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Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great at the National Gallery of Victoria

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Melbourne is a city full of art and art lovers. From the street art in the city alleyways, to the street performers and musicians that are spread right across the city and the controversial architecture of Federation Square, the influence of art in this city is everywhere.

But, Melbourne’s love for art is clearest at the National Gallery of Victoria. As well as having a wonderful permanent exhibition, every season the National Gallery, or the NGV as it is affectionately known by us Melbournians, hosts a temporary exhibition.

I’ve seen some great temporary exhibitions including Monet’s Garden and the Fashion World of John Paul Gautier. But I don’t think I’ve been as excited about an exhibition as when I discovered the NGV had been one of the few galleries to secure pieces from the famous Hermitage Public Museum in St Petersburg.

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On Monday, I was finally able to the visit the National Gallery of Victoria for their ‘Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine’ exhibition.

For anyone unfamiliar with the history, Catherine the Great ruled Russia for 34 years in the late 1700s. During this time she both commissioned and acquired a vast collection of art for her museum- the Hermitage. The Hermitage is one of the largest and oldest museums in the world and is a reflection of Catherine’s love for the arts and her desire to educate others about the value of art.

A Van Dyk from the Walpole Collection, acquired by Catherine the Great
A Van Dyk from the Walpole Collection, acquired by Catherine the Great

Obviously the pieces on loan to the National Gallery of Victoria only make up a small part of those in Catherine’s collection but there are some truly remarkable pieces, including those from Da Vinci, Rubens, Rembrandt and Van Dyk.

A Da Vinci on show at the National Gallery of Victoria's Catherine the Great exhibition
A Da Vinci on show at the National Gallery of Victoria’s Catherine the Great exhibition

Whilst I might be an historian at heart, and I have an enormous love for art, particularly art that comes along with history such as the story of Catherine the Great, I never studied an art major. I can’t look at brush techniques and critically analyse them, or recite the names of more than a handful of remarkable artists. However I can admire some spectacular pieces.

Hence I won’t really be able to tell you the names and their artists for many of these pieces. You’ll have to go along to the exhibition yourself to find that secret out!

The National Gallery has really outdone itself with this exhibition. Although I haven’t had a chance to visit the Hermitage myself yet, we were told that the various rooms of the exhibition are painted to resemble similar rooms in the Hermitage. One room has even replicated the patterned floor.

What I love about the exhibition is that the rooms and the way you progress through them tells the story of Catherine’s love of art. The rooms are broken up into certain collections of art that Catherine acquired including French art, Flemish art, Dutch art, British art, Italian art and finally Chinese art.

The Chinese Room at the National Gallery of Victoria's Catherine the Great exhibition
The Chinese Room at the National Gallery of Victoria’s Catherine the Great exhibition

The order of the rooms, from the very first room which features a portrait of Catherine herself, to the last room full of Chinese art, is also reflective of how Catherine’s taste and acquisition progressed.

I’m a huge fan of landscapes and these two are some of the best I’ve ever seen so far. They were definitely my favourites in the exhibition:

 

I loved the detail of this landscape- particularly the shadows and beams of sun on the building
I loved the detail of this landscape- particularly the shadows and beams of sun on the building
This was my favourite photo at the Catherine the Great exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria.
This was my favourite photo at the Catherine the Great exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria.

I loved the simplicity of the architecture sketches and drawings especially given the designs for what at the time were revolutionary buildings are juxtaposed against drawings of the finished building. It was a really smart way to exhibit these materials.

 

Architectural drawings at the National Gallery of Victoria
Architectural drawings at the National Gallery of Victoria
Sketches of the plans and the building at National Gallery of Victoria
Sketches of the plans and the building at National Gallery of Victoria

Whilst portraits don’t appeal to me quite as much, I couldn’t help marvelling over the detail and shadow some of these artists were able to bring into some of their paintings. In particular the detail in the eyes almost made the portraits seem more like a photograph than a painting.

Rembrandt's Portrait of a Scholar
Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Scholar

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I also particularly liked pieces like these, that have you imagining a whole scene and story for the characters within them.

Flemish Art at the National Gallery of Victoria's Masterpieces From the Hermitage Exhibition
Flemish Art at the National Gallery of Victoria’s Masterpieces From the Hermitage Exhibition

 

Look at that child on a rope!
Look at that child on a rope!

And let’s not forget these amazing watercolours!

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Most of all, given how drawn I am to Catherine and her history, I loved the pieces that really told her story. These included the dinner piece set that she had commissioned that has pride of place at the beginning of the exhibition, and the Chinese toilette set that Catherine used almost everyday.

Catherine the Great's Table Setting on show at the National Gallery of Victoria
Catherine the Great’s Table Setting on show at the National Gallery of Victoria
The Toilette Set
The Toilette Set

A photo can only do so much. Even my new Sony A6000 (I love it!) can’t properly capture the detail of these paintings. It’s really something you need to go see for yourself!

The National Gallery of Victoria is definitely something to add to your to-do list for your next visit to Melbourne, especially while the Catherine the Great exhibition is on.

 

Practical Information

The Masterpieces from the Hermitage exhibition is on until the 8 of November 2015.

It’s open from 10am-5pm, 7 days a week. Entrance is $26 AUD for an adult.

Entrance to the permanent exhibition which is also fantastic is free.

The National Gallery of Victoria is only a 5 minute walk from Flinders Street Station/Federation Square.


Thanks to the National Gallery of Victoria for having me as a guest for this exhibition. All opinions, as always, are my own. 

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catherine

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