The State Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg is a treasure-house of world importance, where all the wealth and variety of Russian figurative art is superbly represented. However, it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that the visiting public associates this Museum first and foremost with its famous painting galleries. Indeed, it was the painting galleries that formed the core of the Museum during the period of its foundation in 1895-97 and over the next decade or so. Later on the Museum amassed various collections of sculpture, graphics, and objects of decorative and applied art which were just as important, but for all their richness it is still the painting gallery that enjoys the greatest popularity.
The new collection thus amassed in the Russian Museum toward the close of the nineteenth century ranked with such treasure-houses of Russian painting as the Tretyakov Gallery and the Rumiantsev Museum in Moscow, and the Academy of Art in St. Petersburg. Each of these older collections had its own distinctive features, reflecting the aesthetic principles which had governed the selection of new entries. Similar factors determined the Russian Museum's activities in the first ten years after its inception.
The State Russian Museum was run under the supervision of the Board of Directors of the Academy of Art and remained totally dependent on the Ministry of the Imperial Court. The Grand Duke Georgi Mikhailovich was designated as the "Most August Director" of the Museum, while Albert Benois, professor of the Academy of Arts, and Pavel Briullov, academician, were made curators of the collections (in 1901 Benois was replaced by the genre painter Kirill V. Lemokh). The Russian Museum collection almost doubled in size during the first ten years of its existence.
In 1909 Kirill V. Lemokh retired and the art historian and painter, Peter N. Neradovsky, was appointed Curator of the Department of Painting. For the first time since its foundation the Museum's activities were put on a scientific basis, whether it was selection, preservation or restoration of art treasures. The growing collection made it more and more urgent to review the exhibiting principles. An overall rearrangement of the Museum exhibits was undertaken in 1909-10, and the new system, based on artistic and historical principles, offered, despite some lapses, a much more faithful and consistent picture of the development of Russian painting.
During the War of 1914-18 the collection was partially evacuated to Moscow, and from February 1917 the Museum was closed to visitors. As early as November 7, 1918, on the First Anniversary of the October Revolution, some exhibition rooms were re-opened to the public. But the inauguration of the entire new exhibition had to be postponed until 1922 in view of the capital repairs of the buildings, their heating and ventilation systems.
Having amassed so many brilliant collections, the Russian Museum became one of the richest painting galleries in the world and acquired the significance of a national gallery in which the many-sided phenomena of Russian art, spanning the period from the seventeenth to the twenty first centuries, are fully represented. Subsequent additions to the Museum did not alter the standing of the so-called historical part of the exhibition, but contemporary art was not given first priority in the collecting, which was quite natural for Soviet museums with their extensive scientific, ideological, artistic and educational tasks.
During the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945, the most valuable paintings were removed to the hinterland of the Soviet Union and survived. After the war, work was begun to restore the Museum whose main building suffered severe damage from artillery fire and air raids. The first exhibition rooms were opened on May 9, 1946 on the first anniversary of victory. Half a year later the entire exhibition was installed in all the rooms of the Museum’s main building.
Today the unique and comprehensive collection of the Russian Museum affords an exceptional opportunity for an all-round, detailed study of the development of artistic ideas and culture in Russia over a period of nearly two and a half centuries.