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Photographic Treasures from the Russian Hermitage Museum

Rare photos from the Russian Hermitage Museum Imperial Collection.


July 15, 2014—A single photograph may capture a moment; a collection can provide a window to the past.

Earlier this year, photograph conservators from the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia visited Harvard and shared some photographic treasures held by the Hermitage, many never before seen in the West. (Scroll down to see a slideshow.)

These include recently rediscovered personal photographs of Russia’s doomed royal family and nobility—hidden following the Revolution or “lost” to storage and transfers over the decades. Called the Imperial Collection, the photos and other materials provide invaluable information about Russian life in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the Hermitage embarked on an intense effort to preserve and catalog the 500,000+ items.

“We know that the importance of photographic collections will only improve with time,” said Natalia Avetyan, a curator of photographs from the State Hermitage Museum.


Seated portrait of Alexander II with his dog

The earliest photograph in the Hermitage’s Imperial collection is dated 1839; it was a gift to Emperor Nicholas I, who was reportedly fascinated by the new medium. In this 1865 image, his son Alexander II is pictured with his favorite dog in a portrait by pioneering photographer Levitsky Sergey.

A portrait of Empress Maria Alexandrovna in a gilded egg shaped frame.

Empress Maria Alexandrovna, wife of Alexander II, was an early photograph enthusiast. Her collection included portraits and landscapes by the best Russian and foreign photographers. Her photo here, taken in the late 1860s, rests in a gilded egg frame.

An exterior shot of the Winter Palace during Imperial times.

The Winter Palace, above in 1862, was the official residence of the Russian monarchy; it now houses the State Hermitage Museum. Many of the royal family’s personal photographs returned to the Palace after decades elsewhere.

Four palace grenadiers in uniform.

An 1860s portrait of Imperial Palace grenadiers captures the details of their uniforms (and mustaches).

Standing portrait of Maria Alexandrovna, retouched with paint.

Photo alteration was not invented with Photoshop; painters often retouched or colored early prints by hand. In this 1850s portrait of Empress Maria Alexandrovna, an artist defined the folds of her dress and detail on the chair in a black tint.

Ornate photograph album cover

While early albums were quite plain, later covers became as much an object of art as the photographs they housed. This jewelry-like album cover from Alexander III’s collection is gilded and enameled.

Russian Imperial family portraits in gold frame

Empress Maria Alexandrovna famously incorporated her collection into the lush décor of her apartments at the Winter Palace. Here, the gold swing-arm frame elegantly features portraits of her family.