Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great

August 15, 2015
Alexander ROSLIN Swedish 1718–93 Portrait of Catherine II 1776–77 (detail) oil on canvas 271.0 х 189.5 cm. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg (Inv. no. ГЭ-1316) Acquired from the artist, 1777
Alexander ROSLIN Swedish 1718–93 Portrait of Catherine II 1776–77 (detail) oil on canvas 271.0 х 189.5 cm. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg (Inv. no. ГЭ-1316) Acquired from the artist, 1777

Following the death of Prince Grigory Potemkin in 1791, Catherine the Great wrote her own epitaph. Potemkin had not only been Catherine’s most trusted advisor, statesman and general, but the undisputed love of her life. Feeling her own mortality, she set down how she would like to be remembered.

Catherine, by her own estimation, had always wished to do good for her country and bring happiness, liberty, and prosperity to her subjects. She forgave easily and hated no-one. She was good-natured, easy-going, tolerant, understanding, and of a happy disposition. She had a republican spirit and a kind heart. She was sociable by nature. She made many friends. She took pleasure in her work.

The last line of this remarkable document is: “She loved the arts.”

This is one part of Catherine’s self-assessment that will be immediately obvious to visitors to the National Gallery of Victoria’s winter blockbuster, Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great.

Catherine who reigned from 1762-96, loved the arts almost to excess. She professed to be a glutton rather than a collector; describing her passion for cameos as a mania, and her taste for English-style gardens as “Anglomania”.

It’s great to be Autocrat and feed your manias, but Catherine was one of wisest and sanest rulers ever to sit on a European throne.

It had hardly been possible to imagine Russia as part of Europe until the reign of Peter the Great (r. 1696-1725) whose program of reforms brought his vast, sprawling, backward country into the family of ‘western’ nations.

For Catherine, who was determined to continue the process begun by her famous predecessor, there was no hypocrisy in her claim to have a republican spirit. She was a true daughter of the Enlightenment: a voracious reader of literature and philosophy who enjoyed a long-running correspondence with Voltaire, Diderot and Grimm.

In her early years Catherine believed she could abolish serfdom, drawing on the principles of good government found in the works of Montesquieu. By the end of her reign she had learned from the experiences of a bloody Cossack rebellion and a failed national congress that it wasn’t possible to change Russia with well-meaning legislation. She needed the support of the Nobility who saw serfdom as a condition sanctified by God and tradition.

Catherine was always a politician, but in old age her idealism gave way to a hard-line pragmatism. She was no longer tolerant and easy-going, although her love of the arts continued to flourish.

The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is a monument to Catherine’s enthusiasms. It is Russia’s leading tourist attraction, with one of the world’s biggest, most comprehensive collections of art and artefacts. The museum’s holdings were swelled by the Empress’s habit of buying entire collections, while its neo-classical buildings reflect her tastes in architecture.

The Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia.

The Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia.

Catherine was a hands-on patron who supervised every aspect of the museum’s evolution, and is often viewed as the first curator of the Hermitage. Her engagement was more than the hobby of a supreme ruler – it reflected a conviction that the arts had an important role to play in the progress of Russian civilisation.

It’s depressing to put Catherine’s attitude alongside the views of today’s politicians. Senator Brandis considers himself an arbiter of taste – George the Great? – but we have seen little evidence of his refined sensibilities. Most of his Parliamentary colleagues couldn’t care less.

With this exhibition the Russians are teaching us a lesson about the value of the arts. According to senior curator, Mikhail Dedinkin, the NGV show is the largest and most valuable touring show in the museum’s history. We may not be getting an indisputable, fragile masterpiece such as Rembrandt’s Danae (1636), but every room has works of undeniable quality. It’s a high percentage for an Australian blockbuster and the NGV has responded in kind, with one of the most elaborate displays ever seen in this country. The walls and even the floors have been painted in Hermitage colours, with facsimile furniture made specially for the occasion.

