The Hermitage received a new building in the middle of the 19th century together with the name of "Public Museum", but it nevertheless remained the private property of the Romanovs and was administered by the Ministry of the Imperial Court. Emperor Nicholas I, the creator of the New Hermitage, personally concerned himself with all the affairs of a museum whose two sections were then headed by Florian Gilles (1801-1864) and Fiodor Bruni (1800-1875).
Florian Gilles taught the heir to the throne, the future Alexander II, French, then became the court librarian and head of the Arsenal (historical weaponry collection) at Tsarskoye Selo. Undoubted administrative talent and closeness to the Tsar advanced this active man to the leading position in the Hermitage. Gilles wrote a historical introduction about the archaeological researches in the south of Russia for the monumental work entitled The Antiquities of Cimmerian Bosporus Kept in the Imperial Hermitage Museum that was published in 1854. The catalogue included in the publication was compiled by the historian and archaeologist Ludolf Stephani, the curator of the collections of antiquities.
Gilles occupied himself very enthusiastically in the Hermitage with "the Museum of the Book", where pride of place was taken by manuscripts containing miniatures. In 1861 Gilles published a book called The Imperial Hermitage Museum. A description of various collections with a historical introduction about the Hermitage of Empress Catherine II and the formation of the New Hermitage museum. The author gave a detailed description of the displays of First Section, including the drawings and manuscripts, the library, the exhibition of the antiquities of Cimmerian Bosporus, the collection of ceramics and sculpture, and also the Münzkabinett that contained the collection of medals and coins.
Fiodor Bruni, the curator of the Picture Gallery, although undoubtedly knowledgeable, having studied the works of the Italian masters during his time in Italy, was nonetheless not a specialist. According to contemporaries, he was a poorly educated man, a fact that was concealed by his genteel manners. Yet he pursued his duties in the Hermitage with vigour. Bruni was, for example, actively involved in the drawing up of the "Rules for the Administration of the Imperial Hermitage". He is also remembered for a number of acquisitions abroad, including several paintings from the collection of King William II of the Netherlands.
The purchase in 1861 of a considerable part of the collection of the Marchese di Campana in Rome marked a new stage in the life of the Hermitage. The Campana collection, bought on the initiative of Stepan Gedeonov, head of the Commission to Seek Out Antiquities in Rome, tremendously enriched the museum's collection of ancient works. Gedeonov was invited to plan the display of this collection and also to develop a new structure for the Hermitage. He became the first director of the museum, with the title of Chamberlain of the Imperial Court. (All the directors of the Imperial Hermitage would hold high rank at court.) The statute of 1863 established five departments in the Hermitage: Greek and Roman Antiquities; Coins and Medals; Scythian and Russian Antiquities with the Gallery of Treasures and the Gallery of Peter the Great; Prints and Drawings; and Paintings and the Portraits of the Romanov Gallery.
To Gedeonov's credit is the abolition of the original system of entrance tickets and the exclusive dress code. Boris Koehne, a numismatist by specialization and the head of the Gallery of Treasures, became the director's right-hand man. He made a serious study of the history of the collection and edited the catalogue of paintings prepared by Bruni's assistants in 1861-62. This work made use of the comments of Gustav Friedrich Waagen, the director of the Picture Gallery of the Berlin Museum, and one of Europe's leading experts in the field. The catalogue was published in 1863, in three volumes in Russian and French, and in 1869-72 a revised and enlarged edition appeared. In 1867 Koehne issued a catalogue of the drawings included in the display.
The Picture Gallery's acquisitions under Gedeonov are few in number, but they include two masterpieces - Leonardo's Litta Madonna and Raphael's Conestabile Madonna. In 1879 Alexander Vasilchikov was appointed director of the Hermitage. He had worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, knew the museums of Europe well and had been involved with artistic matters. Vasilchikov found an ingenious way to enlarge the Hermitage collections by means of transferring works of art from imperial palaces: for example, twenty-two paintings were transferred to the museum from Peterhof, including Rembrandt's David and Jonathan. The collection of antiquities grew, absorbing in 1844 P.A. Saburov's unique collection of Tanagra terracottas.
In 1885 a remarkable collection of mediaeval and Renaissance applied art was bought from Alexander Bazilyevsky in Paris. This acquisition prompted the formation of a new department within the museum. At the same time the Hermitage was enriched by the collection of weaponry from the Tsarskoye Selo Arsenal. During Vasilchikov's directorship some outstanding scholars began to work in the Hermitage: the Egyptologist Vladimir Golenishchev, the archaeologist Gangolf Kizeritsky who produced a manuscript catalogue of the Department of Antiquities, the expert on Byzantine art Nikodim Kondakov and the art-historian Andrei Somov, who became head of the Picture Gallery in 1886.
Somov's major contribution was the scholarly processing of the collection and the publication of catalogues. A catalogue of the paintings appeared in 1889 and went through four editions by 1903. These catalogues were the result of painstaking work and in no way inferior to the finest catalogues of European museums. In the years 1888-99 the Hermitage was entrusted to the "supervision" of Prince Sergei Trubetskoi, a professional military man, who on account of his long absences from St Petersburg never was confirmed in office as director. In this period court balls and banquets were held especially frequently in the halls of the Hermitage, while the museum's affairs were run by Arist Kunik, a specialist in Slavonic and Russian history, the curator of the Russian part of the numismatic collection.
The next director, between 1899 and 1909, was Ivan Vsevolozhsky. A diplomat with extensive connections abroad, he was superbly educated and had a good understanding of the significance of the Hermitage. Vsevolozhsky enlisted to work in the Hermitage a number of young specialists associated with the circles of collectors and artists that Alexander Benois brought together around the periodicals Artistic Treasures of Russia and Bygone Years.
Through the final decade in the history of the Imperial Hermitage, the museum's director was Dmitry Tolstoi, a lawyer by education, who had previously been assistant administrator of the Russian Museum. In 1906 the artist Ernst Liphart became curator of the Picture Gallery, assisted by the art-historian James Schmidt, on whose initiative several notable acquisitions were made. In 1910 Semionov Tian-Shansky's enormous collection of Dutch and Flemish paintings was bought. The purchase of Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna with a Flower from the Benois family caused a sensation. It was Liphart who identified Leonardo as the creator of this painting and also attributed The Apostles Peter and Paul to El Greco.
A whole series of scholarly articles, two-volume catalogue of the Italian and Spanish paintings (1912), the rehanging of the paintings bringing out the significance of the outstanding works and the reconstruction of the Hermitage's heating system - all these were aspects of the energetic activities of Liphart and Schmidt.
By the beginning of the 20th century the Hermitage had become a first-class museum of the European type with outstanding specialists working in it and was visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year. The First World War disrupted the museum's normal existence. When, after wars and revolutions, peace at last returned, the Hermitage no longer bore the word "Imperial" in its title.