St. Petersburg: The Hermitage

July 29, 2011 • 9:31 am

The internet in my hotel is wonky, so I dare not even try to upload photos.  Because of this, I’ll postpone my “holiday snaps” and commentary on this gorgeous city after I return to the U.S. on Wednesday.  But I did want to note that I spent four hours this morning in the Hermitage, the former palace of the Russian czars that has been converted into an art gallery.  It’s not as large as the Louvre, but is almost as exhausting, with a collection that ranges from ancient Egyptian art through the Impressionists (something the Louvre doesn’t have).

But you’ll see from the pictures I’ll post that the setting for the paintings is incomparably better in the Hermitage than the Louvre, for the imperial corridors and apartments have been restored to their former glory.  There are inlaid floors, ceiling frescoes and gilded plaster everywhere, and, because the paintings are mostly in exterior corridors, lots of natural light to view the paintings.  In fact, some of them aren’t even behind glass, so you can inspect, for example, the impasto of van Gogh from only a few inches away. (Given this people-friendly but painting-unfriendly presentation, and the lack of climate control in the building, I worry about the longevity of these artworks.)

And, unlike the Louvre, the Hermitage has a basement loaded with working cats, whose job is to keep the museum rodent-free.  Sadly, I didn’t see any of them, and, given the formality of this museum, I doubt that I’ll try.

Anyway, a while back I published a list of my ten favorite painters (and two wild cards), which follows:

1. Rembrandt
2. van Gogh
3. Picasso
4. Michelangelo
5. da Vinci
6. Dürer
7. Johannes Vermeer
8. Raphael
9. Caravaggio
10. Monet
11. Turner
12. Toulouse-Lautrec

Wild cards:


Paintings by #1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 9, and 10 were on view today.  There were a handful of lovely van Goghs that I hadn’t seen in reproduction, a ton of Matisses (not one of my favorites), at least 20 Rembrandts (including The Return of the Prodigal Son), and, best of all, two da Vincis. There was also a wonderful room of Kandinskys (my favorite Russian artist, though I’m having a look at Ilya Repin in the Russian Museum tomorrow), including his early representational work. I believe,though I’m not 100% sure, that Kandinsky was the first “modern” artist to create an abstract painting.

Based on my viewing today, I’m going to put the Hermitage in at least a tie with the Louvre as the world’s best museum of art (no, I haven’t seen them all, but I have been to many touted museums, including the Prado), and I want to revise my list of painters above.  I’m swapping da Vinci with Michelangelo. Only about a dozen authenticated da Vincis exist, and I’ve now seen more than half of them, unfortunately not including The Last Supper.  His paintings have an ineffable tenderness and humanity, combined with the most exquisite technique, that puts them in a class with Rembrandt (about whom I’ll have more to say—and show—when I get back).

My favorite da Vinci, which I’ve seen in the Louvre, is St. John the Baptist:

After gorging on this great art, I sought out my first meal on my own (up to now we’ve been fed, amply, by the organizers of our conference), and I wanted something Russian.  I managed to find a sort of Russian McDonalds that had fast but traditional foods, and consumed a blini (Russian pancake) filled with egg and shredded cabbage, and a big glass of kvass, a slightly alcoholic drink made from fermented rye bread.  I’ve always wanted to drink kvass, since it features largely in the work of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and I found it tasty and refreshing.

As usual when I present a “favorite” list, I invite readers to weigh in with their own choices.  This time, why not list your five favorite artists?

UPDATE: I forgot to list my favorite painting, which I know I’ve mentioned before. It’s the Isenheim Altarpiece by Mathias Grünewald, and I’ve never seen it in person. Yours?

64 thoughts on “St. Petersburg: The Hermitage

  1. Finally, a westerner who likes kvas! Most people seem to not get its grainy rye-full deliciousness…

    Russian cuisine is full of things put through bacterial and fungal digestive systems (ie, fermented), so I’d recommend going all out on the various soured and pickled things, for anyone interested in ‘microbial cooking’ anyway. For example, we have so many ways to ferment milk, a lot of the products lack any suitable term in English. While we’re on the topic of dairy, tvorog (творог) is delicious!

