The Art and Artists of Russia (Part 2): Catherine the Great

View of St Petersburg and the Neva River (1753)

Continuing our introduction to Russian art, the Russian 18th century was particularly turbulent when it came to monarchs. Peter the Great died in 1725, leaving the legacy of the St Petersburg project. His wife, Catherine I, took over for a couple of years; then his son, Peter II ruled, again for just a few years. A rather dissipated and resentful young man by all accounts, he even moved the Russian capital back to Moscow, so dismissive was he of his father’s projects.

The decade-long rule of Anna (1730-1740) brought a little more stability, though apparently she was extremely cruel. However, she did turn the focus back to St Petersburg, introducing the Arts to the curriculum of the Academy of Science and instigating fashions for theatre, ballet and opera – mind, this ‘history painting’ made nearly a century and a half later in 1872 by Valery Jakobi conjures up the ‘bawdiness’ of Anna’s court.

Valery Jakobi (1834-1902): Jesters at the Court of Empress Anna [1872; Treyakov Gallery]

Her successors Ivan VI and Anna Leopoldova reigned for less than a year before Elizabeth Petrovna seized the throne, ruling for twenty years (1741-1762). Described as “volatile, vain and violent”, Elizabeth was nevertheless a popular monarch, ushering in an Age of Enlightenment. It was in her reign that the Winter Palace (now the Hermitage) was built for example. A music-lover, she also held grand ‘fancy dress’ balls. Most spectacular were the ‘Metamorphoses Balls’ which required everyone to dress as the opposite sex, Elizabeth favouring the guise of either a Cossack or a carpenter (if only there were photographs!).

It was her relationship (in every sense of the word) with the art collector Ivan Shuvalov that is perhaps most important to us for, in 1757, Shuvalov proposed the establishment of the Academy of Three Noble Arts (Painting, Sculpture and Architecture) for all gifted boys from any part of society.

A. Zyablov: View of Ivan Shuvalov’s Art Gallery [1770s; c/o Wikipedia]

As can be seen from this picture, Shuvalov’s collection was very much of European art. We noted last time that Peter the Great would send promising artists to Italy, Holland or France to study, even if they were serfs*. One young man, we saw, was Ivan Nikitin who had painted Elizabeth Petrovna in her youth.

Ivan Nikitin: Portrait of the Young Elizabath [1720s; State Russian Museum]

Fyodor Rokotov (1736-1808) was also from a peasant/serf family but he would study at St Petersburg’s Academy of Three Noble Arts, becoming one of the most famous and in-demand portraitists of the century.

Fyodor Rokotov: Lady in a Pink Dress [1770s; Tretyakov Gallery]

Elizabeth Petrovna certainly increased the status of art in Russia. She was succeeded by Peter III, who, within months, was deposed and murdered (probably) on instruction from his wife: Catherine II. Styled as Catherine the Great, she would rule from 1762-1796 as the most successful, innovative and cultured ruler since her grandfather-in-law, Peter. As Susan Jacques writes in her introduction to “The Empress of Art”,

“Catherine the Great was one of history’s greatest patrons of art and architecture, both in scale and quality. Under her patronage, Russia experienced a cultural renaissance the likes of which Europe hadn’t seen since the reign of England’s Charles I.”

Valery Jakobi: The Inauguration of the Imperial Academy of Arts [1889; Louvre]

Under Catherine, Shuvalov’s school became the Imperial Academy of Arts (its inauguration would be represented again a century later by Yakobi), and Fyodor Rokotov would be made an Academician, and one of Catherine’s portrait painters:

Fyodor Rokotov: Portrait of Catherine the Great [1763; Tretyakov Gallery]

Portraits such as these would be copied, reproduced in engravings, and used as source material for further portraits; they were symbols of monarchy, majesty and power and consequently sent out to be displayed throughout the Russian Empire and, indeed Europe.

