The State Hermitage is a museum of art and culture, one of the largest and oldest in the world. It was founded by Catherine the Great in 1764. Its collections, of which only a small part is on the permanent display, comprise nearly three million items. Today the Hermitage museum encompasses buildings on the Palace Embankment and its neighborhoods. The Hermitage Museum occupies the Winter Palace – the winter residence of the Russian Tsars, and four more buildings: the Little Hermitage – Catherine’s original collection – the Old Hermitage; the Hermitage Theater – Catherine’s private theater – and the New Hermitage. Catherine started her art collection in 1764 by purchasing paintings. Her collection consisted of Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian, Antoine van Dyck, Rafael and others.
In her lifetime Catherine's acquired paintings from old masters, books, engraved gems, drawings, coins and medals and a natural history collection. Later Russian emperors continued to expand the collection and in 1852 the Hermitage was opened to the public. Immediately after the Revolution of 1917 the Imperial Hermitage and the Winter Palace were proclaimed state museums. The range of the Hermitage exhibits was further expanded when private art collections from several palaces of the Russian Tsars and numerous private mansions were being nationalized.