    Rivers are a big part of our culture and history (transport routes), so various fishes permeate our food too – there’s a variety of fish soups and interesting fish-in-gelatin dishes (that I’ve sadly only heard stories about) and salted-sun-dried fish (ask for vobla at the market) that goes really well with beer.

    And thanks a lot, now I have cravings for things that are difficult (and sometimes impossible) to get here.

    Right, art… now my uncultured side comes through. I do like stuff from the Dürer-Rembrandt era (1500’s-1600’s)(especially engravings by the former), but don’t have much of an affinity for European classical art overall. More captivated by ‘exotic’ (to us) art of other societies, where even if names are present, wouldn’t remember them much. My artsy interests tend to gravitate more towards ‘tribal’ art (which some claim isn’t ‘art’ but ‘craft’ because they haven’t achieved the appropriate level of uselessness or whatever) and really ancient stuff, where you have to imagine the context based on very little information. More room for imagination that way, I guess. Then again, being a protistologist kind of predisposes me to having weird interests… (tl;dr can’t list 5 artists)

    1. I like(d) Kvass too Psi – when I had it 30 years ago! Best consumed from a roadside vendor. what I really want to have is Kumis – Mongolia’s favourite tipple.

  2. I admire your fortitude Jerry ~ 40 minutes = art overload + yearning for normal acoustics & fresh air. I think the art ‘reverence’ gets under my skin.

    My list of five:
    Vincent van Gogh
    Gustav Klimt
    Henri Cartier Bresson
    Joseph Sudek
    Francis Bacon

    1. Sudek – very interesting and good – a new one to me, but do photographers belong with painters? I prefer to compare like with like.

      1. It is speculated that artists have been using ‘light projection’ equipment for hundreds (or even thousands! )of years. Please read THIS fascinating Wiki on the camera obscura. In fact Leonardo describes one in Codex Atlanticus. The first known magic lantern is dated at 1676.

        Early on in his career Sudek’s camera club (in Prague I think) expelled him because he wished to move away from ‘painterly’ photography. Sudek & others formed a club of their own: SLIDESHOW

        I’m interested in the borders between arts where different ‘traditions’ fuse ~ or are deliberately left broken:


  3. East End Brewing in Pittsburgh occasionally makes a kvass with rye bread from a local craft bakery. And Beaver Brewing, in Beaver Falls, not all that far N of Pgh, is said to always have kvass on hand. The brewer there says he uses the minimum amount of hops to still allow him to sell it legally (as beer).

    The blini & filling must surely be an improvement over kvass straight up.

  4. My top 5:

    1. Rembrandt van Rijn
    2. Vincent van Gogh
    3. Johannes Vermeer
    4. Frans Hals
    5. Carel Willink

    Yes, I’n Dutch .. so?

    (Note on “Rembrandt”: that’s just his first name!)

  5. I’m just wondering how you leave out Titian, who painted auburn hair and buttercream flesh!
    A pointer from a former art historian, you’ll sound more knowledgeable on the subject if you call Leonardo da Vinci “Leonardo” rather than “da Vinci.” His family name was not “da Vinci,” he hailed from the town of Vinci. That was not meant as a criticism, just a friendly hint.

      1. Reminds me of the old joke – What’s the difference between a joist & a girder? Joyce wrote Ulysses & Goethe wrote Faust. Chortle chortle!

        1. My Dad, an English teacher, used to tell a joke about a first-time visitor to Boston who decided to sample the local culinary specialty. The visitor hailed a cab and asked the driver, “where can I get scrod?” The driver answered, in my Dad’s best rendition of a Boston accent, “I must have heard that question a million times, but never before in the pluperfect subjunctive.”

  6. Dear Jerry,
    Thanks for posting on St. Petersburg. I have to say I am one that is slightly irritated by the reference to Leonardo as ‘da Vinci’. The renaming of the-artist-formerly-known-as-Leonardo depresses me more than it should, for I know that language changes inevitably. The man’s name is Leonardo, just as Michelangelo is Michelangelo.
    All the scholarly books refer to him as such, as does humble wikipedia:


    ok i’m done.

