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At The Russian Court

A Stroll through the Exhibition

The opening exhibition at the Hermitage Amsterdam, At the Russian Court. Palace and Protocol in the 19th Century, recreates one of the most magnificent courts in Europe, as experienced through more than 1,800 remarkable objects from the State Hermitage Museum’s collections in St Petersburg, including impressive portraits, grand landscapes, costly gifts, glorious gowns, sumptuous uniforms and other splendid costumes. Displayed in the two exhibition wings at the Hermitage Amsterdam, At the Russian Court invites visitors into both an audience with the tsar and a festive ball.

One principal theme will be the public events that took place in and around the Winter Palace, the main building of what is now the State Hermitage Museum. The exhibition also focuses on the private lives of the tsars, for the Winter Palace was both an official court and the tsar’s private residence. This dual nature explains why the Hermitage, a celebrated treasury of culture and renowned guardian of a world-famous collection, is a monument to both the Russian state under the tsars and to their family lives.

Reflecting this dual nature, each exhibition wing of Hermitage Amsterdam will be devoted to a theme. The Keizersvleugel (the wing on Nieuwe Keizersgracht) will serve as the audience chamber, displaying official court life with its imposing ceremonies and strict protocol. The Herenvleugel (the wing on Nieuwe Herengracht) will tell the story of the many balls and parties held at court, and also give an impression of the private lives of the tsars.

An Audience at Court

Audiences were the public face of the Russian court and so played a key role in official life. They were held in St George’s Hall, also known as the Great Throne Room, in the Winter Palace, where the tsar of all the Russians would stand with his wife by the throne on the podium. One of the Romanov thrones, that of Paul I (20.jpg = please see photosheet) will be on display in the exhibition. The ‘audience chamber’ in Amsterdam will also house vases, state portraits and many ceremonial uniforms and dresses. The vases (22.jpg), carved from such costly materials as jasper and porphyry from all corners of Russia, symbolise the vast extent of the tsar’s domains. Although portraits did not as a rule hang in St George’s Hall, they will be on view here and include magnificent depictions of the nineteenth-century tsars and their tsarinas, in particular the portrait of the last tsar, Nicholas II, by Ilya Repin (30.jpg).

The Romanovs had family connections with the Dutch royal household beginning with the marriage in 1816 of Paul I’s youngest daughter, Anna Pavlovna, to Prince Willem of Orange, who was to become King Willem II. The exhibition includes two grand portraits of Willem and Anna, painted by the Dutch artist Nicolaas Pieneman and the Belgian artist Nicaise de Keyser, restored especially for this exhibition by the Hermitage in St Petersburg, with the financial assistance of the Stichting Vrienden van de Hermitage Nederland [Friends of the Hermitage Netherlands Foundation] (31.jpg & 47.jpg).

A central feature of the audience chamber will be a large display case with a parade of courtiers, clad in magnificent uniforms and sumptuous dresses with sweeping trains (04.jpg). The colours of these dresses were governed by strict hierarchical regulations made by tsar Nicholas I himself.

St Petersburg

Visitors will move from the great audience hall into a section of the exhibition concerned with St Petersburg and its environs. Seven cabinets alongside the great hall will display views of St Petersburg and the surrounding countryside, as seen in paintings, watercolours, drawings, photographs and films. One of the highlights will be a panorama of St Petersburg, an astonishing 4.5 metres long, as seen from the Peter and Paul Fortress on the north bank of the River Neva (19.jpg).

St Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 as his ‘window on the West’. In 1712 the city took over from Moscow as the capital of Russia. From then on, the Romanov dynasty of tsars resided in St Petersburg and owned not only the complex of buildings which comprise the modern Hermitage, but also many other lavish palaces in the city. All the noble Russian families moved to St Petersburg, by order of Peter the Great, and built similarly sumptuous residences there. The more serfs a nobleman owned, the larger his new palace was expected to be. Other buildings also had to be erected in the new city to house the government. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the tsars and noble families had a number of magnificent palaces - Pavlovsk, Oranienbaum, Peterhof, Tsarskoye Selo, Gatchina and Krasnoye Selo. Smaller palaces and pavilions were later added to these grand structures. A fine example is the Cottage, a ‘small’ villa at Peterhof, where Tsar Nicolas I and his wife Tsarina Alexandra Fyodorovna would stay with their family.

The Palace

The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg comprises an ensemble of buildings: the Winter Palace, the Small Hermitage, the Large (later Old) Hermitage and the Hermitage Theatre, all dating from the eighteenth century, plus the nineteenth-century New Hermitage. Until 1917 these buildings formed the heart of the imperial Russian court.

