The exhibition presents works by famous painters (Botticelli, Tintoretto, Rembrandt and Van Dyck) that give a general impression of the development of Western European painting from the time of the Renaissance to early Neo-Classicism. The display is based on the juxtaposing of pictures, making up fourteen harmonious pairs. This principle allows the viewer to better understand the characteristics of each collection and the masterpieces present in it, while also bringing out the affinity between the two museums.

Created as the personal galleries of monarchs, in the second half of the 19th century these collections became accessible to the general public and at the end of the First World War they were transferred to state ownership. Both museums are housed in unique buildings – outstanding works of Russian architecture from the 18th and 19th centuries and of Austrian architecture from the 19th century. Scholarly and cultural interchange between the museums has been taking place for decades: since the 1980s the museums exchanged several exhibitions and individual exhibits. With the arrival of the new century, the collaboration between our institutions received a fresh impulse. The result was a significant exchange of pictures as part of a three-sided project together with the Guggenheim Museum.

Continuing the friendly partnership, the museums are presenting a new concept: fourteen Old Master paintings from the Hermitage collection enter into a dialogue with pictures from the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

The exhibition opens with monumental formal portraits of the two empresses who played such an important role in the history of the two museums. Catherine II, who founded the Hermitage as an art collection, is here juxtaposed with her older contemporary, Maria Theresa, who moved the Hapsburg imperial collection to the Belvedere Palace in Vienna and did much for its systematization.

Visitors have the opportunity to compare works by the same artists from two collections (Jacopo Tintoretto, Bernardo Strozzi, Peter Paul Rubens, Frans Halls, Jan Steen, Nicolas Poussin). The remaining pictures featured in the exhibition also have points of contact, but they are not so obvious. For example, the Hermitage’s Portrait of a Young Man by Domenico Capriolo, reflecting the influence of Giorgione, is being shown alongside the Portrait of Francesco Maria I della Rovere attributed to that great master himself. The painters of two other portraits – Giovanni Battista Moroni and Domenico Tintoretto – were also contemporaries who created images of Renaissance intellectuals. The brothers Ambrosius and Hans Holbein, also represented in the exhibition by portraits, both came from the same school – that of their father, who was a painter as well. Ambrosius sadly died at the age of 25, while his brother, Hans Holbein the Younger, worked long and fruitfully not only in Germany, but also in England, where he produced a whole portrait gallery of his contemporaries. Bartholomeus Spranger and Hans von Aachen were active at the same time at the court of Emperor Rudolf II. That is why their paintings display a noticeable stylistic affinity.

Other pairings are based more on contrasts. Saint Jerome by the Florentine Sandro Botticelli is emphatically laconic and simple in composition. Albrecht Altdorfer, on the other hand, tells about the martyrdom of Saint Catherine with a host of particulars and describes the executioner and spectators in detail. Two landscapes, by the Englishman Thomas Gainsborough and the German Jacob Philipp Hackert, show fundamentally different approaches to that genre of painting: while in Gainsborough’s work one senses a romantic view of nature, Hackert constructs his composition in accordance with the strict laws of Classicism.

The exhibition includes paintings from the Kunsthistorisches Museum by two great 16th-century masters who are not represented in the Hermitage collection – Albrecht Altdorfer and Hans Holbein the Younger.

The exhibition has just finished its run in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, where it went under the title “Die Eremitage zu Gast” (“The Hermitage Pays a Visit”). It was opened there by Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the President of the Russian Federation, and Alexander Van der Bellen, the Federal President of Austria, together with the Federal Chancellor of Austria, Sebastian Kurz. Russia and Austria are successfully implementing a programme of collaboration and exchanges in the sphere of culture, education and scholarship that is mapped out until 2020.

The exhibition curator on behalf of the State Hermitage is Maria Pavlovna Garlova, senior researcher in the Department of Western European Fine Art; on behalf of the Kunsthistorisches Museum the curator is Stefan Weppelmann, the Director of the Picture Gallery. The exhibition is accompanied by a scholarly illustrated catalogue (State Hermitage Publishing House, 2018) with forewords by Mikhail Piotrovsky, General Director of the State Hermitage, and Sabine Haag, General Director of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. The introduction is by Sergei Androsov, Doctor of Art Studies, head of the State Hermitage’s Department of Western European Fine Art.

The exhibition “Imperial Capitals: St. Petersburg – Vienna. Masterpieces of Museum Collections” has been organized by the State Hermitage jointly with the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna and with the support of the Russian company Gazprom and the Austrian oil and gas concern oil and gas company OMV.