    1. @Hexag1: Hearing Leonardo referred to as “da Vinci” is like nails on a chalkboard. I still experience a frisson of anger when I remember a popular television show from the ’70s which showed a painting by Leonardo being stolen – the crooks took the painting out of the frame and rolled it up, which would be impossible given that Leonardo painted on panel, not canvas! Call me picky, but, that’s how I am. I also correct grammar and punctuation errors in books and magazines; don’t get me started on “arms and legs akimbo,” or I’ll scream!

    2. This strikes me as rather silly.
      We speak of Picasso’s and van Gogh’s (last names) but you get irritated when we do the same with Leonardo da Vinci?
      The objection that “da Vinci” is just the name of the place his family was from, well.. in 15th/16th century Europe , that often WAS your last name! That’s just one way of forming last names. For all practical purposes, ‘da Vinci’ WAS his last name.
      You don’t get irritated when someone mentions a Vanderbilt, do you: arguing that that ONLY means that his family originally came from a part of the Netherlands called de Bilt?
      Besides, how many other “da Vinci” polymaths/painters/sculptures do you know?

      1. The fact is, Leonardo’s name was Leonardo, not “da Vinci.” Other artists of the time were known by their first names, including Michelangelo Buonarotti, Tiziano Vecelli (Titian) and Rafaello Santi or Sanzio (Raphael.) No one would refer to Titian as “Vecelli.”

      2. Not many people outside the Low Countries are capable of saying van Gogh properly either! In the US ‘van go’, in the UK ‘van goff’…!

        1. One of my art history professors was Dutch – I had the correct pronunciation drummed into me, as well as the correct pronunciation of gouda!

          1. I suppose here is one way to present a list of six top painters:

            1) Vinnie
            2) Pablo
            3) Leo
            4) Joe Willie
            5) Mikey
            6) Al

        2. I wouldn’t be surprised if Arab (and related languages) speaking people could actually pronounce “van Gogh” quite well.

          1. So true! I speak Hebrew, and the pronunciation is similar. (Flashback to Michele Bachmann saying “Chutzpah.”)

        3. I was trained to say it propoerly by my Dutch and Flemish friends. Americans go “who, what?” when I say it properly.

    1. Hmmm…

      None of the forgeries I’m able to find images of online look particularly convincing to me. If course, I’ve got the benefit of knowing they’re forgeries. But still…

      Especially “Christ in the temple” – his last forgery. Some of the proportions seem off and their poses seem too unnatural.

  7. Monet – for his ability to express pure beauty.

    Turner – for the incredible drama he manages to capture in his paintings. (The collection in London’s Tate Gallery is marvellous.)

    Schinkel – for what he did with light is absolutely breathtaking. (Visit the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin for some excellent specimens.)

  8. I visited St Petersburg for the first time in 2001. Went to the Hermitage for the first time on September 12.

    I spent at least an hour in a small gallery which just had one painting (there might have been more, but I only had eyes for this one, I sat on a chair staring at it). It was Renoir’s ‘On the Terrace’, on loan from Chicago I believe.

    Are you visiting the ‘Russian Museum’? It’s got a lot of glorious paintings. It’s also near that iconic Russian cathedral for an assassinated Tsar (Alexander II I think).

    1. When I went to Moscow all those years ago, I look at lots of Russian art – particularly interesting was the Soviet art. But I do not think the gallery we went to had lots of Western art.

  9. Tough to narrow it down to five. El Greco and Rembrandt definitely get in, but after that it gets very hard. Let’s say… Velázquez, Van Gogh and Botticelli. But if you asked me tomorrow it might be a different three altogether.

    1. “Favorites lists” have always seemed a strange idea to me.

      “What’s your favorite food?”

      “Well, when I’m in the mood for pizza, it’s a really great pizza. When I’m in the mood for steak, it’s a really well-cooked (but medium-rare) filet mignon. Etc.”

        1. Oh, I love informal fun and friendly argument as much as anybody. But even in such a context I don’t think I could assert a “favorite” anything.