The Winter Palace was built between 1754 and 1762 by the Italian architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, by order of Tsarina Elisabeth, daughter of Peter the Great. When her daughter-in-law, Catherine the Great, came to power, she expanded the building, adding her own private palace, the Hermitage, followed by a personal art gallery called the Large Hermitage (at which point her palace became known as the Small Hermitage), and finally by her own theatre. In 1852 Catherine’s grandson Nicholas I expanded further by building the imposing New Hermitage (at which point the Large Hermitage became known as the Old Hermitage). It was in the New Hermitage that the collections of the Romanov dynasty were displayed to the public for the first time, in majestic museum halls. Today the entire complex extends over half a kilometre along the bank of the River Neva. The hundreds of rooms, public and private, are just as awe-inspiring as they must have been for visitors during the reign of the tsars.

Cabinets of the Tsars

On the first floor of the Keizersvleugel, a series of ‘biographical cabinets’ will present the lives of the six tsars of the nineteenth century, from Paul I to Nicholas II, the last tsar, as seen through personal mementos, portraits, costumes and documents. Special attention will be paid to those aspects of their lives and governments that contributed visibly to Russian history, such as Alexander I’s relations with Napoleon and the reforms implemented by ‘Tsar-Liberator’ Alexander II. The splendid objects in this section of the exhibition will include a portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter of Tsarina Alexandra Fyodorovna, wife of Nicholas I and Maria Fyodorovna’s sumptuous gowns, made by the first true Parisian couturier, Charles Frederick Worth (02.jpg).

These cabinets will conclude with a series of photographs of the rooms in the Winter Palace, taken before and after the Russian Revolution of 1917. The pictures taken afterwards bear eloquent witness to the fate of the building during the early years of the emergence of the Soviet state.

Protocol

All activities at the Russian court -- receptions, state banquets, balls, hunting parties - were governed by strict protocols. The foundations for these were laid down by Peter the Great in 1722 when he published a ‘Table of Ranks’, an official list of military, civil and court ranks and classes in Russia which established the hierarchy at court. Subsequent tsars added their own rules. During the early nineteenth century this strict court hierarchy became literally more visible through the implementation of special clothing regulations. As a general rule, the higher the rank, the more (gold) embroidery and decorations were worn on uniforms and clothing. Everyone at court had a range of outfits and uniforms for various occasions, such as daily service, visits to church or official receptions.

On the first floor of the Keizersvleugel, opposite the cabinets of the tsars, Russian court protocol will be explored in depth. The relationship of the Russian Orthodox Church to the state, for example, will be illustrated by items such as precious clerical robes (11.jpg) and the tsars’ personal icons (12.jpg) Considerable attention will be paid to important church ceremonies, such as coronations, weddings and funerals. Files (36.jpg & 37.jpg), invitations, rules and instructions will show the strict, official side of court protocol. The central display will be a table laid for a state banquet, with pieces from a Berlin dinner service presented by the German Emperor Wilhelm II to Nicholas II in 1894 (54.jpg). The final cabinets devoted to relations at home and abroad, will display many of the diplomatic gifts the Romanovs were privileged to receive from all over the world, including the 1844 Coalport service, presented by Queen Victoria to Nicholas I, and Japanese samurai swords and eighteenth-century Chinese plaques from Japanese and Chinese rulers (23.jpg).

To the Ball

After all these rigorous rules and regulations, it will be time for a party. The great hall in the Herenvleugel will be the venue for a grand ball, where elegant gowns will be displayed in large circular cases. The walls will be hung with more portraits of the Romanovs, plus portraits of St Petersburg society, including a magnificent depiction of Countess Varvara Musina-Pushkina by the renowned German society painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter (45.jpg), and a picture of the celebrated and glamorous Princess Zinaida Yusupova by François Flameng from 1894 (46.jpg). The hall will also contain a number of Russia’s renowned gilded vases, painted with images by Dutch masters. Lavish furniture, including an enormous neo-rococo grand piano (21.jpg), will complete this sumptuous scene.

Grand balls were regarded as one of the most important occasions at court and were planned down to the last detail. The St Petersburg social season opened with a grand ball for 3,000 guests in the Nicholas Hall. Among those invited were courtiers of the highest ranks, foreign diplomats, officers and other special guests. Balls began on the dot of 7.30 pm, and arriving late was an enormous faux-pas, as was arriving at the wrong door, for every rank had its own designated entrance. The master of ceremonies opened the ball with a grand polonaise. Everyone knew the major dances - the waltzes, the quadrilles and the mazurkas- and Russian folkdances were sometimes featured on the programme too. However, there was more to a ball than simply dancing: the decorations, the smoking and card playing, the souper and concluding fireworks turned every court ball into a breathtaking spectacle. The tsar’s foreign guests would have been deeply impressed.

