27 June 2015

Catherine the Great, The Hermitage and Melbourne's winter blockbuster

Russian Empress Catherine the Great reigned from 1762-1796, a period of cultural renaissance for Russia. But it could not have been easy for her. She had been an impoverished German princess who was not Russian Orthodox, did not speak Russian and was married as a young teenager (16) to a oafish brutal man who briefly became Czar Peter III.

After Peter III died in 1762, his widow Catherine came to be regarded as the nation’s foremost patron of the arts, literature and education; and she founded The Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. It is now one of the most visited museums in the world and is renowned for holding the world’s finest collection of the arts. Works from the Hermitage, gathered by Catherine the Great herself, will go on show at the National Gallery of Victoria as part of the blockbuster Melbourne Winter Masterpieces exhibition series. Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great will feature 400+ works, including paintings by Rembrandt, Velasquez, Rubens and Titian. My personal favourites are the stunning decorative art pieces that display the life and loves of the 18th century's second most important Russian ruler. The programme opens on 31st July and will close on 8th Nov 2015.

Catherine the Great,
by Alexander Roslin,
Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

This Melbourne exhibition will concentrate on Catherine's commitment to the arts as a tool for education, dip­lomacy and cultural exchange that heralded a long period of enlightenment in Russia. The commissions and purchases during her 34-year reign created the foundations for the Hermitage AND, it would be no exaggeration to say, contributed to nation building and cultural identity.

I knew quite a lot about Russian collecting patterns in the 18th cemtury, but Mikhail Dedinkin* from the Dept of Western Art at the Hermitage added far more information. From the beginning of her reign in 1762, Catherine the Great became a very knowledgeable person in the field of fine arts, without visiting Italy, France or Germany. She educated herself slowly, step by step, starting with the first load of paintings that arrived from a Berlin collection: 13 Rembrandt paintings, 11 Rubens, 7 Jacob Jordaens, 5 Anthony van Dycks, 5 Paolo Veroneses, 3 Frans Hals, 2 Raphaels, 2 Holbeins, a Titian, 2 Jan Steen and other Dutch artists. She had enough treasures to open the Hermitage in 1764 in a small way, separate from her own residences.

Some collections came to Russia in toto. In 1779 the Empress acquired 200 paintings that had belonged to the British statesman-collector Robert Walpole. Inspect the very large David Teniers II painting, The Kitchen 1646, which arrived in Russia as part of this Walpole collection. Two years later a set of 120 paintings arrived from the French collector Comte de Baudouin. Melbourne visitors can examine Rembrandt's portrait of the Young Woman With Earrings 1657, acquired by the Hermitage in 1781 from the Comte's treasures.

Young Woman With Earrings 
by Rembrandt, 
Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

There was no systematic approach in the early years, and the first catalogue was not published until 1776. Catherine was guided by her team of advisers, based in either St Petersburg or abroad. Prince Gallitzin, who was the Russian ambas­s­ador in France and then in the Netherlands, was the greatest adviser of them all. He knew the most important artists of his time, as well as the critics and dealers, and Catherine absolutely trusted him.

If Catherine put her individual stamp on any particular part of the collection, it was in the library. It became the greatest library in Russia, con­sis­t­ing of 40,000+ volumes, together with the archives of significant writers and philosophers. Her most famous collections were the comp­lete libraries of Voltaire and Diderot. She remained closely connect­ed to Voltaire until his death, and when Diderot had a problem publishing his encyclopaedia in Paris, she purchased his library and appointed him as her official librarian there.

Catherine had quite broad tastes, so along with the very fine oil paintings, there were also sculptures, Chinese treasures, archit­ect­ural works and decorative arts. Peter the Great and his daughter Empress Elizabeth both loved Chinese art, especially since there were important trading connections between Russia and its neighbour to the east. Catherine, very naturally, continued this interest. Her Chinese collection was not huge, but it was magnificent. 

Part of a porcelain table setting of 60+ pieces that Catherine the Great commissioned 
from the Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory in Paris
for her lover Prince Grigory Potemkin in 1777

Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

In conjunction with the art exhibition, the Consort of Melbourne will perform harmonies of European choral music from the C18th. The live performances will include the works of composers Vedel, Berezovsky and Bortniansky. *Readers may want to find Mikhail Dedinkin's article which appeared in Gallery Magazine, published by the National Gallery of Victoria, July-August 2015.