  10. Well, if Jack can go Dutch, who am I to argue?! This is too hard – I would prefer to go by painting rather than artist. I am a bit of a Romantic – forgive me – with a mediaeval side.
    1. Harald Sohlberg, Norwegian, particularly for Vinternatt i Rondane, a big picture in the National Gallery in Oslo – whenever I go to Oslo I always look at this painting. He has other very good ones too.
    2. John Sell Cotman, from Norwich, his paintings less well know outside Norfolk as many are still here. One of THE masters of water colours.
    3. Holbein, about the greatest portraitist I think, character & realism as well as sycophancy, all there if you look long enough.
    4. Arnold Böcklin, in particular for the versions of Die Toteninsel, but beautifully strange visions.
    5. Botticelli, eg Venus & Mars – I fell in love with Venus & copied her onto my bathroom wall (sadly now covered over).

    Others… Anonymous – all that fantastic mediaeval art eg wall paintings & illuminated manuscripts, van Dyck, Pre-Raphaelites like John Everett Millais, Henry Wallis (The Stonebreaker) or Holman Hunt (Our English Coasts), or John William Waterhouse, or Dutch landscape artists, or Poussin, or… there are plenty of 20thc artists too.

  11. One more thing – saw a picture of Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine (in Krakow I think) today in a paper – looks more like a Mustela putorius to me!

  12. My father-in-law died last week in St Petersburg. He was 82, taking a Volga cruise which he had booked at the last minute, and his heart condition got him. He was a grand old man, and he got to see St Petersburg before the cruise, which he always wanted. It’s not a bad way to go.

  13. Are small pubs that serve kvass called kvass-holes</b??

    Ahem. Okay, Top five artists — and I'm assuming you mean painters. No fair choosing Rodin, or Warren Haynes, in other words. You, Professor Coyne, were actually the one who turned me on to Albrecht Dürer, so he’s definitely in there. The other four, in no particular order, are Picasso, da Vinci, van Gogh, and Rembrandt.

    1. Sheesh. One missed right bracket can ruin your whole day.

      Sorry for the loud post, ever-body.

  14. On a slight scientific history note, the Hermitage also owns the several hundred piece Green Frog Service that Empress Catherine the Great commissioned from Josiah Wedgwood in 1773. He showed it before shipping and it helped establish his reputation and fortune. Part of said fortune allowed his grandson Charles Darwin to devote himself to the study of nature.

  15. Hi, I love your book and have now just found your blog (which I am also enjoying). Do you get to the U.K. much? Is there a way I can get a signed copy of your book (or get you to sign mine)? Thanks, keep fighting the good fight!

  16. I would have an awfully hard time picking just a few favorite painters, but Titian would head the list, along with Caravaggio and Coreggio.
    (The latter two, by the way, break the rule of using the 16th century artist’s first name; Caravaggio’s real name was Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, and Coreggio was really Antonio Allegri da Correggio. I suppose it all comes down to convention – Leonardo has been called Leonardo since he first started painting and Caravaggio has been called Caravaggio since he first gained notoriety.)

  17. I’ve been somewhat biting my tongue, thinking this comment is not necessary, but nevertheless, this website often functions more like a friendly conversation, so I’d like to introduce a new/different perspective: there are artists outside of Europe! As an art history major at a college in the U.S., I did of course spend a lot of time focusing on Western art and artists. And they are fantastic, and I do have many favorite Western artists. But there are so many other artists in the world and so many other wonderful pieces of art. I know that it’s sometimes difficult to engage with and appreciate art that is so outside of ones cultural background. It just saddens me that we can be so well educated, aware, and knowledgeable about certain things in the world, and yet not realize that the Western tradition is not the only source of art. And I’m sure that this state of things is not intentional, but next time you’re in a world class museum, everyone, take some time to look into a non-Western gallery. While non-Western art is generally not as accessible to Westerners as Western art is, it’s a lot more accessible now than in the past–there is more non-Western art in the West, there are more books in English, and there is just a lot more information.

