The suite is Mussorgsky's most famous piano composition, and has become a showpiece for virtuoso pianists. It has become further known through various orchestrations and arrangements produced by other musicians and composers, with Maurice Ravel's arrangement being the most recorded and performed.
It was probably in 1870 that Mussorgsky met artist and architect Viktor Hartmann. Both men were devoted to the cause of an intrinsically Russian art and quickly became friends. Their meeting was likely arranged by the influential critic Vladimir Stasov who followed both of their careers with interest.
Hartmann died from an aneurysm in 1873. The sudden loss of the artist, aged only 39, shook Mussorgsky along with others in Russia's art world. Stasov helped organize an exhibition of over 400 Hartmann works in the Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg, Russia in February and March 1874. Mussorgsky lent works from his personal collection to the exhibit and viewed the show in person. Fired by the experience, he composed Pictures at an Exhibition in six weeks. The music depicts an imaginary tour of an art collection. Titles of individual movements allude to works by Hartmann; Mussorgsky used Hartmann as a working title during the work's composition. He described the experience in a letter to Stasov in June 1874:
Mussorgsky's letter to Stasov, June 1874, written while composing Pictures: "My dear généralissime, Hartmann is seething as Boris seethed, — sounds and ideas hang in the air, I am gulping and overeating, and can barely manage to scribble them on paper. I am writing the 4th № — the transitions are good (on the 'promenade'). I want to work more quickly and reliably. My physiognomy can be seen in the interludes. So far I think it's well turned..."
Mussorgsky based his musical material on drawings and watercolours by Hartmann produced mostly during the artist's travels abroad. Locales include Poland, France and Italy; the final movement depicts an architectural design for the capital city of Ukraine. Today most of the pictures from the Hartmann exhibit are lost, making it impossible to be sure in many cases which Hartmann works Mussorgsky had in mind. Musicologist Alfred Frankenstein, in a 1939 article for The Musical Quarterly, claimed to have identified seven pictures by catalogue number. Two Jews: Rich, and Poor (Frankenstein suggested two separate portraits, still extant, as the basis for Samuel Goldenberg und Schmuyle), Gnomus, Tuileries (now lost), Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks (a ballet costume design), Catacombae, The Hut on Hen's Legs (Baba Yaga), and The Bogatyr Gates.
Mussorgsky links the suite's movements in a way that depicts the viewer's own progress through the exhibition. Two "Promenade" movements stand as portals to the suite's main sections. Their regular pace and irregular meter depicts the act of walking. Three untitled interludes present shorter statements of this theme, varying the mood, colour and key in each to suggest reflection on a work just seen or anticipation of a new work glimpsed. A turn is taken in the work at the "Catacombae" when the Promenade theme stops functioning as merely a linking device and becomes, in "Cum mortuis", an integral element of the movement itself. The theme reaches its apotheosis in the suite's finale, The Bogatyr Gates.