Catherine The Great...Art Collector?
The Art Connoisseur Herself. Source.
Like many of my peers, I’m eagerly counting down the days until the end of the semester. It won’t be long before we can catch up on sleep, spend time with friends and family, and, most importantly, have a chance to catch up on shows. For me, this means binge-watching The Great (can you tell I did my undergrad in history?). In honour of the second season being released, what better collection to highlight than that of the Hermitage Museum in Russia?
Sometime during the 1750s, a Berlin merchant named Johann Gotzkowski began travelling around Europe to purchase artwork at the request of King Frederick II of Prussia who hoped to expand the royal collection. This would never come to be, as the Seven Years War devastated Prussia in Gotzkowski’s absence, leaving Frederick unable to afford the 225 paintings that had been collected for him. Luckily for Gotzkowski, one man’s misery is another (wo)man’s fortune. In 1764, Catherine the Great bought the collection – if only to rub it in Frederick’s face that Russia could still afford to make such lavish and expensive purchases. These 225 paintings would eventually grow to a collection of over three million pieces.
Cupid and Pysche by Antonio Canova. Source.
Catherine had a bit of a shopping addiction and by 1771 her collection had outgrown the Small Hermitage. As anyone in this situation would do, Catherine had a second building constructed to accommodate her new collection, aptly called the Great Hermitage. Since there was no point in letting all this newfound space remain empty, the museum wasted no time in acquiring the collection of Baron Pierre Crozat in 1772, closely followed by that of Sir Robert Walpole’s in 1779, and the John Lyde Browne’s ancient sculpture collection in 1787.
Rembrandt's Portrait of a Young Bachelor, part of the Hermitage collection. Source.
Some of the highlights from her impressive collection include multiple Rembrandts, Raphael’s Holy Family, Pieter Paul Ruben’s Bacchus, and the infamous Peacock Clock that her lover Grigori Potemkin commissioned for her in 1766. The collection housed at the Hermitage became the envy of Europe, especially amongst the French who thought they were cheated out of the Crozat’s collection by Dennis Diderot (yes, that Diderot). This didn’t deter Catherine, who remained an avid collector up until her death. Throughout the last three decades of her life, Catherine employed several agents to travel across Europe and purchase works for her rapidly expanding collection. By 1796, she had amassed nearly 4,000 paintings and established herself as one of the greatest art collectors in Europe.
The Peacock Clock. Source.
It wasn’t just all fun and games though; by building up such a prestigious collection, Catherine was able to transform Russia’s global reputation from one of supposed backwardness and barbarism to the epicentre of cultural enlightenment. However, it came at a cost: while millions of rubles were being spent on art, Catherine was also quashing growing unrest amongst peasants and serfs, who continued to suffer under feudalism. Amid the Great Hermitage’s construction, a military officer named Yemelyan Pugachev led hundreds of thousands into a rebellion in response to Russia’s continued conflict with Turkey. Pugachev ended up burning Kazan and captured Tsaritsyn before he was ultimately caught and executed by Catherine’s army, along with other members of the rebellion.
The Hall of Military Fame. Source.
It’s undeniable that Catherine the Great transformed Russia’s reputation during her rule, leading the country to become a major power in terms of arts, sciences, and education. She supposedly embraced Enlightenment ideals with the promotion of education and freedom, yet she failed to abolish serfdom and kept thousands of people enslaved in the name of maintaining power. While her ideals were at odds with her actions, her expansive collection altered the Russian cultural landscape, establishing the country as an enlightened power to be reckoned with.