The world-famous Hermitage began its history as the private art collection of the Russian empress Catherine the Great. It became a public museum only a hundred years later, when, the last among royal galleries, it finally opened its doors to the general public in 1865. The Hermitage that Catherine the Great bequeathed to posterity was a comprehensive collection of Western art, which could easily withstand comparison with other major museums in the European capitals. My presentation explores the image of Catherine the Great as a great collector in two contexts: the first positions her collecting activity within the general project of Enlightenment; the second evaluates Catherine's legacy in light of the democratization of culture in mid-nineteenth century.
Central to my talk is the politics of representation in the museum. More than just a collection of fine European art, Catherine fashioned her Hermitage as an institution of power that would give the Russian empire much-needed prestige on the international scene. The Russian empress put art in the service of politics in order to style the identity of Russia as specifically a European state, ruled by an enlightened monarch. As a showcase of Russian Enlightenment, appreciated on occasion by foreign dignitaries, the Hermitage helped create a more positive image of Russia in the eyes of Europe. But when in the 1860s Catherine's collection was opened to the eyes of the Russian general public, it was unable to satisfy the domestic audience's interest in Russian national art, of which it possessed precious little. A museum of international acclaim, the Hermitage nevertheless failed to fulfill its updated role as a nation-building institution, Catherine's legacy notwithstanding.