Hermitage Masterpieces
Koch Entertainment // Unrated // $59.98 // December 7, 2004
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted December 13, 2004
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The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, has one of the finest collections of art in the world, housed in a magnificent palace built for the Empress Catherine the Great of Russia. Given its distant location, the Hermitage is hardly a place that most art lovers can just drop by to visit on a weekend outing, though. That's where the Hermitage Masterpieces series comes in: it's basically a guided tour through the museum's varied galleries.

It's worth noting, first of all, that Hermitage Masterpieces is misleadingly described as being "over 8 hours" long... but while most of the time mistakes in running time usually overstate the program's content, in this case it's actually the opposite. Hermitage Masterpieces runs a full 12 hours in its 18 episodes, so viewers actually get considerably more content than advertised (always a pleasant surprise). What probably confused the marketing department is that not all the episodes are the same length: nine of them run approximately 55 minutes each, and the other nine (which alternate between the longer ones) run approximately 25 minutes each.

The content starts with a 55-minute episode covering the architecture of the museum. The program pretty much perfectly re-creates the experience of walking through a museum, stopping to read the informational signs here and there, or perhaps having a museum tour guide provide a running commentary. There's very little structure, except the loosest of chronological order, and the narrator offers tidbits of random information about what appears in each room: a lamp, a chair, the decorations on the wall, an event that happened in that room, and so on.

This wandering-around-the-museum narrative style holds true for the rest of the episodes as well. Since Hermitage Masterpieces is exclusively focused on those artifacts and artworks in this museum, each episode is basically a tour of the room or wing of the museum devoted to a particular time period or style. It's not bad, and it does a remarkable job of re-creating the museum-visiting experience, but in doing so it does highlight what I've always found to be a weakness of museums. It's hard to form a real understanding of a subject, or appreciate a topic, by browsing through different artifacts and getting little snippets of information out of context. The narrator might casually mention a fascinating fact, like the fact that the ancient Sumerian farmers accidentally destroyed their own farmland over the years by irrigating with slightly salty water, and then just moves on to the next snippet of information that's loosely related to the piece of art in the neighboring glass case. If the objective is to inform viewers about a topic, it would make a lot more sense to develop interesting content and then find examples of art to illustrate its points, rather than the other way around.

But since Hermitage Masterpieces isn't really trying to be a documentary, exactly, it's best to take it on its own merits. As a virtual visit to a distant but excellent museum, it does a very nice job of letting us see all the fantastic artwork on display, and along the way we do learn a few things about the cultures and people who created them.

The episodes on the set are as follows (with running times in parentheses:

The Museum's Majestic Architecture (55 minutes)
Highlights of the Masterpieces (27 minutes)
Russia in the Age of Peter the Great (55 minutes)
Decorative Arts of Italy, France and England (28 minutes)
Art from Mesopotamia to Ancient China (55 minutes)
The Art of Ancient Egypt (26 minutes)
The Vast Sculpture Collection (51 minutes)
The Classical World of Greece and Rome (24 minutes)
Art of the Middle Ages (54 minutes)
Art of the Early Italian Renaissance (27 minutes)
Raphael, DaVinci, and the High Italian Renaissance (55 minutes)
Art of the Netherlands: 15th and 16th Centuries (28 minutes)
Rubens, van Dyck, and the 17th Century Flemish Painters (55 minutes)
Rembrandt and the 17th Century Flemish Painters (27 minutes)
Velázquez, El Greco, Goya, and the Spanish Masters (56 minutes)
French Classical Style of the 17th and 18th Centuries (28 minutes)
The Road to Impressionism: 19th Century France (54 minutes)
Modernism: Matisse, Picasso, and More 20th Century Painters (25 minutes)


Hermitage Masterpieces is a three-DVD set, packaged in a double-wide plastic keepcase.


The image quality for this 1992 production is satisfactory. It's presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and while there's some flaws and edge enhancement, and a touch of shimmering occasionally, it looks fine. Colors sometimes seem a tad bit on the muted side, but look reasonably natural.


The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack provides a clean, clear track for the narrator. His voiceover is always easy to understand. The background music, which changes for each episode, is sometimes rather odd, but it's kept decently in the background


There are no special features on this set.

Final thoughts

Hermitage Masterpieces is a museum visit in video form: it is no more and no less than an attempt to re-create the experience of touring the galleries of the famous Hermitage Museum in Russia with a museum tour guide alongside, providing a running commentary about the art on display. If you're looking for a documentary about art, this isn't exactly what you're looking for; if you want a chance to experience and appreciate some fine art, this DVD could be exactly the ticket. I can also see this set as being extremely valuable for art or history teachers to show to their students: for them, I'll give this a "recommended." For viewers in general, rent it.

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