The University of Melbourne's Faculty of Arts  will present a four-part masterclass series. Focussing on key themes and pivotal works, this masterclass series will explore the multifaceted dimensions of Catherine the Great’s life and legacy. Each session (29th September - 20th October 2015) includes evening lectures by some of the University’s finest scholars and NGV’s senior curators, refreshments and exclusive access to the exhibition.


Joe said...

I do not understand how an impoverished teenager who didn't speak a word of Russian grew up into such a powerful ruler and cultural leader.

Hels said...


Sophia Augusta of Zerbst was an impoverished German princess aged 15 brought to Russia by the Empress Elizabeth to be the very young bride of her nephew, Grand Duke Peter, grandson of Peter the Great. Sophia had to change her name to Catherine, learn the Russian language, convert to Russian Orthodox religion, and absorb Russian court culture.

But worst of all, she had to live with her moronic, drunkard and impotent husband for 18 years.
Her marriage to Peter III was never consummated; instead she had many love affairs within the aristocracy. She made French the court language; built schools, monasteries and academies; and propagated Enlightenment ideas in Russia, even while her brutish husband was alive. What a very competent woman she was!

Count Orlov and his brothers who led the conspiracy against Peter III in 1762 which placed Catherine II on the Russian throne. Catherine was out of town when the murder happened and said she knew nothing about it. I believe her.

Lord Cowell said...

Hmmm, I believe that she was completely complicit in the plot to murder her husband; but she indeed made a far better ruler than he.

With regard to the porcelain, it took the Sevres factory over 3 years to create her porcelain set. Her commission was actually for over 800 pieces, and the factory had to make over 3000 pieces to allow for accidents in the kiln. She changed the design 8 times. This set has 81 pieces. The items shown in your photo are an Ice-cream cooler and cups.

National Gallery of Victoria said...

An exclusive Melbourne exhibition will highlight the innovation and vision of Catherine the Great, whose inexhaustible passion for education, the arts and culture heralded a period of enlightenment in the region. The extraordinary works sourced and commissioned by Catherine during her 34-year reign, created the foundations for the Hermitage today. The exhibition will offer audiences an immersive experience, recreating the rich atmosphere of the Hermitage to showcase these exquisite works.

NGV International
Ground Level
31 Jul – 8 Nov 2015
Open 10am–5pm daily

Hels said...

Lord Cowell

oops "I believe her" should have been a sarcastic "I believe her, millions wouldn't". Catherine was most certainly aware of what was going to happen to her husband!!

I am passionate about porcelain 18th and early 19th century porcelain, lecturing inspecting and even better, collecting for myself. But the Sevres sets were so beautiful, and complex, that we would never expect to see them with our own eyes outside the royal collections.

Have a look at the sublime Sevres porcelain in http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com.au/2012/08/sevres-napoleon-and-passion.html

Hels said...


thank you. My students, who are mostly members of the gallery in any case, will want to attend the early morning introductory talk with the NGV curator. At 9am on Friday the 31st of July 2015.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I wonder about Catherine's feelings as she was ordering and specifying that impressive Sevres porcelain. Did she feel that she was commissioning art, or was this just an extravagant accessory for royal living, and how did it compare to buying important paintings or collections of same?

Hels said...


Catherine read and spoke Lithuanian, Russian, French and German fluently, and wanted to absorb herself in European culture in whichever medium it arrived. She specialised in history, politics, literature and philosophy, and was, as we know, a voracious reader of French enlightenment writers Diderot and Voltaire.

I am guessing that her greatest contribution came with her new national network of primary and secondary schools, free and coeducational. Therefore she was not at all limited to paintings; the decorative arts, literature and architecture were all equally important.

National Gallery of Victoria said...

This weekend, explore the relationship between art collections, museums, nationhood and cultural identity in an afternoon forum featuring international guest speaker Maria Menshikova, Senior Curator of the Department of Oriental Art and Culture of the State Hermitage Museum.

Forum: Art of a Nation
Sat 1st August, 2–5pm

Hels said...

Many thanks, it will be wonderful. If only I had booked for this forum a week ago.