Museum Stories

The State Russian Museum Highlights

Elizaveta Ermakova 11 January 2021 min Read

The State Russian Museum is the country’s first museum of Russian fine art. It represents the history of Russian culture for more than a thousand years and contains a collection of more than 400,000 objects. We collected the highlights of the Russian art kept in The State Russian Museum.

About the Treasury

The State Russian Museum is located in Saint Petersburg, the city that people call “The Cultural Capital of Russia”. Museum was established in 1895 by Nicholas II, Emperor of Russia.

At the beginning, the collection consisted of 80 paintings brought from the Hermitage, 120 paintings provided by the Academy of Arts, and 200 paintings from the Emperor’s residences. During the first decade of the museum’s existence, the number of exhibits doubled.

Carlo Rossi, Mikhailovsky Palace, 1819-1925, Saint-Petersburg, Russia.
Carlo Rossi, Mikhailovsky Palace, 1819-1925, Saint-Petersburg, Russia. Weatlas.

The museum complex consists of seven buildings. The main one is Mikhailovsky Palace, former home of Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich, built by an Italian architect, Carlo Rossi. The State Russian Museum also has its own workshop for the restoration of museum values.

Highlights of The State Russian Museum

Karl Bryullov, Italian Midday

Karl Bryullov, Italian Midday, 1827, The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.
The State Russian Museum highlights: Karl Bryullov, Italian Midday, 1827, The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

None of the Russian artists claimed such honors during their lifetimes as Karl Bryullov. He was credited with the renewal of Russian painting, a turn from routine to variety. Bryullov painted Italian Midday when he was in Italy on an educational trip. The painting was criticized by the Imperial Society: the model was said to not be graceful and did not correspond to the “classical ideals” of beauty. Bryullov replied that one needs classical accuracy in statues but not in his light, close-to-nature painting of an Italian beauty.

Read more about Russian painters in Italy here.

Karl Bryullov, The Last Day of Pompeii

Karl Bryullov, The Last Day of Pompeii, 1830-1833, The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.
The State Russian Museum highlights: Karl Bryullov, The Last Day of Pompeii, 1830-1833, The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

This painting was also made during Bryullov’s Roman Holidays. He was impressed by the sight of the excavated dead city of Pompeii, which was destroyed in the 1st century by the eruption of Mt Vesuvius. Furthermore Bryullov loved Giovanni Pacini’s opera L’ultimo giorno di Pompei on the same plot and thus used the same name for his painting.

In The Last Day of Pompeii, emotion prevails over accuracy. We can see an old man trying to hide from the deadly sky; a mother is asking her son to run and to save himself; and even Bryullov himself – the Pompeian artist with a bucket of paint over his head. He is running with the crowd but can’t help himself and is mesmerized by the beauty of the fire-breathing Vesuvius.

The Last Day of Pompeii can only be compared to an opera, if only an opera is really a combination of the threefold world of arts: painting, poetry and music.”

Russian writer Nikolai Gogol in his article The Last Day of Pompeii, 1952. Feb-web.

Ivan Aivazovsky, The Ninth Wave

Ivan Aivazovsky, The Ninth Wave, 1850, The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.
The State Russian Museum highlights: Ivan Aivazovsky, The Ninth Wave, 1850, The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Ivan Aivazovsky devoted thousands of canvases to the sea and The Ninth Wave is one of the most famous. It was called a masterpiece on the very first day of its exhibition back in 1850.

The legend of the ninth wave was very popular in the 19th century. Sailors believed that during a storm, the ninth wave was the largest and most destructive. Here we can see the heroes meeting it. However, Aivazovsky is always an optimist and a romantic in his paintings. Thus the sun and the whole painting atmosphere reassures us that everyone will get home safely.

Arkhip Kuindzhi, Moonlit night on the Dnieper

Arkhip Kuindzhi, Moonlit night on the Dnieper, 1880, The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.
The State Russian Museum highlights: Arkhip Kuindzhi, Moonlit night on the Dnieper, 1880, The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Arkhip Kuindzhi (Greek by nationality) was a firm believer that an artist should paint in a studio, not outside. So that is why nature in his paintings is always slightly theatrical and romanticized. He was the master of lighting his landscapes: the water in Moonlit Night on the Dnieper looks brightened by a spotlight. When seeing it live, you can’t help but wonder if there is a projector hidden behind the painting!

