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!


About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring the art and artists of early 20th century Britain (with forays elsewhere, in particular Russian Art History); the Art, Books & History Group meets monthly in Southend-on-Sea Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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