Winter Palace Over The Years

At the ‘Hello Piter‘ website, there are some interestingly tinted pictures of the front façade of St Petersburg’s Winter Palace, depicting all the variations in its decoration over the years. Here is some text from the site ‘Hermitage‘, that I’m very loosely paraphrasing chunks of. Cross-posted at Jost A Mon.
Throughout its history, the façade of the Winter Palace has undergone a range of colours. This was due to the need for periodic repairs, the tastes of various architects and changing fashions among clients. There were more variations than we can cover here over the past 200 years, but here are some of the more significant ones.
In 1762, the architect of the Winter Palace, Rastrelli completed his great work down to the colouring of the façade. He wrote: The palace has been decorated on the outside: the walls with a stucco paint of fine yellow, and the columns with white lime. The records of the chancellery reveal the articles used in the decoration – lime, chalk, ochre and red earth (which, after treatment, was used as a pigment).

Winter Palace in 1762

Extant documentation reveals the warm ochre colour of Rastrelli’s design – just look at the painting by Johann Georg de Mayr in 1796 that depicts the eastern and northern façade of the palace.

View of the Winter Palace from the Vasilyevsk Island, by J. G. de Mayr. (1796).

We have found examples of the stucco, albeit faded, from the last quarter of the XVIII century, on the eastern side of the palace, where the architect Quarenghi added a new building in the 1790s, the Georgiev Hall. This is the earliest example of the colouring of the palace that we have in our possession, from the time of Catherine II, in the characteristic Rastrelli stucco.

At the beginning of the XIX century, with the accession of Czar Paul I, work began on the installation of wooden belfries. The main gate was altered. Where Catherine’s gates (designed by J. M. Felten) were wood panelled and in white paint, Paul’s were done up in a military palette, with alternating white and black stripes separated by thin red lines. The Winter Palace remains in its ochre-white combination, except the walls are smoothed with a brighter ochre.

The Winter Palace at the beginning of the XIX century.

Pieces of post-Rastrellian plaster found on the southeastern corner in an ochre-lime colour scheme reveal the rich golden ochre façade of the Winter Palace in the late XVIII and early XIX centuries.

Prior to the fire of 1837, there weren’t any major changes to the Winter Palace, although under Nicholas I, some repairs were undertaken of the façade resulting (as is known from archival documents) in a light ochre tone.

Winter Palace at the end of 1830s and early 1840s.

The roof of the palace, too, underwent changes in colour – from the tin of Elizabeth to the white iron of Catherine, English whitewash under Paul, and a vermilion during Alexander I (1816). The repairs after the fire of 1837 resulted in a rust-coloured roof, described as a reddish-brown.

As for the façade, archival sources indicate that the post-fire repairs coloured it with slaked lime, ochre, Italian mummy, and Olonets earth (which had an ivory tint). What it looked like can be judged by the watercolours of the likes of Sadovnikov, Bohnstedt (1847) and Charlemagne (1853).

View of the Winter Palace from the Admiralty, by V. Sadovnikov. (1840s)
The Neva Embankment at the Western Façade of the Winter Palace, by L. Bohnstedt.
View of the Winter Palace from the Neva, by J. Charlemagne. (1853).

Between the 1850s and 1860s, under Alexander II, the colour changes once again – the ochre is now denser, and the columns acquire a fine tone, resulting in a monochrome façade. Premazzi’s watercolour reveals this clearly.

Imperial Hermitage and Winter Palace, by Luigi Premazzi. (1861).

In fact, we have been able to locate – on the southeastern corner of the palace – a colour very similar to that appearing in Premazzi’s painting.

In the 1880s, under Alexander III, the ochre of the façade was mixed in with red, with the columns and decorations separated in tone. The roof was reddish-brown.

Winter Palace in the 1880s-1890s.

On the trunks of the columns and in some architectural details, we found a thinner terracotta coloration, which reveals the two-toned palette applied to the palace. There is little illustrative evidence of the palace’s appearance from this period, although a canvas of K. Beggrov (1882) might serve; also, the Anichkov Palace which was built by Alexander when he was still a Grand Duke could be an analogy, as it had been painted in a terracotta palette (and indeed appears thus in yet another Beggrov painting (1880) that depicts Nevsky Prospect, with Anichkov palace in the background). (I have been unable to find either Beggrov painting, though.)

Upon his accession, Nicholas II ordered the restoration of the crumbling stone sculptures of the palace, and approved a new colouring scheme as well. Red sandstone was the new façade, monochrome once again, with no differentiation for the decorations and columns. Many requests from sundry ministries, budgetary committees and chancelleries to restore the colour scheme to that under Alexander were all rejected by the Czar.

Winter Palace in the first quarter of the XX century.

The red sandstone/terracotta/brick mass persisted to the end of the 1920s, as can be seen in the works of Kustodiev and Frentz.

Demonstration on the Ulitsky Square, by Boris Kustodiev. (1921).

From the 1920s, various experiments and researches into new colours for the palace were conducted. There was an attempt at grey (1927), a brownish-grey (1928-30), a faint orange oil colour with whites for the decorations (1934), the last of which was deemed a failure not only from an aesthetic point of view, but also because of the damage the oils wrought on the stone. A glimpse of this palette is can be very tentatively obtained in Kuptsov’s 1935 painting ‘The Aeroplane Maxim Gorky’.

Maxim Gorky, by Vasily Kuptsov. (1935).

During the war years, the palace was covered in a reversible adhesive camouflage stained grey. Immediately after the war, it was decided to paint the walls in chrome with the addition of emerald pigment, the columns and windows would be in white, and the capitals would be in ochre.

Winter Palace in the 1940s-1960s.

From the 1960s, synthetic dyes were introduced that allowed repair and maintenance to be conducted in winter as well. The original lime-based pigments could be applied only under favourable weather conditions, between May and September. New synthetic coats (polyvinyl acetate and perchlorovinyl) were much more expensive, and specialist contractors were roped in for the work. The production of the traditional paints nearly ceased, and nobody seemed to be concerned that the new synthetic materials were disruptive to the stucco, plaster and stone.

Today, however, the situation is much better. The façades are painted in a breathable dye that doesn’t degrade the construction material. There is little restriction in the choice of colour and tonal relationships, and should the question of restoring the original palette ever arise, that can be easily managed. And so this is what the current incarnation of the Winter Palace looks like.

Winter Palace today.
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