PHOTO: this contemporary colourized view of the western facade of the Winter Palace, does not reflect the actual terracotta-red hue, however, it does gives an idea of the palace’s facade, as it looked in the early 20th century
During its 250+ year history, the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg has been repainted many times, in a variety of ochre colours and various densities. The colour of the facades of the Winter Palace changed radically at the beginning of the 20th century. It was in 1897, that Emperor Nicholas II approved the project for a new colour of the facades of the Winter Palace. A brick-red hue was chosen, to match the red sandstone colour of the new fence of His Majesty’s Own Garden.
The Emperor’s decision was carried out in 1901 after the construction of the fence of His Majesty’s Own Garden was completed. In April 1901, the architect Nikolai Ivanovich Kramskoy (1865-1938) presented an estimate for 15,639 rubles. “for the project of painting the Imperial Winter Palace in the colours of the new garden fence”. On the project and estimate he wrote: “Highly approved. I was ordered to start painting immediately!” The tender for repair work was awarded to Kruglov, a contractor who was paid 29,467 rubles, which included “to scrape, grind and clean off the walls of the facades, external and outward, the drum of the dome, towers and chimneys”, and then paint all the indicated areas.
Aside from the Winter Palace, all the buildings on Palace Square were painted in the same brick-red colour, including the 580 m [1,902 ft.] long bow-shaped General Staff Building and the Headquarters of the Guards Corps, which, created a complete ensemble of the historic square.
According to the architects of the time, as a result of the Emperor’s decision, the unique buildings of the Palace Square ensemble, diverse in their construction, contributed to a “unity of perception and merged into a monochrome terracotta-brick colouristic mass”.
PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II leaves the Winter Palace (1896)
In early 20th century black and white photos, one can clearly see the dark coloured facades of the Winter Palace [see photo above]. In addition, colour postcards [see below] from the time, also provide a good example of the colour.
Not all Petersburgers liked the gloomy brick/terracotta-red façade that had been adopted under Nicholas II. The public turned to the Emperor in an effort to persuade him to change the colour scheme of the Winter Palace. However, Nicholas II rejected their proposals.
Under the last Tsar, the white stone statues were also replaced with dark ones made of copper. Before that, the palace featured yellow-ochre façades in various shades depicted in watercolours, fragments of which have been uncovered during architectural stripping operations.
PHOTOS: early 20th century postcards of the Winter Palace
PHOTO: early 20th century postcard of the western facade of the Winter Palace and His Majesty’s Own Garden. The private apartments of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna were located in the northwestern part [to the left, but not seen in the photo above] of the palace
In June 1911, Minister of the Imperial Court Count Vladimir Frederiks (1838-1927) expressed his desire that the Imperial Winter Palace be painted in a lighter hue than that of its current colour. The minister requested that samples of the palace colouring, be presented to him in order to approve one of them.
As there were no colour photographs of the Winter Palace as it looked in 1911, we rely on one observer of the time, who provided an idea of the colour of the palace: “The colour scheme differs in its composition from the approved colour scheme of 1901 in a more pinkish colour, but in terms of density of its composition it is denser than the old colour scheme”.
So, in October 1917, the Winter Palace was not “revolutionary red”, but in a somewhat dubious pinkish one. However, even with all these dubious nuances, the monochrome of the palace, was preserved in full.
PHOTO: watercolour of the Winter Palace, painted by the famous Russian artist Alexandre Benois (1870-1960) in 1939, when he was living in exile in Paris. Note that the canopied balconies; the wall and iron grid fencing surrounding His Majesty’s Own Garden have by now been removed.
The red colour facades of the Winter Palace remained through the revolution and the early Soviet period in the 1930s. Following restoration work on the palace after World War II, it was painted green (turquoise) with the ornaments depicted in white, the standard Soviet colour scheme for Baroque buildings.
In January 2022, the State Hermitage Museum announced that the restoration of the facades of the former Winter Palace is scheduled for 2023. No change of colour scheme is envisaged, but, as with previous restorations, a lighter “pastel” shade of green will be selected in keeping with St Petersburg traditions.
© Paul Gilbert. 23 January 2022