There are allegedly 500 items in this show, although I didn’t stop to count them. If this sounds overwhelming, the list features dozens of small gems, cameos and decorative objects. The paintings, sourced from all over Europe, include works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Velázquez, Titian, Van Dyke, and Chardin. There is also a breathtaking collection of old master drawings, including the studies for a large, moralistic painting by Greuze, which are exhibited as a group around the actual canvas.

One crowd-pleaser is a spectacular Sèvres porcelain dinner set in blue and gold, commissioned by Catherine as a gift for Potemkin. It seems to exert more of an attraction on visitors than the paintings. At the end of the exhibition there is another surprise, in the form of a unique collection of Chinese objects made from silver filigree and gold.

If one had to nominate a single stand-out work it would have to be Hendrick Goltzius’s large drawing, Bacchus, Venus and Ceres (1606). This demonstration of graphic virtuosity belonged to three other monarchs before falling into Catherine’s hands. The sheer level of detail is almost superhuman.

Although Goltzius is an artist with little profile today his pictures were eagerly sought after in the 18th century – a statement that also applies to painters such as Guido Reni, Philips Wouwerman and David Teniers II. This selection is a lesson in the history of taste, with many artists still repaying close scrutiny even if they have diminished in fame and fashionability.

We turn eagerly to figures such as Rembrandt and Rubens, represented by a range of large and small paintings. Their most magnetic works are perhaps the smallest. Rembrandt’s Young woman trying on earrings (1657) is an intimate study of a girl looking at herself in a mirror, admiring the effect of a pearl earring that she frames expressively with her hands.

Rubens is known for his ability to create grand-scale compositions, but his Head of a Franciscan monk (1615-17) shows what he could do with a simple portrait. The monk’s compassionate personality may be read in his face and eyes. The asymmetrical features convey a powerful realism.

The Hermitage is unusually strong on British art, largely thanks to Catherine’s purchase of the collection of Sir Robert Walpole, from his spendthrift heir. Two of the most striking pictures are Joshua Reynolds’s Cupid untying the zone of Venus (1788), and An iron forge viewed from without (1773) by Joseph Wright of Derby. Both are atypical of the art of their time – Reynolds through his sly eroticism, and the expressive nature of his brushwork; Wright because of his radical approach to light and shadow, as well as a trademark fascination with science and technology.

Two undoubted highlights are Van Dyck’s masterful portraits of the ill-fated Charles I, and his Queen, Henrietta Maria (both c. 1638). The artist’s immaculate technique in regard to fabrics and armour is combined with a piercing psychological insight. There is an intelligence and sensitivity in Charles’s face that is largely missing in a portrait of Catherine painted by Swedish artist, Alexander Roslin. Although her dress looks magnificent, Catherine felt the artist had made her look more like a cook than a queen.

'Portrait of King Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland', (detail) (1600-1649), 1638. Dyck, Sir Anthonis, van (1599-1641). Found in the collection of the State Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

‘Portrait of King Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland’, (detail) (1600-1649), 1638. Dyck, Sir Anthonis, van (1599-1641). Found in the collection of the State Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

The Empress who was willing to write a list of her own virtues had limits when it came to false modesty. In an official portrait she still expected to appear as an exceptional personality, and could see that Roslin’s slickly executed likeness had sold her short.

In this she was like the vast majority of sitters who feel disappointed with their portrait. In our own minds we are all complex characters, but a painter may see only a mask. Smile, and you are forever immortalised as a jolly person; scowl and you are bitter and melancholy. Where Charles I looks like a man with deep matters on his mind, Catherine has the frozen half-smile of a woman who feels cheerful but is trying to look serious. Or is it vice versa?

With hindsight we acknowledge she had more reason to smile than Charles I, or her contemporary, Louis XVI. Beyond any monarch of the age, Catherine understood the art of balancing the Enlightenment with enlightened self-interest.

Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne,
Until 8 November

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 15th August, 2015