace Collection, Sir Claude Phillips, in which he favorably compares the “vast pictorial treasures of the Imperial House of Russia” with those at Windsor Castle and Hampton Court, the great collections of the Imperial House of Austria, the Dresden Gallery, and the Prado (Phillips, 1).

A series of collection catalogs compiled during the formative years of the Hermitage allows researchers to follow the institution’s history of acquisitions as well as to track the provenance and fate of individual works of art, many of them world-renowned masterpieces. The Frick had already held sixteen collection catalogs for the museum published before 1917, with the earliest one dating from 1828. When an 1838 imprint not found in any libraries in the United States came up for sale on the antiquarian market, the Frick’s Book Selection Committee decided to acquire the catalog in order to help users form a better understanding of how the Hermitage’s art collections evolved in the early part of the nineteenth century.

Title page of the newly acquired Livret de la Galerie Impériale de l'Ermitage de Saint-Pétersbourg (1838)
Title page of the newly acquired
Livret de la Galerie Impériale de l'Ermitage de Saint-Pétersbourg (1838)

The new acquisition, entitled Livret de la Galerie Impériale de l'Ermitage de Saint-Pétersbourg, contenant l'explication des tableaux qui la composent, avec de courtes notices sur les autres objets d'art ou de curiosité qui y sont exposés is a substantial 531 pages (see illustration). The major part of it consists of a room-by-room description of the galleries, with detailed entries for all the paintings. A succinct historical introduction and an index underline the scholarly nature of the work. Of particular interest is a chart on the last page, summarizing the number of painters and paintings, organized by national school and indicating the number of works acquired by each of the four monarchs who contributed to the collection (Catherine the Great, Paul I, Alexander I, and Nicholas I). According to this table, of the 1,692 paintings at the Hermitage in 1838, the majority (1,385) were purchased by Catherine the Great (see illustration). 

 

Charts showing the distribution of the paintings from the 1838 catalog, (I) by national school and (II) by their source of acquisition.
Charts showing the distribution of the paintings from the 1838 catalog,
(I) by national school and (II) by their source of acquisition

Unfortunately, there is no mention of the author who contributed the meticulous annotations, each of which contains the name of the artist, the measurements of the work of art, a detailed description of its subject matter as well as exhaustive provenance information. One thing the unknown author rarely provides is a title for the work. All the entries are rich compilations of facts and are composed in a clear, simple, unembellished writing style. As I was reading some of the entries I was struck by the scholarly nature of the text. It is different from the 1828 publication by Jean-Henri Schnitzler, whose somewhat whimsical, fascinating descriptions clearly reflect the author’s tastes and aesthetic judgments. Phrases like “très brilliant,” “d’un belle execution,” “les draperies sont harmonieuses et le dessin très-correct” are found throughout his text (Schnitzler, 24). A typical entry in the 1838 catalog is the description of Raphael’s Alba Madonna, acquired by Nicholas I in 1836 and currently at the National Gallery of Art in Washington (see illustration).

Excerpt from the description of Raphael’s Alba Madonna from the 1838 catalog, with extensive provenance information and bibliographical references.
Excerpt from the description of Raphael’s Alba Madonna from the 1838 catalog,
with extensive provenance information and bibliographical references

The Frick’s rich holdings of Hermitage catalogs can be discovered through Arcade, the catalog of the New York Art Resources Consortium. To find all the catalogs, search “Imperatorskīĭ Ėrmitazh (Russia)—catalogs” and “Gosudarstvennyĭ Ėrmitazh (Russia)—catalogs” as subjects.

Christina Peter, Head of Acquisitions, Frick Art Reference Library


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