      1. Well, I’ll first add the caveat that art historians have two overlapping (and sometimes conflicting) frameworks thru which they tend to view art–an aesthetic lens and a historical lens. Therefore, at least for me, it’s very possible that when I make a list of “favorite artists/painters” that what I actually mean is that I’m listing who is most interesting to me, and not in a visual way. I might even dislike the work, aesthetically. So sometimes it’s nice to ask a follow up question–do you like this artist aesthetically or for their historical role, or some combination of the two? Another caveat, I’m young, there’s a lot that I have yet to see and learn about, and I spent college studying some very specific stuff, hence I currently have a very narrow sense of all that the world has to offer.

        That being said, five favorite painters (liked for both aesthetic and/or historical reasons, and not necessarily in a ranked order):

        1. Qian Xuan

        2. Zhao Mengfu

        3. Hieronymus Bosch

        4. Hans Hofmann

        5. Richard Diebenkorn

          1. Oy, re-reading that, it does seem a bit obfuscatory. But I assure you, my long-windedness is simply a result of liking to hear myself talk/think. Also, my overdose of words served to function as a point of clarification (I hope!), rather unlike theologians, who use extra words to avoid clarity, detail, specifics, and, of course, the most unfortunate of our requested considerations, reality.

  18. When I studied art history classes in non-western art were few and far between. I have since learned to appreciate non-western art and, in fact, I collect Native American art.

  19. I, also, find it hard to choose best, or even “favourite” artists, as such does seem to depend on my mood.

    But I compliment your choice for favourite Leonardo. At least at one time it was in the Grand Galerie, and it was amusing/depressing to see all the folks rushing down the hall to stand in front of “la Jaconde”/the Mona Lisa, without a glance at “Saint Jean-Baptiste”.

  20. Personal top 5, in no particular order:

    Salvadore Dalí: His technique is so good he
    could have been an Old Master, but his vision is completely out there. He was my substitute for acid when I was a teenager and my friends were experimenting with drugs.

    Rodin: Pure inspiring beauty. Sounds corny, but looking at his stuff makes me want to be a better person.

    George Herriman: Creator of the Krazy Kat comic strip. It’s a timeless strip that charms me every time I read it, and the backgrounds always make me wish that I could be right there, in that world.

    Don Martin: Mad Magazine’s “Maddest Artist”. I know it’s low-brow, but just about every single drawing of his makes me laugh!

    Any particular artist who, at any given time makes me go, “Wow!” This is a constantly changing category. The most recent occupant of this category is the artist(s) who painted the walls of the Chauvet cave in France. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out Werner Herzog’s documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”. Wow!

  21. I like you list. You have captured most of my favorites except for Titian and Botticelli.

    I have seen the Louvre several times. It’s not my favorite. It may be “the greatest” museum, depending on how you score “greatness.” It is certainly huge and fairly comprehensive.

    My favorite museums:

    1. Museo del Prado
    2. Galleria degli Uffizi
    3. Musée d’Orsay
    4. Van Gogh Museum
    5. Musée de l’Orangerie

    I like smaller, more comprehensible museums (obviously). And I prefer more focus.

    When I advise people on the Louvre, I say, research ahead of time, choose the first two or three galleries you want to see, see them, then regroup and choose more and see them. Don’t try to “see it all.” I recommend seeing: The monumental paintings of Delacroix and David. Do not miss: The Winged Nike of Samothrace. (You can skip the others of the “big three”: the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. You can see the Mona Lisa much better in books than you can at the Louvre, where it’s behind (extremely) thick glass (4-inches thick?) and a horde of onlookers and very poorly lit. The Winged Nike is vastly more interesting than the Venus (IMO).)

    Favorite painting? Probably have to choose The Floor Scrapers by Gustave Caillebotte. (I do love color, especially Van Gogh’s; but there’s something about this one.)

    But that’s so hard! I also love Botticelli’s Venus, many Van Goghs, many Renoirs, Manets, Cezannes, Vermeers, Velasquez, Goya, Michelangelo’s sculpture, many photographs* on and on and on.

    (*I highly recommend the (new I think) book, The Great Photographers from Life Mag. Small format but excellent nonetheless.)

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