30 October 2012

Czarina Catherine the Great (1729-96) in Edinburgh

Russia in the 18th century is a fascinating place to study because I am filled with admiration for their patronage, collecting and con­noisseurship. And because after Peter The Great died in 1725, Russia was led by intelligent and learned women almost cont­in­uous­ly until 1796. So the arrival of the “Catherine the Great: an Enlightened Empress” exhibition in the National Museum of Scotland could not have come at a better time. 

Sop­hia Aug­usta of Zerbst was an impoverished German princess, 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, give up Lutheranism and convert to Russian Orthodox religion, and absorb Russian court culture. The girl’s golden wedding gown and her golden coronation gown are both preserved in the Krem­lin. As is the carriage in which they drove from their wedding. But there was a great price to pay; young Catherine had to live with her moronic, drunkard and impotent husband for 18 years. 

Her marriage to Grand Duke Peter (later Czar Peter III) was never consummated; instead she had many love affairs within the arist­ocracy. Her son and heir, the fu­ture Czar Paul I, was born in 1754; the father may have been Orlov, Potemkin or perhaps the king of Po­land. 

portrait of an older Catherine the Great, 
painted by the French portraitist, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun 
in St Petersburg 

Empress Elizabeth died in 1762. To the displeasure of the Rus­s­ian nobility, the new Czar Peter III signed a treaty with Fred­er­ick of Prussia. Then he became really stupid - in 1763, only a year after Peter III was crown­ed, he had his wife ar­r­ested. But with her court sup­p­orters, she had him arrested inst­ead; arrested and strang­led. After the coup, Catherine was clever; she never got married again. Luck­ily for her and for Russia, Cather­ine was allowed to rule in his place, despite having no claim to the throne of her own. And she ruled alone from 1763-96!

What a woman! This very German, cultured Czarina Catherine II spoke Lithu­an­ian, Russ­ian, French and German fluently, and was a great read­er of Fr­ench en­lightenment writers Rousseau, Did­erot and Volt­aire. At one stage she actually persuaded Diderot to come to the Rus­sian Court! She favourite topics were history, politics and phil­osophy, and learned a great deal about the theory of government and of comparative politics. 

Catherine the Great was an active ruler like Peter the Great, her grand-father in law. She took resp­on­­­sibility for modern­ising the armed forces. She trav­el­led all over Russia, gath­ering intelligence and learning about her subjects. She made French the court lan­guage and pr­omoted Enlight­enment ideas. She established local responsibility for hosp­itals and almshouses, and opened a national network of free primary and secondary schools for boys and girls. The judicial system was also remodelled with a new network of local courts being set up. 

Snuff box showing the monument to Peter the Great, by Falconet, 1780s

But for this exhibition in Scotland, it was Catherine’s patronage that was most interesting; she very much want­ed collect­ing works of art to be a national priority. Her court absorbed up to 50% of state income as ship loads of art work arr­iv­ed from her agents all over Europe. Iain Gale described how Old Master paintings, porcelain dinner services, sil­ver, gold and jewellery were delivered to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Libraries were filled with precious books. Rel­ig­ious icons and vestments were welcomed with passion. 

I wondered why Edinburgh, in particular, was so keen to have the Catherine exhibition. The museum made the point  that Catherine sought to surround herself with men of great ability who could help her create a modern and acculturated Russia, based on European learning. Catherine the Great was a pioneer in her approach to medicine and health care. Not only did she found Russia’s College of Medicine in 1763, but she also created the first teaching hospitals. Among the Scottish physicians at her court in Russia were Doctors John Rog­er­son, Thomas Dimsdale and Matthew Guthrie. Dr Dimsdale went on to in­oculate many members of the nobility, and ran vaccination hosp­itals set up by Catherine in Moscow and St Petersburg. Catherine also invited several foreign architects and builders to her court, including Scotsman Charles Cameron. Scottish craftsmen Adam Menelaws and William Hastie worked with Cameron in Russia, and also found patronage with the Imperial family. 

egg-shaped gold, diamonds and rock cystal snuff box 
made by by Johann Gottlieb Scharff for Peter the Great 

Although the exhibition finished this month (Oct 2012), inter­ested readers can still buy the catalogue which contains both images of the objects on display, and a series of essays by Russian and British scholars. 


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, After reading your post, I went to Wikipedia to read some more on Catherine, and discovered the interesting fact that the American patriot John Paul Jones ("I have not yet begin to fight.") served under Catherine following the American Revolution. After initial success, he became bogged down in political intrigues, an apparently usual fate in that country.
--Road to Parnassus

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
This does all sound to have been a wonderful exhibition. Thank you for presenting such a delightful flavour of it to us as we know that we should have thoroughly enjoyed being there in person.

We have toyed on so many occasions now to go to Russia, Moscow and St Petersburg in particular, but it always seems to be fraught with incredible amounts of bureaucracy and expense. However, there is no doubt in our minds that the quality of Art that can be seen there is stunning and for that alone we must pursue our intention to go and see it at first hand.

Hels said...


I am not at all familiar with John Paul Jones and his connection to Catherine the Great, but her reign was so eventful, I can see I have more reading to do. Thank you.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

Because my passion in Russia is the 18th century, it is St Petersburg that has the most stunning art and architecture. Alas I have no family connection to that part of the world - my own family came from cities that are now in the Ukraine.

Wouldn't it be cool to knock on the front door of a St Petersburg palace and say to the current residents "I am so sorry. This was my parents' home. Now we are coming home again" :)

We Travel said...

Is “Catherine the Great: an Enlightened Empress” exhibition moving on to any other city, after Edinburgh has finished with it?

Parnassus said...

Hello again, As an Australian, you would be unlikely to know about John Paul Jones, but he is one of the great heroes of the American Revolution, and his story is familiar to all schoolchildren there.

By coincidence, my recent post on night-view postcards briefly features another famous American naval commander, Oliver Hazard Perry, victor of the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812.


the designers muse said...

Hello Hels, what an interesting post. Thanks for sharing! I will definitely check out the rest of the exhibit on line. Thanks also for commenting on my blog.
All the best,

Hels said...

We Travel

the cost of insuring, transporting and curating a very large exhibition is so expensive, you would think that different cities would want to share the costs and share the pleasures. But apparently not

Hels said...


I loved the night view postcards. I will go back and have a look at Oliver Hazard Perry, many many thanks.

Hels said...

the designers muse

I had seen the paintings before, and the royal costumes, but most of the small decorative art objects have never been outside the Hermitage before. And possibly never will again.

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Hels said...


you are so right. The final summary partially explains why Catherine the Great was so connected to Scotland:

"Catherine invited several foreign architects and builders to her court, including Scotsman Charles Cameron. Scottish craftsmen Adam Menelaws and William Hastie worked with Cameron in Russia, and also found patronage with the Imperial family"