Vasily Polenov, Christ and the Adulteress (Who Is Without Sin?)

Vasily Polenov, Christ and the Adulteress (Who Is Without Sin?), 1888, The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.
The State Russian Museum highlights: Vasily Polenov, Christ and the Adulteress (Who Is Without Sin?), 1888, The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Vasily Polenov is mostly famous for his great landscapes. In his Gospel compositions, which he wrote during travels to Egypt and Palestina, Christ is a man in his natural habitat: the landscape and nature is as important as a biblical scene itself. While Polenov was studying in the Imperial Academy of Arts, he was preparing himself to be a historical painter, so Jesus Christ is primarily a historical figure to him.

Vasily Surikov, Taking a Snow Town

Vasily Surikov, Taking a Snow Town, 1891, The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.
The State Russian Museum highlights: Vasily Surikov, Taking a Snow Town, 1891, The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Taking a Snow Town is Vasily Surikov’s only big genre scene inspired by artist’s own childhood memories. It is a folk game episode during Maslenitsa, a traditional Russian holiday of saying goodbye to winter. The carefree fun of this painting also contrasts with Surikov’s complex, tragic historical paintings.

Check out how Konstantin Korovin, Russian painter of the same era painted winter.

Ilya Repin, Barge Haulers on the Volga

Ilya Repin, Barge Haulers on the Volga, 1870-1873, The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.
The State Russian Museum highlights: Ilya Repin, Barge Haulers on the Volga, 1870-1873, The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Ilya Repin was an outspoken advocate of art’s ideological meaning. In Barge Haulers on the Volga, the genre scene looks like an epic, no less. The front barge hauler looks like a Greek philosopher, a wandering sage. The last man is his opposite: he is exhausted and is about to fall down into the sand. Meanwhile between them, the strong and the tired, there is a whole procession of different characters – faces of Russia.

The painting was sent to the World exhibition in Vienna and was claimed the best Russian painting (and also the sunniest one, despite the theme).

Ilya Repin, Ceremonial Sitting of the State Council on 7 May 1901 Marking the Centenary of its Foundation

Ilya Repin, Ceremonial Sitting of the State Council on 7 May 1901 Marking the Centenary of its Foundation, 1903, The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.
The State Russian Museum highlights: Ilya Repin, Ceremonial Sitting of the State Council on 7 May 1901 Marking the Centenary of its Foundation, 1903, The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

However being the great painter of simple life scenes, Repin is just as great in an official scene. We can see a group portrait of 81 people, painted for the government order. This is not a strict state painting though: everyone in the room is a human being, consumed by different emotions.

Nathan Altman, Portrait of Anna Akhmatova

Nathan Altman, Portrait of Anna Akhmatova, 1915, The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.
The State Russian Museum highlights: Nathan Altman, Portrait of Anna Akhmatova, 1915, The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Anna Akhmatova is a heroine of sleepless nights and many paintings. However this portrait by Nathan Altman is definitely one of the best. An avant-garde painter and a poetess met in Paris and the artist instantly knew he had to paint her. The strict beauty and proud, regal pose of Akhmatova astounded Altman. So this is the way he paints her, using popular contemporary forms.

Boris Kustodiev, Merchant’s Wife at Tea

Boris Kustodiev, Merchant’s Wife at Tea, 1918, The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.
The State Russian Museum highlights: Boris Kustodiev, Merchant’s Wife at Tea, 1918, The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Boris Kustodiev’s paintings are the aesthetic and playful stylization of Russian traditions. He liked to depict village bazaars and fairs with their motley crowd of people. The Merchant’s Wife wears luxurious fabrics and has not a care in the world. This scene is full of irony, although the world that Kustodiev creates is beautiful and colorful.

Alexey Sundukov, Waiting Line

Alexey Sundukov, Waiting Line, 1986, The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Cultobzor.
The State Russian Museum highlights: Alexey Sundukov, Waiting Line, 1986, The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Cultobzor.

This painting is pretty different from all the other highlights. However it is worth including because it brilliantly captures the atmosphere and the impression of the 1980s in Russia. When we look at this artwork, we do not know what the line is for but it is the ruthless depiction of the era of scarcity in the already crumbling Soviet Union.

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