The museum was founded by Tsar Nicholas II by imperial decree in 1895. First of all, he instructed that the Russian Museum of Emperor Alexander III should be built in honor of his late father.
The main building is the Mikhailovsky Palace in the center of St. Petersburg, but the huge museum complex includes several other palaces and buildings in the city, as well as the Mikhailovsky and Summer Gardens.
The collection initially consisted of paintings that were transferred from the Hermitage and the Imperial Academy of Arts as well as from surrounding tsarist residences. After the 1917 revolution, many newly nationalized works of art were brought here. Today his depot holds more than 400,000 pieces, ranging from ancient Russian icons and avant-garde to socialist realism and modern art. Here are just a few of the museum’s myriad treasures.
1. Orest Kiprensky. Portrait of Yevgraf Vladimirovich Davydov. 1809
Kiprensky is known as a portrait painter, especially for his emblematic image of the poet Alexander Pushkin. However, his most famous painting in the Russian Museum is the portrait of a hussar, a hero of the 1812 Patriotic War against Napoleon.
2. Karl Brullow. The last day of Pompeii. 1833
The artist worked on this painting in Italy for about six years and visited the archaeological site of Pompeii himself. The canvas (4.5 x 6.5 meters) was exhibited first in Milan, then in the Hermitage. The onslaught of people who ran in horror from the erupting Vesuvius left an indelible mark on the public. It was transferred to the Russian Museum especially for the opening in 1897.
3. Ivan Aivazovsky. The ninth wave. 1850
This painting by the great seascape painter Aivazovsky is known to every Russian schoolchild. The 2×3 meter canvas shows shipwrecked survivors who are either devoured by another giant wave or saved by divine intervention (the cruciform debris is considered a Christian metaphor). He too came to the museum from the Hermitage in 1897.
4. Ilya Repin. Barge transporter on the Volga. 1870-73
One of the most famous works by the traveling artist Repin shows the miserable existence of the common people. The painting traveled to Vienna for the World Exhibition in 1873 and was later procured by a member of the imperial family.
5. Vasily Vereshchagin. On the door of a mosque. 1873
Vereshchagin was a military man who traveled extensively in Central Asia, where he painted his Turkestan series. Most of these works, including the masterpiece The apotheosis of war, are with the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, but a real gem of the Russian Museum is At the Door of a Mosque.
6. Arkhip Kuindzhi. Moonlit night on the Dnieper. 1880
As a master of light, Kuindzhi searched for an artistic solution to do justice to the mighty Dnieper for a long time. The moonlit path on the night river has something that can only be described as a phosphorous glow. The canvas was bought in unfinished form by a Romanov Grand Duke and formed the centerpiece of the first Russian solo exhibition.
7. Viktor Vasnetsov. Knight at the crossroads. 1882
Vasnetsov was fascinated by Russian folklore heroes. The Tretyakov Gallery contains his famous painting Bogatyrs. On this canvas the sad knight cannot decide which way to go, because the stone inscription only predicts death, whichever way one takes. You can find more folkloric paintings by Vasnetsov here.
8. Vasily Polenov. Christ and the adulteress (who is without sin?). 1888
To paint this picture, the artist traveled to Palestine and Syria, where he made many sketches of faces, landscapes and buildings. The 3×6 meter painting was personally made by Alexander III. bought and kept in the Hermitage before it was transferred to the Russian Museum in 1897.
9. Vasily Surikov. Suworow crossing the Alps in 1799. 1899
Surikov is famous for his historical paintings. His large-format Boyarynya Morozova adorns the halls of the Tretyakov Gallery, and this 5×4 meter tour de force takes up an entire wall in the Russian Museum. The theme comes from the story of the Swiss campaign by the Russian army against France under the leadership of its commander Alexander Suvorov.
10. Ilya Repin. Response of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire. 1880-1891
Also known as the Cossacks of Saporog Are Drafting a Manifesto, the work shows the carefree demeanor of the largely autonomous Cossacks. In 1675 the Turkish sultan wrote them a disparaging letter demanding their immediate surrender. Instead, they wrote a stinging reply. The painting was made by Alexander III. bought and later brought from the Winter Palace to the Russian Museum.