Another Russian artist of note was Alexei Antropov (1716-1795), the son of a government official, who worked as a fresco-painter in palaces and churches alongside studying portraiture. He too would portray Catherine in all her finery of state.

Alexei Antropov: Portrait of Catherine the Great [1760s; Tretyakov Gallery]

Portraiture was definitely the genre of choice for the monarchy and aristocracy through the Russian 18th century and how suitable for the people of St Petersburg – surrounded by waterways and canals across the city, and mirrored interiors in their grand houses, portraits were yet another reflection of their status as ‘new Russians’. The majority of artists working and teaching in Russia did, however, still came from abroad; Europe was understood throughout the age of Catherine as the crucible of civilisation and culture. And perhaps nowhere, and no-one, makes that more obvious than Catherine’s art collection at the Hermitage.

As with portraiture, so an art collection was a symbol of power and prestige, which Catherine recognised in her first mass purchase in 1764: the collection of Frederick the Great of Prussia which included:

Frans Hals: Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Glove [c. 1650; Hermitage]

Catherine turned committedly to the study of art, reading deeply, conversing by letter to Voltaire, and sending agents out across Europe to spend huge amount of money on ‘ready-made’ art collections from Paris, Holland and beyond.

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio): Danae [c. 1554; Hermitage]

Notably for those of us in the UK perhaps, the Walpole Collection (see Houghton Hall Revisited] was a particularly esteemed purchase as it included a number of works by Rubens.

Rubens: Landscape with Stone Carriers [c.1620; Hermitage]

[It is possible to ‘visit’ the Rubens room virtually via the Hermitage, just click: here]

 “When [Catherine] died in 1796, Russia’s imperial collection boasted some 4,000 Old Master paintings, 10,000 drawings, 10,000 engraved gems, and thousands of decorative objects” notes Jacques.

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn: Young Woman with Earrings [1657; Hermitage]

It’s also important to note that alongside the Old Masters, Catherine also collected contemporary art, such as Joseph Wright of Derby’s “The Iron Forge Viewed from Without” [1773, Hermitage].

The Hermitage website says: “This was the first English painting to enter the Hermitage when it was acquired by Catherine the Great in 1774. We do not know how it was that Catherine had heard of the talent of this artist who was still so little known in his own country, but this purchase characterizes her as a perspicacious collector.”

Moreover, Catherine commissioned work from some of the most famous and leading artists of the day, including Angelica Kauffmann,

Portrait of Countess Anna Protasova and her Nieces [1788; Hermitage]

(a portrait created by means of sketches sent from Russia), and Joshua Reynolds who chose to paint

“The Infant Hercules Slaying Serpents” [1789; Hermitage]

as a symbolic reference to the power of the Russian nation. Catherine was, apparently, not very impressed upon seeing her great Empire portrayed, even symbolically, as a baby! She’d probably have been even less impressed if she’d known: “Reynolds experimented with paints and techniques and the surface of the painting began to show signs of physical distortion and changing colouring even in the 18th century” (Hermitage).

She even “summoned” – as Susan Jacques put it – the British painter Richard Brompton to St Petersburg for “he has great talents”, Catherine wrote after he had portrayed her beloved grandsons.

Richard Brompton “Portrait of Grand Dukes Alexander Pavlovich and Constantin Pavlovich” [1781; Hermitage]

Another artist who came to St Petersburg, this time fleeing the French Revolution, was Elizabeth Vigee le Brun who stayed for six years. Meeting Catherine the day after her arrival, she reports the monarch declaring:

“I am delighted, madam, to see you here; your reputation has preceded you. I am fond of the arts, especially painting. I am no connoisseur, but I am a great art lover.”

Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun: Portrait of Princess Galitzin [1797; Baltimore Museum of Art]

Vigee Le Brun painted numerous notable portraits of Catherine’s Court (see Gazette de Beaux Arts article) bringing striking colour and a romantic, even sensual aspect to Russian portraiture (sometimes too sensual for the increasingly prudish Catherine!).  

