St. Petersburg in Photographs 1840s-1920s

The State Hermitage Museum presents “St. Petersburg in Photographs of the 1840s – 1920s,” on view through November 23, 2003. The exhibition of St. Petersburg historical photographs, showing about 500 pictures from the Hermitage collection, offers a unique opportunity to see the life of St. Petersburg in the late 19th – early 20th centuries, when it was still the capital of the Russian Empire.

Less known than the collections of Old Masters, this collection includes about 40,000 photographs dating between 1840 and 1920, most of which have never been published before. The collection’s core is family pictures preserved in the Hermitage libraries and private houses of the Imperial dynasty. Most of the pictures displayed belonged to Emperors Alexander III and Nicholas II, and members of their families. After the 1917 Revolution, the Hermitage collection was added photographs from the palaces and archives of the families of Bobrinsky, Shuvalov, Stroganoff and Levashov.

Alongside the city’s views, the exhibition shows the culture and business life of St. Petersburg, and the changes caused by the political upheavals of the early 20th century. Especially remarkable are the pictures of interiors of the Winter Palace, the residence of the Romanov dynasty before 1917, and the Imperial Hermitage, created in the 1880s. This album was prepared specially for members of the Imperial family and was presented to distinguished courtiers and diplomats.

Many of the photographs showed in the exhibition were taken by Karl Bulla, an outstanding master who became known as the “godfather of reporter photography”. An official photographer for the King of Italy, his highest title was the Official Photographer of the Department of the Russian Imperial Court since 1896. In his self-portrait of the 1900s, he stands beside his big camera. Special emphasis is put on the private interiors of Imperial and Grand Ducal palaces, including the rooms of Alexander III and Nicholas II, and family pictures. Alongside them are views of St. Petersburg photographed from the 1850s to 1900.

The show includes exterior and interior views of the palaces of St. Petersburg where the collections of paintings and applied art acquired by the Hermitage in the wake of the 1917 Revolution were preserved, including the Sheremetev Palace, Stroganoff Palace, Mikhaylovsky Palace, the mansion of the Secretary of State A.A. Polovtsov and the summer house of Senator and member of the State Council P.P. Durnovo. They are complemented by the photographs of students of the Smolny Institute, the most prestigious school for girls from noble families.

Another group of photographs focuses on the masquerade ball held in the Winter Palace in February 1903 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of St. Petersburg. All guests wore historical costumes of the 17th century. Complementing the pictures are five costumes specially commissioned for the event, including the satin dress of Empress Alexandra Fedorovna. Alongside them are photographs of the 1883 ball which inaugurated the tradition of historical masquerade balls in St. Petersburg.

In contrast to this opulence is a selection of images of ordinary people and everyday life with its markets, street fairs, tramways and other transport. They include some remarkable specimens of early reporter photography, like the construction of the monument to Alexander III in 1909 or the collapse of the Egyptian Bridge in 1905.

The exhibition offers a stunning opportunity to be introduced to the history of a city equally majestic in times of both triumph and tragedy.

Published in: on October 11, 2003 at 1:10 am  Leave a Comment  
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