Russian Museum – Learn History Through Art
The Russian Museum of art is the place to go in St. Petersburg to see the best Russian art the country has to offer. Unlike the Hermitage, in which you will find some of the world’s best works of art produced outside of Russia, the aptly named Russian Museum is where you can get a sense of the Russian past through paintings and sculptures ranging from the 10th century to the 20th. Less than 5% of the massive collection is on display at a given time. For some visitors, the most compelling reason to go to the Russian Museum is to see the stunning works of the world’s most famous painter of seascapes, Ivan Aivazovsky. Others go to see Russia’s most famous painter overall, Ilya Repin, whose Barge Haulers on the Volga and underwater fairytale Sadko are giant masterpieces. You will also find one of Malevich’s provocative, avant-garde Black Square paintings here.
The Russian Museum Complex
The Russian Museum is a network of six royal residences and two parks. The main branch is the Mikhailovsky Palace, with the attached Benois Wing. Emperor Paul I (son of Catherine the Great) had this palace built for his fourth son, Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich, who moved in in 1825. Rossi, an Italian architect who designed many of the palaces in St. Petersburg, also designed Mikhail’s.
Music in the Air
The Mikhailovsky Palace served as a conservatory for the Russian Music Society, in addition to being a private residence for the grand duke’s family. The lady of the mansion, Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, made musical performance a palace priority and often had famous composers, royals and other noteworthy people over for her salons. Tchaikovsky, for example, conducted here.
A New Home for Russian Art
After Elena Pavlovna’s death in 1873, the palace went quiet for two decades. The music stopped. Instead of music, the palace would eventually be reimagined as a site for the display of fine art. In the 1890s, the last emperor Nicholas II founded the Russian Museum in honor of his late father Alexander III, and the Mikhailovsky Palace was reopened as the main building of the Russian Museum. Some of the artwork actually came from the Hermitage, which fashioned itself as a museum of European art rather than Russian.
The palace exterior was severely wounded during WWII, but staff evacuated most of the collection to Siberia and hid the rest in the basement so the collection remained in great condition.
The Oldest Russian Artwork in St. Petersburg
As you approach the stunning yellow mansion that is the main building of the Russian Museum, walk through the central gate. Head to the right and enter the museum through the basement entrance. After buying your ticket, you’ll ascend the grand staircase to the second floor to begin your tour of the museum chronologically.
The first painting to look for in the first room is the oldest piece on display from the Russian Museum’s collection – an Orthodox icon called The Archangel Gabriel (The Angel with the Golden Hair). It dates to the 12th century. Icons are an essential part of Orthodox worship and originated in the Byzantine Empire. As you walk through the rooms chronologically, notice how not only the styles, but also the subjects, of the artwork change as you advance through time.
The Grisaille Technique
As you move through the museum, look up! In many rooms, you can still see the former beauty of the imperial residence. Don’t overlook the clever painting technique grisaille, in which the subject is painted gray to look like a three-dimensional sculpture coming out of the ceiling. Try to figure out which rooms have ceilings adorned with actual sculptures and which employ this special money-saving technique. You will find this technique in other St. Petersburg museums as well.
Paintings You Can’t Miss
Anna and the Arab Boy
Apostles Peter and Paul
Mikhailovsky Palace Museum Section
- The Apostles Peter and Paul by Andrei Rublev (Hall 3). Rublev is Russia’s most famous icon painter, largely thanks to the film Andrei Rublev (1969) by famous director, Andrei Tarkovsky.
- Anna Ioannovna and an Arab Boy by Carlo Bartolomeo Rastrelli (Hall 7). You won’t be able to miss this statue that towers over you.
- The Wave and The Ninth Wave by Ivan Aivazovsky (Hall 14). Look for the cow in The Wave. A local told one of the expats that he and his classmates had seen that painting in textbooks for years, but only when he finally went to the Russian Museum did he realize that there is a floating bull in the painting. That detail seemed, to him, to be the most important detail in all of Aivazovsky’s paintings.
- Peter the Great Interrogating Tsarevich Alexei at Peterhof by Nikolai Ge (Hall 26). You might never see a more troubled painting portraying a parent-child relationship.
- Sadko by Ilya Repin (Hall 33). Repin is Russia’s most famous painter. He is known for incredibly expressive human – and animal! – faces in his work. Sadko is a Russian underwater fairytale.
- Barge Haulers on the Volga by Ilya Repin (Hall 33). This painting of a variety of different types of men became an emblem of its time, representing Russia’s albatross – serf labor. It is also emblematic of the Wanderers, or Itinerants, school of art.
Benois Wing Museum Section
- Black Square by Kazimir Malevich (Hall 76). This painting may be Russia’s most famous, with many jokes and memes derived from it. It is certainly easy to remember. It was a provocative painting of nothing that contributed to the new art genre that Malevich developed, suprematism, and helped to shape the Soviet aesthetic.
- Female Torso by Kazimir Malevich (Hall 76). The look and color scheme of this woman and other human figures in this room inspired the performance art costumes of the protest group, Pussy Riot.
Tips for Visiting
- The museum is closed on Tuesday. On Thursdays it’s open late – until 9 pm.
- You can either purchase a one-day ticket for the Mikhailovsky Palace only, or a three-day pass for the four palaces of the Russian Museum. The Russian Museum also includes the Mikhailovsky Garden, the Summer Garden, the Cabin of Peter the Great and the Summer Palace of Peter the Great.
- The Russian Museum has a student discount if you bring your Russian student ID or International Student Identity Card (ISIC).
- You will find a café in the basement of Mikhailovsky Palace serving simple Russian fare.
- There are several gift shops throughout Mikhailovsky Palace. Note that they do not all sell the same items; if you see something you like in the main halls of the museum, you may not be able to return after your ticket has been scanned one time at the ticket turnstile. Buy what you like before returning to the basement exit.
- At about the time you get tired of walking around, benches conveniently appear; for example, in Hall 14, you can sit and admire Aivazovsky’s giant sea paintings. Downstairs, you will find benches on which to sit and admire Repin’s paintings in Hall 33.