One of the last paintings of Catherine herself was by the Ukrainian artist Vladimir Borovikovsky (1757-1825).

Catherine II during a walk in the Tsarskosyelsky Park [1794; Tretyakov Gallery]

Catherine thought it too informal, but it became hugely popular for its Rococo flair, and widely copied.

Catherine the Great died in 1796, her son Paul taking power – a ruthless, much-disliked Tsar but who, nevertheless inherited a love of art and collecting. However, he would be murdered in 1801, and Catherine’s mantle passed to Alexander I.

A new century had dawned.



We’ll discuss the situation of the serfs more fully at a later date. From Wikipedia: The term “serf”, in the sense of an unfree peasant of tsarist Russia, an unfree person who could be sold.


Our “book of the week” just has to be “The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the Transformation of Russia” by Susan Jacques [Pegasus Books, 2017] which is brilliant: very well written; easy to read, and absolutely packed with research and information.

The Art and Artists of Russia (Part 2)

Thank you so much if you are able to contribute.


Next time:

On Saturday 6th February, we’ll enter the 19th century: the turbulent times of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” to see how the war against Napoleon would lead to a student revolt at the Imperial Academy of Arts.

Until then: take care and stay safe!


Interlude: Russian Impressionism – to brighten the day!


As all the galleries across the world are closed, it’s the online ‘exhibitions’ that come to the fore – not that many of us could just pop over to Moscow even in usual times! But this is just a quick note to direct anyone following my little “Art & Artists of Russia” articles that there are some glorious paintings on the Russian Impressionism Museum website: the English version is at Collection – Russian impressionism museum (

My favourite painting (today!) from the Museum is “Little Church at Abramtsevo” painted by Valentina Diffine-Christi (sometimes Valentina Mikhailovna Diffine-Kristi) in 1953 [website link].

The picture is radiant with sunlight; the brushstrokes so loose and free with paint and colour, that it would be so satisfying to relate its expressiveness to the broader context: 1953 was the year that Stalin died.

Even if that’s not the case, the painting certainly looks back to a previous time. The Abramtsevo estate had been a vibrant and radical artists colony in the 19th century – a community that included perhaps the most famous pre-Revolution artist, Ilya Repin, and artists from the Wanderers movement who excelled in depictions of the Russian landscape such as Konstantin Korovin whose impressionism – inspired by trips to Paris, where he would settle permanently in 1923 – is a direct antecedent of “Little Church”. Here’s his painting “Yalta” from the 1910s (also at the Russian Impressionism Museum [website link]).


Hoping this might have brightened your day!


Research Series: The Art and Artists of Russia (1): Peter the Great’s Vision

The Old Testament Trinity by Andrei Rublev (c.1360-1430) [1420s; Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow]

Greetings! I’m thrilled you are able to join me on this journey into the art and artists of Russia, a series of ‘sketches’ exploring the breadth and depth of Russian painting.

The header here is an image of one of the most beautiful and venerated icons in Russia, by one of the most acclaimed icon-painters, Andrei Rublev. No story of art in Russia can avoid the tradition of icon painting that reaches back to Byzantium, supports the Orthodox faith and, we might say, forms the spine of everyday Russian life and culture. Indeed, looking back to the turn of the 17th century, Orlando Figes writes in Natasha’s Dance: “Icons were encountered everywhere – not just in homes and churches, but in shops and offices or in wayside shrines.”

This might suggest that this is where we should start: with icons. However, Orlando Figes goes on to note: “There was next to nothing to connect the icon to the European tradition of secular painting that had its origin in the Renaissance.” Therefore, as my west European eyes and ways of seeing are rooted in centuries of a very different visual history, I propose that rather than beginning at the beginning as it were, we must find another ‘way in’ to Russian art – noting, as Virginia Woolf did, that we may well fly off at a tangent far from the truth.

