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Most people who have sampled the Hermitage in St Petersburg agree that it is at once Europe’s most wonderful and most impossible museum. When we visited en famille, our guide – it is barely feasible to get in, never mind around, without one – insisted on placing our three school-age children in wheelchairs, ignoring the needs of more legitimate claimants, as we toured everything from Scythian gold to the Raphael loggias. Throughout the splendid labyrinth, it is striking that few significant paintings are Russian, yet the story of how Italian, Dutch, French and Spanish masterpieces came to rest in St Petersburg is obscure in the museum itself. Although Hermitage treasures such as Leonardo’s “Benois Madonna” never travel, many major paintings are making rare return visits to the west, the first since the Romanov rulers scooped them up centuries ago. In its new exhibition The Hermitage: Birth of the Imperial Museum, the Pinacothèque de Paris therefore reveals a compelling narrative about art, power and national identity, told through exceptional loans.

Fresh and vivid, these range from Titian’s luminous “Christ Pantocrator” to Velázquez’s gravely arresting, square-jawed “Count of Olivares”, ill, about to relinquish control at court but still canny and determined, to Chardin’s large, exquisitely textured “Still Life with Attributes of the Arts”.

What makes the array especially engaging is an arrangement by tsar rather than epoch: the show peels back the Hermitage holdings in layers to explore the collecting strategy and flair of each ruler-patron, underlining the evolutions in European taste. The show opens with Peter the Great, who toured Europe incognito in the 1690s in quest of inspiration for his mad new capital. A trained naval engineer, he built St Petersburg on the model of Amsterdam and, not surprisingly, favoured contemporary Dutch marine paintings. Jaen Claesz Rietschoof’s “Seascape in calm weather” is a majestic example, subtle in its pink-streaked clouds and watery reflections of sails and rigging, full of intricate details of ships swelling into port.

As keenly, Peter wanted the trophies of Renaissance culture so lacking in backward 1700s Russia. He was offered Garofalo’s “Deposition in the Tomb” as a Raphael, an error that now looks inexplicable given the wooden figures and strained composition, but Garofalo was known in his day as “the Raphael of Ferrara” and this is an intriguing example of how persuasive unlikely attributions are to those eager to be convinced.

More successful was Peter’s purchase in 1716 of Rembrandt’s magnificent “David and Jonathan”, a picture of sparkling painterly and emotive contrasts. Rembrandt began it just after his wife Saskia died, and gave his own features to the elderly Jonathan, restrained but desperate as he clasps a weeping David in a final farewell embrace. David’s glistening gold costume and precious sword and belt – all presents from Jonathan, who is advising him to flee the wrath of his father King Saul – contrast with his fragile posture, and stand out against a smoking grey-brown background. The Oedipal theme would have stirred Peter: he bought the work when he was embroiled in a battle with his son Alexei, whom he suspected of treachery and would soon torture to death.

Another despot, Catherine II, who became empress after having her husband Peter III murdered, swept the next wave of western enlightenment into Russia. Anxious to remove any taint of suspicion, Catherine reinvented herself as intellectual and connoisseur, became passionate about architecture – the fantastical architectural gouaches she commissioned from Charles-Louis Clérisseau typify her taste – and created the Large and Small Hermitage.

Corresponding with Voltaire and Diderot as cultural advisers, Catherine mopped up entire Parisian collections to fill her new buildings, seeking especially to connect Russia with Europe’s past. In 1772, to the dismay of the French, she paid £460,000 for the works assembled by Baron Crozat de Thiers; on display here, a Veronese “Self-portrait”, Rubens’ sumptuous “Arrival of Queen Marie de Medici in Lyons”, several goddesses and putti by Poussin and Van Dyck’s dynamic “The Incredulity of Thomas” represent the baroque and classical tone of that collection.

Catherine was as quick to profit from the fall-out from the French Revolution: Marie Antoinette’s court painter Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun found a safe haven in St Petersburg, receiving 3,000 roubles for the silky rococo portrait of the empress’s granddaughters Alexandra and Elena on show here. “Leurs visages étaient célestes,” Le Brun raved, with features “so fine and delicate that you would have believed they lived on ambrosia”.

Shortly afterwards, the girls’ father was assassinated; their idealistic brother, Alexander I, became tsar in 1801. With his reign dominated by the Napoleonic wars and the French art market often closed to Russia, Alexander enterprisingly looked elsewhere. One morning in 1814 he strolled anonymously into the Amsterdam gallery of William Coeswelt, fell in love with Spanish painting and bought on the spot a group of works including a Velázquez, Murillo’s fluid, tender “Annunciation” and Ribalta’s savagely realistic “Preparations for the Crucifixion”.

The impulse marked him as right up-to-date with the aesthetic moment: Spanish painting, barely known beyond the Iberian border until the 19th century, was coming into vogue, and would have a major impact on Manet and impressionism.

This is a joyous if imperfect show. As ever at the Pinacothèque, installation is clumsy and cramped. And though a parallel exhibition, The Esterhazys, Princes and Collectors – mostly the same works as at the Royal Academy’s recent Treasures from Budapest – resonates with the Romanov story, a further group of haphazard loans pretending to be the Pinacothèque’s new “permanent collection”, and incoherently juxtaposing Rothko and Dutch still life, Pollock and Rembrandt, on makeshift purple walls, is a disaster.

Avoid this, but make time for the Romanovs: not only for the famous names but also the imperially cherry-picked lesser-knowns such as Giulo Bugiardini’s tondo “Madonna” with a playful Christ and sensually somnolent John the Baptist, or Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s portrait of a high-coloured youth in a dramatic hat, leaning towards us so intimately that he shrinks in a flash the generations between the ancien régime and now.

‘The Hermitage: Birth of the Imperial Museum, The Romanovs, Tsars and Art Collectors’, Pinacothèque de Paris, to May 29. www.pinacotheque.com

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