11. Nicholas Roerich. Overseas guests. 1902
Roerich, known worldwide for his Himalayan landscapes, also created paintings on folk themes. This canvas shows the Varangians (Vikings) who, according to legend, were called upon by the warlike Slavic tribes in Russia to rule over them. The painting was bought by Nicholas II. Another version is in the Tretyakov Gallery.
12. Valentin Serov. Portrait of Princess Zinaida Yusupova. 1902
The author of the famous Girl with Peaches in the Tretyakov Gallery was a popular portraitist who painted many courtiers, and even Nicholas II. Zinaida Yusupova was one of the most fashionable women of the day who came from an immensely wealthy old princely family. The portrait required around 80 sessions in the Yusupov’s Moika Palace in St. Petersburg and provoked much controversy: many criticized it for its supposedly unnatural pose and poor composition. But Serov himself considered it a success and was especially proud of the way he captured the shadow of this grande dame’s smile.
13. Ilya Repin. Solemn meeting of the State Council on May 7, 1901 on the 100th anniversary of its founding. 1903
This monumental canvas with the dimensions 4 x 8.7 meters was commissioned by Nicholas II. The artist worked on it for three years, with each council member posing individually for their portrait. Repin had problems with his hand, so he was supported by the artists Ivan Kulikov and Boris Kustodiev.
14. Mikhail Vrubel. Six-winged seraphim. 1904
The Tretyakov Gallery has an entire room dedicated to Vrubel, filled with his demons and mystical creatures. The Russian Museum also has several of his symbolist masterpieces. The picture can be seen as an illustration to Pushkin’s poem The Prophet. As he was painting this dark work, Vrubel was deeply depressed and suffering from hallucinations.
15. Mikhail Nesterov. Holy Russia. 1905
Nesterov devoted more than 20 years of his life to painting religious subjects and places of worship. The artist was looking for the key to the Russian soul, and many of his works show priests and monks against the backdrop of an inconspicuous Russian landscape. Nesterov himself considered Holy Russia to be the pinnacle of his religious painting.
16. Leon Bakst. Terror antique. 1908
Léon Bakst was known worldwide for his work as a theater artist with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes Company. He was also a successful and highly productive book illustrator. Terror Antiquus was an attempt by Bakst to reflect the apocalyptic mindset that gripped society at the beginning of the 20th century.
17. Valentin Serov. Portrait of Ida Rubinstein. 1910
This portrait is a striking example of Russian Art Nouveau. Serov painted the infamous dancer who starred in the ballet Scheherazade, staged by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.
18. Natalia Goncharova. The cyclist. 1913
The high priestess of the Russian avant-garde, who spent many years in Paris, was enthusiastic about various currents in painting, from Impressionism to Fauvism to Cubism. The cyclist is one of the most vivid works of Russian futurism.
19. Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. Mother. 1915
The works of the avant-garde Petrov-Vodkin have their roots in icon painting and at the same time reflect scenes from the life of the common people. In this work the reference to the Virgin Mary, coupled with revolutionary motifs, is evident.
20. Nathan Altmann. Portrait of Akhmatova. 1915
The test person herself, Anna Akhmatova, said of this work in the cubist style: “As if I were looking in a mirror.” It is one of the most famous portraits of arguably the greatest Russian poet of the 20th century.
21. Kazimir Malevich. Suprematism. 1915-1916
The Russian Museum houses its own version of the famous Black Square; this work is the quintessence of Malevich’s suprematist art theory.
22. Wassily Kandinsky. Blue coat of arms. 1917
This work is a manifesto of “absolute painting” and freedom of artistic conception. The museum contains more than 20 early works by the renowned abstractionist, which were created before he left Russia for Germany.
23. Boris Kustodiev. Merchant’s wife having tea. 1918
Kustodiev is a troubadour of merchant life and ornate Russian style that became popular around the turn of the century. Folk festivals, carnival and happiness are the hallmarks of his artistic language.
24. Mark Chagall. Promenade. 1917-18
Chagall’s deeply symbolic painting continues his cycle of self-portraits with his beloved wife Bella, in which they soar over their hometown Vitebsk in what is now Belarus.
25. Alexander Deyneka. Defense of Sevastopol. 1942
As one of the most famous war paintings in Soviet art, this monumental 2 x 4 meter canvas leaves both the canon of socialist realism and perspective, but what matters here is the intensity and symbolism of the means of expression.
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