The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg is Russia's premier art museum. It began life as the private art collection of the imperial family and was nationalised and greatly expanded after the Revolution. The Museum is housed in the buildings of the former imperial palace in the centre of St Petersburg. They comprise the Baroque Winter Palace built by Bartolemeo Rastrelli for the Empress Elizabeth, the Neoclassical Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage and Hermitage Theatre built by Vallin de la Mothe, Yuri Velten and Giacomo Quarenghi respectively for Catherine the Great and the Historicist New Hermitage built by Leo von Klenze for Nicholas I. The latter was built as a museum where the cream of the imperial collection could be shown to the public. It opened its doors in 1852 and was known as the Imperial Hermitage Museum up to 1917. The East wing of the General Staff Building, facing the Winter Palace from the other side of Palace Square, has been restored in recent years to display the nineteenth-century and modern collection.
The foundation of the State Hermitage Museum is generally dated to 1764, the year when Catherine the Great bought a collection of 200 Old Master paintings from Berlin. Catherine, who reigned from 1762 to 1796, was a keen collector and her purchases are still among the most distinguished exhibits in the Museum. She bought 4,000 Old Master paintings, tens of thousands of drawings and engravings, a large collection of antique and modern sculpture and 10,000 engraved gems - her special collecting passion. She also purchased and commissioned furniture, silver, porcelain and other decorative arts on an imperial scale. The famous silver dinner service that she ordered from Roettiers in Paris for her lover Count Grigori Orlov originally comprised over 3,000 pieces.
Department of Western European Art
This has been the largest and most important section of the Hermitage collection from the time of Catherine the Great's first purchases onwards. It acquired its present name after the fine and decorative arts collections were combined in 1930 and curates 7,869 paintings, 2,100 sculptures, more than 525,000 prints and drawings, and 60,000 examples of the decorative arts, including silver, porcelain and furniture. Among the most famous features of the department are the Rembrandts (more than 20 works) and the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist pictures - including Picasso and Matisse - from the former Shchukin and Morosov collections. There are also paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Titian and Giorgione among other Italian masters, a superb collection of 17th century Dutch and Flemish paintings and the best collection of French art outside the Louvre.