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By Peter Kupfer

AMSTERDAM, 14 DECEMBER 2009 — The gala opening of the Russian State Hermitage’s new satellite museum in Amsterdam was accompanied by plenty of pomp and circumstance — and no shortage of vodka. The festivities, which were staged along the Amstel River outside the museum on a gray, chilly summer’s night, featured performances by the Royal Dutch Marine band (playing, appropriately enough, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition), the Dutch National Ballet and the St. Petersburg Admiralty Band, and culminated in a fog-shrouded fireworks display.

Among the poobahs attending the event were Beatrice, by the Grace of God Queen of the Netherlands, and other members of the Dutch royal family, as well as Dmitry Medvedev (by the grace of Putin President of Russia). They were joined by hundreds of ordinary Amsterdammers gathered on the banks and bridges of the Amstel along with a captive crew of journalists from Europe, Russia and North America, who dutifully chronicled the celebration from boats anchored in the river.

It’s no accident, of course, that the fabled Russian museum agreed to open a branch in Amsterdam. Three hundred years ago, Peter the Great visited the Dutch capital as part of a clandestine, 18-month tour of Europe, the first by a Russian ruler. Peter’s sojourn in Amsterdam, then the wealthiest city in the world, clearly influenced the design and architecture of St. Petersburg, the grand metropolis he later built on the swampy banks of the Neva. The Dutch-Russian connection was further strengthened in 1816 by the marriage of Duchess Anna Pavlovna, the daughter of Czar Paul I, and Prince Willem of Orange, who later became King Willem II of the Netherlands.

Narkiz Bunin: Sentry of the Life Guards Regiment, 1889
Oil on canvas
Photo courtesy of Hermitage Amsterdam

The new museum occupies a former nursing home, a handsome if unremarkable three-story brick building wrapped around a large courtyard in the heart of old Amsterdam. The architect, Hans van Heeswijk, has wisely left the 17th century façade unaltered except for adding a glass-enclosed entryway in the rear. The interior design, while not strikingly original, has succeeded in breathing light and air into what was once a gloomy warren of small rooms and labyrinthine passageways. The spaces are clean, bright and airy, with the white walls and wide-plank blond wood floors accented by sleek black metal moldings and stairways. Here and there the architect has preserved details of the original building, such as the wood-beam ceilings in the cabinets adjoining the two main galleries, but these gestures to the past feel somewhat contrived and out of synch with the rest of the museum.

The pyrotechnics accompanying the opening of Hermitage Amsterdam were more than matched by the glittering spectacle of the inaugural exhibition. At the Russian Court: Palace and Protocol in the 19th Century presents some 1,800 objects on loan from the mother museum in St. Petersburg. (While that may sound like a lot of art, it’s a mere pittance compared to the State Hermitage’s vast holdings, which comprise an astonishing 3 million items.)

If nothing more, the show makes clear that the House of Romanov, which ruled Russia for more than 300 years, had no reason to envy the royal courts of Europe in terms of wealth and opulence. On display are master paintings, exquisitely crafted gowns, uniforms and other costumes, extravagant jewelry and ornate dinner services, furniture — such as the gilded, red velvet Romanov throne — and rare musical instruments — such as a fabulous neo-rococo grand piano that belonged to Alexandra Fyodorovna, the last czarina (who, along with her husband, Czar Nicholas II, and their five children, was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918).

Unknown atelier: Ceremonial dress of the Dowager Czarina Maria Fyodorovna,
widow of Paul I Maria Fyodorovna, zijde / silk, 1820 - 1830
Photo courtesy of Hermitage Amsterdam

The exhibition is divided into two wings, one devoted to the highly regimented protocol of the court (the rules even decreed how much gold thread could be woven into a gown), the other to the grand dinners and themed balls hosted by the czars at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg (which now serves as the main building in the State Hermitage complex).

It is difficult to find fault with a show that contains so many magnificent objects. Even if the curators had heaped them all in the middle of the courtyard, it would still be well worth a visit to the museum. Yet they could have done a better job of telling the story of the Romanovs and the life of the court. Unless one is already familiar with Russian history and culture it is difficult to make sense of it all. One has to refer to the catalog, a beautifully illustrated volume containing informative essays on nearly every aspect of court life, to get a sense of how the House of Romanov functioned.

Moreover, many items seemed to be lumped together without much thought. A dazzling jewel-encrusted gold box, for example, was nearly lost in a large display case filled with an assortment of other items.

Table laid with china from the Royal Porcelain Manufactory in Berlin,
given to Czar Nicholas II in 1894 by Emperor Wilhelm II, Berlin, 1894, porcelain;
France, wine and water glasses, early 20th century; Paris, silver cutlery, 1778-1779,
and French candelabra with fire-gilt bronze putti, 1880-1890.
Photography: Herman van Heusden en Ruud van der Neut
Photo courtesy of Hermitage Amsterdam

Most of the paintings in the show are banal formal portraits of the imperial family and other members of St. Petersburg society by second- and third-tier artists. One exception is German society painter Franz Xavier Winterhalter’s vibrant portrait of Countess Varvara Musina-Pushkina, which is featured on the cover of the catalog and other exhibition materials. Dressed in a frilly red, white and blue gown, festooned with swirls of pearl necklaces and gold bracelets, and wearing a slightly smug expression, the countess is a study in imperious entitlement. Another standout is a striking portrait of an angelic young man holding his violin and looking a bit peeved — no different perhaps than any other boy who would rather be out playing with his friends than practicing his scales.

The most memorable part of the exhibition is the hall devoted to the elaborate balls hosted by the czars. The walls are embellished with gold leaf designs echoing the ornate interior of Nicholas Hall, the grand ballroom at the Winter Palace. The room is dominated by three large circular cases displaying meticulously restored costumes worn by members of the court. Every 20 minutes, as music by Russian composer Mikhail Glinka fills the hall, the cases begin revolving and the famous ballroom scene from Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark is projected on the wall. One can almost imagine being a guest at a grand ball in the Winter Palace. For a magical moment, life at the Russian Court truly comes alive.

At the Russian Court: Palace and Protocol in the 19th Century
Through 31 January 2010 

Title photo: Malta, Star of the Order of St John of Jerusalem
Early twentieth century Silver, enamel, stamped.
4.9 x 4.9; Rome, Tanfani & Bertarelli, Maltese Cross
Early twentieth century, Silver, enamel, textile;
Stamped, engraved, chased, enamelled. 13.7 x 4.8.
Photography: Herman van Heusden en Ruud van der Neut
Photo courtesy of Hermitage Amsterdam

Peter Kupfer is a former editor on the National / Foreign desk at The San Francisco Chronicle. His freelance articles on the arts, travel and technology have appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Asian Art News and other publications. He last wrote on Barney Kilgore: The Man Who Made The Wall Street Journal for

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