Whilst we’ll return to the art of the Russian icon in weeks to come, our research journey here begins then not in ancient Moscow, but in London, at The Queen’s Gallery in Kensington Palace.


Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia (1672-1725) by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) [1698; Royal Collection Trust]

It still astonishes me that Peter the Great was ever in Britain, but from 11th January to 21st April 1698 he visited William III in London. It was part of Peter’s “Great Embassy” – primarily a diplomatic mission which, as the Royal Collection Trust website notes, turned into a fact-finding tour. Peter was fascinated by science, industry and rationalist philosophy – forces that were dominant in shaping Renaissance Europe; they signalled a way in which Peter could bring the Russia of medieval Muscovy into the modern world.

The portrait itself, painted by the leading portrait painter of the day in Britain, is thought – and a huge thank you to Alex Buck, Assistant Curator of Paintings at the Royal Collection Trust for this – to have been developed from sketches Kneller had made of Peter when he was in Holland the previous year. Indeed, Peter – overcoming, apparently, his initial dislike of putting himself ‘on display’ – had commissioned the portrait himself and would present it to William as he took leave of London. Noted as an astonishingly true likeness,

“Kneller portrayed Peter as young and virile, the encumbrance of armour failing to disguise his shapely leg and lanky frame.  The Tsar’s status is conveyed by the crown in the alcove and the cloak embroidered in silver thread with the double-headed eagle of Russia’s coat of arms.  These are balanced compositionally by a view of ships on exercise, which alludes to Peter’s investment in the Russian navy and the strength that this was bringing to his reign.” (Jeni Fraser in “Hurrah for the Tsar”, The Arts Society, October 2020)

In fact, as he had in Holland, Peter spent much of his time working in the London shipyards at Greenwich, and there is a painting “Peter the Great at Deptford Dockyard” by Daniel Maclise (1806-1870) ‘documenting’ the scene.

“Peter stands on the left with his foot resting on the timber he has been sawing. He was keen to get as much hands-on experience as possible. When he spent the winter at Deptford, it was reported that he worked as hard as any man in the dockyard. The active figure of the Tsar contrasts to the more passive –looking figure of the English King William of Orange who stands on the right in sombre but luxurious attire”. (Royal Holloway)

It was this hands-on experience and knowledge that, on his return to Russia, stood Peter in good stead, for he was immediately drawn into war. Brenden Woldman writes (in History is Now), that the Tsar “established a large shipbuilding program in the Baltic Sea which, by his death in 1725, had 28,000 men enlisted in a Navy of nearly 50 large ships and over 800 smaller vessels.” Moreover, “in Peter’s greatest fight, the Great Northern War against Sweden, [this] newly established Russian Navy was a key component to the Russian victory in the war”.

It’s an essential moment in the story of art in Russia for it was whilst fighting on the Baltic coast that Peter had his ‘vision’.

Alexander Benois. “Peter the Great contemplating the building of St. Petersburg” by Alexander Benois [1916]

Now shrouded in myth and legend as Benois’ painting illustrates, the story goes that Peter stood looking out onto the swamps, rivers and seas and declared he would build a new city, right there: a Window onto Europe.

Mikhail Makhaev: View of Neva Downstream between Winter Palace and Academy of Sciences [engraving; 1753; Hermitage]

Bringing in architects and craftsmen from Europe, workers and materials from across Russia, slowly but surely the city of St Petersburg was built. Nobles and aristocrats were “invited” to move from Moscow to build houses and palaces. It would be an Amsterdam or a Venice of the north. And it would be modern: from stone pavements to a police force and up-to-date fashions. The ‘new Russians’ of St Petersburg had to dress in European style, the men had to shave off their beards, the women would dance at balls and galas.

And art would become part of their new cultural life.

