Where the Hermitage offers an almost unrivalled collection of international art, the State Russian Museum, Russia’s leading museum of national fine art, provides a more local flavor.
Founded in 1895 in the stunning Mikhailovsky Palace, its collection of 400,000 pieces makes it the world’s largest depository of Russian art.
The main palace contains art works from ancient times to the 19th century, including an outstanding collection of 13th century religious icons.
The exhibition of ancient Russian art covers a period from the 12th century to the late 17th century. There are over a hundred icons of various schools on display. There are some icons from the early school of Kiev, the center of ancient Russian civilization. Kiev was one of the most beautiful and prosperous cities in Europe in the first half of the 11th century, and produced the most refined icons of that era.
In the 13th century the old Russian principalities (Kievan, Suzdal, Vladimir) declined in influence as a result of the Mongol invasion, which was followed by constant and costly dissention among the local princes. At that time the cities of Novgorod and Pskov in the Northwestern part of Russia became increasingly important and produced artists who created a school of painting which is one of the crowning glories of Russian pictorial art.
With the decline of Byzantium, the political center of Russia moved north to Suzdal and then to Moscow. Painters as well as craftsmen were therefore attracted to Moscow. The few icons definitely attributable to Andrei Rublev date from this period. Rublev is widely seen as the most influential Russian icon painter as his “original combination of formal asceticism with rich emotional expression articulated a quintessential, highly imitated Russian Orthodox style”.
It’s also possible to see icons of Stroganov School, a group of artists from whom the miniature style in Russian icon painting originated.
Russian portraiture of the 18th century shows a time of profound change in Russia. With the arrival of Peter the Great, Russian art shifted towards “secularization”.
During the late 18th and the early 19th centuries, Russian artists mostly worked in the historical genre. This style had been introduced in the Academy of Fine Arts, which was founded in 1757. Its magnificent building, which dates from the era of Catherine the Great, faces the river Neva’s embankment with its ancient sphinxes. Karl Biullov, the artist of “The Last Day of Pompeii”, and Ivan Aivazovsky, who was famous for his skill in depicting both raging and calm seas, were the most famous students of the Academy.
New changes for Russia came in the second half of the 19th century, with the help of outstanding personalities in science, literature, music, and art. It was the period of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in Russian literature, Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky in Music, and Repin and Surikov in painting. These last artists became particularly renowned thanks to their realistic and democratic approach, and at the time artists were greatly concerned about the social impact of their work. The most well-known works of Repin are “Barge Haulers on the Volga”, “Zaporozhian Cossacks Write a letter to the Turkish Sultan”, and the large group portrait “Ceremonial Meeting of the State Council”.
The Benois wing houses the museum’s collection of more modern pieces, including avant-garde art from the early 20th century and other modern masterpieces. For example, the collection of one of Kazemir Malevich traces virtually every stage in the artist’s development through his large and varied oeuvre. The museum also exhibits the portraits of Serge Diaghilev, an artist who initiated the transformation of Russian art from a fascinating curiosity into a powerful factor in the development of 20th century artistic culture.
Next door to the Russian Museum is the Russian Ethnographical Museum, where you can learn more about the minorities who live in Russia.