The Hermitage and Catherine the Great Collector



Catherine the Great's grandiose plans to build in St. Petersburg a gallery to rival the best in Europe were initially met with undisguised skepticism by her friend and adviser Diderot. Only with the additional aid of prints of major works, suggested the French philosopher and Encyclopedist, could the Russians hope to cover the full gamut of Western painting, "since those who do not possess the original of a book are obliged to read it in translation."

But Catherine, who once described herself as not so much a lover of art as "a glutton" for it, was not to be diverted from this ambition any more than from the other multiple schemes this German-born princess brought to fruition during her 17 years as grand duchess and empress in waiting, and 34 years as the absolute ruler of her adopted homeland.

The upshot was the Hermitage, which by the time of Catherine's death in 1796 had well over 2,500 canvases, many of superlative quality, and tens of thousands of other works, from sculptures, tapestries, coins and medals to cameos, enamels, silver and porcelain.

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Catherine came to power as the result of a coup in 1762 staged by army regiments. Her deposed husband, Peter III, who had treated her badly and threatened to divorce her, was afterward strangled by her army supporters during a dinner. They were led by the Orlov brothers, one of whom was her lover. Peter and a good number of Catherine's ministers, generals and advisers, many of whom shared her bed at one time or another, appear among the portraits.

Catherine secured a phenomenal range of old masters — only modestly represented in this exhibition by half a dozen or so canvases by Titian, Veronese, Palma il Vecchio, Rubens, Jordaens and Poussin — thanks to her agents' success in obtaining large existing collections, notably those of Frederick II (who had run into financial difficulties), Heinrich von Bruehl ("the Saxon Richlieu"), the French banker Pierre Crozat and the English prime minister Sir Robert Walpole.

This was often in the face of local opposition in the countries from which the works were to be exported, which Catherine overcame with that same unwavering determination, shrewd choice of advisers (Diderot's intervention, for example, was decisive in the removal of the Crozat collection from France), and lavish expenditure that allowed her to expand Russia's borders considerably during her reign.

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