Mikhail Makhaev: View of the Fontanka River [engraving; 1753; Hermitage]

As Alex Buck has noted, portraits such as Kneller’s would influence the course of painting in Russia. Whilst there had already been a very limited turn to portraiture, it was rooted in the icon tradition. Orlando Figes reckons that the first secular portraits (called ‘parsuna’) weren’t seen until the 1650s, and that Peter’s father, Tsar Alexei, is the first ruler of whom we have something of a “reliable likeness”.

Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich [unknown artist, 1672, Hermitage]

Lindsey Hughes writes in Picturing Russia that Tsar Alexei “appears in the guise of a Byzantine emperor” with four crucifixes and fully bearded. Certainly, his parsuna stands in complete contrast to Kneller’s representation of Peter just thirty years later; a difference that symbolises the dramatic shift from the habits – and ways of seeing – of ‘medieval’ Moscow to the ‘modernity’ of St Petersburg.

Recognising the power of art, Peter invited European artists to work in St Petersburg and, in turn, sent promising Russian artists to study in Holland and Italy. For example, Ivan Nikitin (c.1690-1741) studied in Florence and Venice, returning to become court painter to Peter in 1710.

Left: Nikitin’s “Portrait of Crown Princess Elizabeth Petrovna as a Child” [c.1713; Hermitage] ; Right: Nikitin’s “Portrait of a Hetman (military commander)” [1720s, State Russian Museum]

Nikitin has been described as “the father of Russian portraiture” for, whilst his earlier work – such as the Princess – still has that “naivete” of the parsuna, his later portraits are much more expressive of the individual sitter’s unique personality. Of the Hetman portrait, for instance, the State Russian Museum describes: “the military commander appears before us devoid of ceremonial armour, orders and medals… there are signs of the fatigue of battle, he is grown old and grey.”

Another painter of Peter’s time is Andrei Matveev (1701-1739), who was sent to Holland to study. He returned to Russia after Peter’s death, and himself died young.

His “Self-portrait with Wife” [1729; State Russian Museum] is gorgeous in both colour and sentiment, and his “Allegory of Painting” [1725; State Russian Museum] is thought to be the first Russian nude.


Peter the Great died in 1725, yet his projects for building St Petersburg and creating a ‘modern’ Russia were continued (for the most part) by his successors. But it was under Catherine the Great (1729-1796), that this ‘new culture’ of visual art would fully flourish with the Hermitage and the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts.

“The Art and Artists of Russia (2): Catherine the Great” will be published on Saturday 23rd January, 2020.


The Art and Artists of Russia (1)

If you have enjoyed this ‘sketch’ are able to support my ongoing research into Russian art and artists, then a huge thank you in advance!


References and resources…

I have included as many links as I can through the text (please just click on the highlighted website), and I shall add to the bibliography (below) as we go along.

Do please also contact me with anything relevant you have read or any television or radio programmes: the more the better!

For a broad, general history, I’d suggest

Russia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East by Martin Sixsmith (BBC/ Ebury Books)

and a brilliant cultural history (essential reading, I’d say!) is definitely

Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes (Penguin Books)

There is also a short (10 minute) “Witness History” programme from BBC World Service: “Peter the Great in Russia

Other books I’ve used here (available at all good bookshops):

“Sunlight at Midnight: St Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia” by W. Bruce Lincoln (Ingram Publishers)

“Picturing Russia: Explorations in Visual Culture” essays edited by Valerie A. Kivelson & Joan Neuberger (Yale University Press)

“Russia: Art, Royalty and the Romanovs” exhibition catalogue is available from the Royal Collection Trust bookshop

“The Russian Point of View”, an essay by Virginia Woolf, can be found in The Common Reader Volume 1 (Vintage Publishing)

“St Petersburg: A History” by Arthur George & Elena George (nb. currently unavailable)

and one (more academic) collection of essays online: “A People Passing Rude: British Responses to Russian Culture” edited by Anthony Cross (Open Books) is at:


The statue of Peter the Great (often known as The Bronze Horseman) in St Petersburg by Etienne Falconet.