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:
2. van Gogh
5. da Vinci
7. Johannes Vermeer
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?