In December 1852, Count Shuvalov, the Chief Marshal of the Court, received instructions from the Minister of the Court "to commission from Academician Konstanin Ukhtomsky and the artists Edward Hau and Luigi Premazzi pictures of the interiors of the New Hermitage rooms". Academidian Ukhtomsky, Hau and Premazzi were what was known as "perspective artists". This form of painting had a long tradition of being taught at the Academy of Arts, where from the late 18th century there had existed on a part with other classes a special class of perspective painting. The aim of the course of instruction given in this class was to teach the technical devices required to record architecture in its setting and the interiors of buildings. Preconditions for success were a mastery of the art of drawing, watercolour technique and the various methods of constructing perspective that ensured that viewers perceived the subject in the right way.
The artists' work on this official commission from Emperor Nicholas I
lasted for nine years, from 1852 to 1861. During that period they produced
55 pictures of the New Hermitage. The result was a series of watercolours
that was described using the French word "ouvrage". Ukhtomsky
himself wrote the titles on the passe-partouts of the watercolours giving
the numbers of the rooms, and also the title-page of the ouvrage. The
exterior view of the New Hermitage from Millionnaya Street painted by
Luigi Premazzi was joined to the set in 1861.
The watercolour views of the New Hermitage are above all splendid examples of the depiction of architecture. The works of Ukhtomsky, Hau and Premazzi are founded not on the real-life image of the room as someone would have seen it, but on a purely notional, documentary construction that served to bring out most fully its architectural features. The artists constructed perspective in pencil in the studio, using plans and drawings based on measurements taken of the rooms. They often deliberately compressed space and inserted elements (especially vaults and piers adjoining the walls) that fell outside their construction. In doing so the artists introduced some incongruities in perspective, but those do not strike someone viewing the watercolour and come to light only when the image is compared with the reality. Into the ready-made perspective view of a room the artists "inserted" objects that they had earlier drawn from life, after which the pencil composition was transferred to a fresh sheet of paper to be worked on in colour. The concluding stage, again performed in the studio, was the application of watercolours using the colour wash technique that involved repeatedly covering both the whole sheet and individual areas and details in layers of colour, gradually increasing the tonal intensity of the whole image. This technique required great skill and experience, a fine sense of colour and a wide range of technical accomplishments.
There is a certain similarity between all the depictions, resulting from
Ukhtomsky, Hau and Premazzi all using the same technique of working with
watercolour. Closer examination, however, reveals the individual characteristics
of each of the artists. Luigi Premazzi, who was reckoned the best watercolourist,
created a bright contrasting range of colours, working in warm tones that
give an impression of sunlight. Edward Hau's palette is significantly
cooler, while in his work individual details and the contours of objects
are clearly delineated. Ukhtomsky worked in a warm, muted range of colours
using lacquer to increase the depth of tone; to create highlights he used
gouache and, in some instances, the natural colour of the paper. The impeccable
watercolour technique elevates these depictions to the level of high art.