Every tsar put his own stamp on court balls. Paul I, for example, broke with every custom associated with his mother Catherine the Great, whom he hated, prohibiting all French influences and even the waltz. His son Alexander I, however, brought the waltz back to the balls and introduced the French cotillon to the programme of dances.

Naturally there were countless rules regarding clothing, which governed not only ball gowns and uniforms but also accessories, such as fans. The form and decoration of fans, plus the manner in which these were held, were ways for ladies to compete: certain gestures spoke volumes to anyone conversant with the language. During the nineteenth century, fans were a highly popular accessory in Russia, carried by virtually everyone, including Maria Fyodrovna, wife of Alexander III. The exhibition includes some magnificent examples from her large collection (38.jpg).

Themed Balls

The seven cabinets alongside the great ballroom will tell visitors more about the themed balls held at the Russian court. The tsars regularly organised balls at which guests were expected to dress according to a specific theme, such as traditional Russian attire, sixteenth-century fashion, Chinese costume or even ancient Greek robes. Themed balls reached their height during the reign of Nicholas I and his wife Alexandra Fyodorovna. The imperial couple opened their doors twice a year to host a resplendent costumed and masked ball in historical style. At a ball dedicated to the European Renaissance, Nicholas wore a magnificent, original sixteenth-century cuirass and his wife a replica of a dress from the period.

Their children and grandchildren introduced all kinds of new rules relating to court amusements, aimed to relax protocol and reduce the budget. The last tsar and tsarina of Russia, Nicholas II and Alexandra, were more interested in their family than court life. Nevertheless, in 1903 they hosted a famous ball that proved to be the last such costumed event of the tsarist age. The ball, organised to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the founding of St Petersburg, was held entirely in seventeenth-century Russian style. A more fitting end to the Romanovs’ ball tradition, however unintentional, could hardly be imagined. Among the items at the exhibition are thirty extremely striking portrait photographs of guests at this ball (32.jpg & 41.jpg), particularly those with the most elaborate costumes (06.jpg).

Private Apartments

In one of the rows of cabinets on the first floor of the Herenvleugel, visitors will be granted a glimpse of Russian court entertainment outside the ballroom. Gentlemen smoked in the smoking room, there were card games and wagers in special salons, music and ballet in the city’s magnificent theatres and hunting in the extensive forests around St Petersburg. Decks of playing cards, richly worked pipes (39.jpg & 40.jpg), programmes from the Mariinsky Theatre (52.jpg) and prized hunting rifles will provide the material evidence for these pastimes.

The tsars’ palace also functioned as the imperial family’s home, and the exhibition will also focus on subjects such as domestic morning rituals, to which a unique toilet set will bear testimony, and the children’s (military) education, illustrated by toys, children’s clothing and special children’s uniforms (07.jpg).

Treasuries

The cabinets on the other side of the great ballroom will serve as the exhibition’s treasuries. The precious objects, jewellery and accessories displayed in them will attest to the opulence of the Romanov court.

Two cabinets will be devoted to exceptional objets d’art and precious jewellery and snuffboxes, by masters such as Carl Fabergé (25.jpg), while the final cabinets will present exceptional ensembles of accessories (25.jpg & 27.jpg)). For example, one cabinet will be devoted to fans (38.jpg), another to the finest ball shoes (34.jpg & 35.jpg) and a third to parasols (48.jpg & 49.jpg).

Design and Graphics

This spectacular exhibition has been designed by Merkx+Girod Architecten, whose previous work includes The Masterpieces exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, and the Morocco: 5,000 Years of Culture show at De Nieuwe Kerk. The design was inspired by the two best-known rooms in the Winter Palace, the Nicholas Hall and St George’s Hall, whose decorations will be replicated in abstracted form in the two great exhibition halls at the Hermitage Amsterdam.

Alongside traditional text displays and the audio-tour, visitor information will also be provided by various interactive computer programmes. A striking feature of the presentation will be the projection of images from the film Russian Ark, by the Russian director Alexander Sokurov, which was photographed entirely in the Hermitage in St Petersburg. These images will combine with music and revolving display cases to create the impression of a nineteenth-century ball at the Hermitage Amsterdam.

For more information:

HERMITAGE AMSTERDAM
Press office
Noepy Testa, Kim van Niftrik
T: +31 (0)20 - 530 87 55
F: +31 (0)20 - 530 87 50
E: pressoffice@hermitage.nl
W: www.hermitage.nl/press

Opening hours

Daily 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Closed on April 26 and December 25

© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The Hermitage Amsterdam is located on Amstel 51, Amsterdam

More information:
+31 (0)20 530 74 88

More information online ticketing:
+31 (0)20 530 87 55