10 NOVEMBER 1990, Page 47

Their Hermitage for a gorgeous palace

John McEwen


Stewart, Tabori & Chang, £60, pp. 653

This is a companion volume to Paint- ings in the Musee d'Orsay, published last year, and is of the same fat size and weight. Its many, irritatingly un-numbered, colour plates are the meat of it and very hand- some too, but they are not given the same freedom of space in this latest volume, which is a pity — the main text in the d'Orsay book came in the form of captions;

now it is in one continuous, less visually pleasing, flow. As before, an equally heavyweight, in the metaphorical sense, US professor of art provides the text Colin Eisler of New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. He is the sort of chap who likes to cut culture down to size and some readers may find his racy gener- alisations irritating and even misleading, eg: 'Where Solomon and Sheba's love is the Bible's major "official romance" . . . ', etc. Conversely, he also has far too high an opinion of art: . . only art can show us paradise now'. He must have a dull life.

The director and vice-director of the Hermitage provide the introductory his-

Van Dyck's portrait of Philadelphia and Elizabeth Wharton, in the Hermitage. tory. This is better done in the first tourist guide to the collection, The Hermitage: Selected Treasures from a Great Museum, produced by Booth-Clibburn editions Inc. for the Hermitage Joint Venture. Here we learn that between the world wars the Soviet Government sold off some import- ant bits of the collection to pay its way. For instance, 21 masterpieces, bought by Andrew Mellon for a relative song (under seven million dollars), became the core of the National Gallery Collection in Washington. Still, the sample of 630 paint- ings illustrated in Eisler's book shows that plenty remains — much of it a revelation, given that until now this has been the least publicised of major museums. The Hermit- age's collection of masterpieces by Rubens and Rembrandt would alone make it one of the great picture galleries of the world — and, of course, pictures are only one aspect of its riches.