The Colour Obsession of the Romanovs

The Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg is the eternal symbol of once-great Russian Empire. This turquoise – colour royal palace hosts the world’s second biggest museum, “The State Hermitage Museum”, and welcomes around 4 000 000 visitors each year. The museum was founded by Catherine the Great in 1764 and remained as the royal residence until the Russian revolution of 1917. 

Jordan Staircase

Having been to the Winter Palace a few times, I always found its current colour to be a tad odd. For me, it did not necessarily colour-coordinate with its neighbouring structures – something that one couldn’t normally say about other royal palaces in Europe – nor did it feel convincing to be of the tastes of the XVIII century Imperial Russia. That feeling grew into curiosity and intrigued me, so I decided to investigate. 

The Winter Palace as a canvas of the Romanovs.

Surely, most of us know the Winter Palace history from the events in the early XX century; including  the supposed storming of the palace by the bolsheviks – a point often argued amongst historians. But was there anything else about the building that many tourist guides and excursionists do not mention? 

Today, the building seems to blend in with the landscape and the climate of Russia’s northern capital. Its current turquoise tone soaks up the sun in the summer, adding a gentle vibrancy to the building; while cooling down in the winter months when the rest of the city turns grey. 

However, this colour never existed during the rule of the Romanov dynasty. In fact, this colour scheme is relatively young, as it first appeared on the Winter Palace as recent as 1945. So how did the Winter Palace look? 

Catherine the Great

The Winter Palace under Catherine the Great. Image by V.V. Efimov

Unlike its counterparts in other countries, the Winter Palace had changed its tones with the arrival of each new monarch, until the October Revolution in 1917. Its architect, Paris-born Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, had delivered the project to Catherine the Great in 1762 in a pale yellow and white tones. It is believed he thought the colours to be appropriate to lift up the mood of the cold northern capital. 

Paul I and Alexander II

The Winter Palace under Paul I and Alexander I. Image by V.V. Efimov

By the time Paul I, the son of Catherine II, came to power in 1796, the colours were kept the same, albeit with the added intensity to the yellow hue. 

During the reign of Alexander I, Paul I’s son, the General Staff Building was constructed across the Palace Square and the Winter Palace. The new complex prompted the architects to paint the newly-built structure in the same hues as the Winter Palace. It was done to bring the aesthetic harmony to the Imperial buildings. 

Nicholas I

The Winter Palace under Nicholas I. Image by V.V. Efimov

During the reign of Nicholas I, there was a devastating fire in the Winter Palace in 1837. The younger brother of Alexander I ordered the building to be rebuilt and repaired. After its reconstruction, the Winter Palace was painted into the tones akin to ivory. 

Alexander II

The Winter Palace under Alexander II. Image by V.V. Efimov

During Alexander II, the Emperor who liberated his people from serfdom in 1861, the Winter Palace was coloured a darker yellow tone without highlighting the stonework detail.

Alexander III

The Winter Palace under Alexander III. Image by V.V. Efimov

His son, Emperor Alexander III, had the palace repainted again, this time into a brighter yellow tone, while highlighting the columns and details in a brown-beige tone. 

Nicholas II

The Winter Palace under Nicholas II. Image by V.V. Efimov

The last Tsar Emperor Nicholas II had ordered to paint the Winter Palace in a brick-red hue. In the photos from the early XX century, one can clearly see the dark appearance of the palace. 

Nicholas II declares a war against Germany on July 20, 1914.

Ironically, those who would later overthrow and assassinate Nicholas II along with his entire family, would apply a similar tone to the Kremlin wall in Moscow. 

I do not know whether the Kremlin was painted brick-red to reinstate the symbolism of power to the Russian people, or out of a whim of then newly-established Soviet government. It does make me wonder, however, if the red tone was just an idea “borrowed” by the bolsheviks along with many other ideas and properties from the fallen Empire. Whatever the case, it doesn’t change a thing today. The fact is, Saint Petersburg is the world’s architectural gem and if you don’t believe me, here is some fantastic drone footage for you. It’s a feast for the eyes.