Catherine the Greatest: The Shining Star of the North Amsterdam Hermitage (18 June 2016 -15 January 2017

By Bejamin B. Roberts

A detailed preview of the upcoming fascinating exhibition. The French writer and philosopher Voltaire called her ‘the shining star of the North’, and rightly so explains Vincent Boele, curator of exhibitions at the Hermitage Museum in Amsterdam. “Catherine the Great was the longest ruling tsarina of Russia; she was a ‘rags to riches’ princess who surprised everybody with her intelligence, her social personality, and ability to charm. She helped modernize and professionalize Russia”.

Photo: State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg)

For the last two years, Boele in collaboration with his colleagues in St. Petersburg felt challenged when searching through the abundant and deep archives of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum in their quest to unravel how Catherine became the well-educated art-collector and initiator of the Hermitage Museum. Boele sighs in a Skype interview: “that was no easy feat”. The Hermitage in St. Petersburg has more than three million objects including 16,000 paintings, 622,000 graphic works, 357,000 works of applied arts, and 751,0000 archaeological artifacts.

Photo: State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg)

At first, his Russian colleagues recommended an exhibition featuring 1,000 objects, but Boele thought that was too much, and that visitors would be overwhelmed. Instead he chose 300 objects that would best portray her life and personality, “although it was often painful not to include many items,” he adds. They include more than 75 paintings, sculptures, crafts, jewellery, gowns, banners from the Turks with whom she waged a war and won the Crimea for Russia, her carriage, her desk, as well as cameos (she collected more than 10,000 of them), and snuff boxes.
According to Boele, “Catherine’s story is an 18th-century fairytale. She was born in a low-ranking German nobleman’s family that married the crown prince of Russia, overthrew him in a coup, and claimed the throne for herself”. “She was a women who knew what she wanted and was quick on her feet when it came to making decisions. If she did not have that ability, she would have never been tsarina”, he adds. There have been several exhibitions about Catherine the Great, including one just two years ago that celebrated the 250th anniversary of the Hermitage, which she founded, but Boele says “the Amsterdam exhibition that opens on June 18th will shed light on the undereducated princess that her parents and mother-in-law did not expect much from, and surprised everyone, and became tsarina of Russia, and earned title ‘the Great’ during her reign to boot. That did not happen very often in a person’s lifetime”.

Photo: State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg)

Eighteenth-century Cinderella

As a child she did not have much education and was married off at the age of sixteen because Empress Elisabeth of Russia thought that she was only good for bearing a successor to the Russian throne, but , as Boele confirms, “she proved them all wrong”. Catherine was born as Sophia in 1729, the daughter of Prince Christian August of Anhalt-Zerbst and Princess Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. She lived in an ordinary merchant’s house in Stettin, Northern Germany. The family later had a son and another daughter. Sophia was an inquisitive and energetic child who proved to be a born leader and took control of her afternoon games with other children. She had a dominant mother who found her to be a proud, ugly, arrogant, and rebellious child that needed to be tamed by a husband. In 1745 at the age of 16 her mother decided to marry her to a suitable husband, Karl Peter Ulrich of Holstein-Gottorp, who was her distant cousin. Her husband was chosen by his unmarried and childless aunt Elisabeth, the empress of Russia, as successor to the throne. The empress approved of Sophia and thought that the young princess and her family were not a problem for Russia or for her, as they had no political power in European politics. “Little did she know” smirks Boele. After the two were married, 17-year old Karl Peter Ulrich was given the title Grand Duke Pyotr Fyodorovich and 16-year old Sophia was named Grand Duchess Ekaterina Alexeevna or ‘Catherine’ in English. Despite the fact the couple were distant cousins and knew each other since childhood, their relationship went downhill not long after the wedding, and they only produced one son, Paul, who became successor, although other stories suggest that Paul was in fact fathered by one of Catherine’s many lovers. According to Catherine’s memoirs, her husband was weak-willed, was often drunk, was only interested in military exercises, and had little interest in Russia. After their only child was born in 1754, their son was taken away from her and raised by Elisabeth, and Catherine was banned from court. During these years of loneliness, she educated herself and learned to horse-ride, read everything about Russian and world history, philosophy, and politics. She delved into reading Cicero, Plato, Tacitus, Montesquieu, and Voltaire. Catherine met numerous political leaders and influential figures, including Frederick the Great, corresponded with the great Enlightenedthinkers of the 18th century including Voltaire. Moreover she established a circle of people whom she could trust.

According to Boele, “one of Catherine’s greatest talents was her ability to win over competent, bold, and dedicated individuals: statesmen and stateswomen, military leaders and diplomats”. During this period in her life, he adds, “she mastered intrigue and skillfully turned her husband’s blunders to her own advantage”. After the Empress Elisabeth died in 1761, it became clear that her husband was incompetent and incapable of ruling the country. He was overthrown by the imperial guard, who made Catherine tsarina. “It’s unclear how much Catherine knew about the coup… she probably turned the other way”, he laughs. Again, another decisive moment in Catherine’s life that she knew how to act quick and take charge, and Pyotr Fyodorovich was strangled by one of the guards. Boele believes that Catherine was a fascinating figure in Russian history and in the 18th century Europe. Nobody could have predicted that she would ever make it that far. She had absolutely no claim to the Russian throne but she won the hearts of the Russian people with her social skills and warm personality. Today Catherine would be called characterized as a person with “strong social and emotional intelligence skills, and “even the palace personnel were fond of her the way she treated them”, Boele says.

Photo: State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg)

Miniature on enamel Included in the exhibition are many of the portraits of Catherine or her friends and loved ones. One of the Boele’s favorites in the exhibition is a miniature portrait on enameled porcelain that was painted around 1765-1770. “The portrait is no bigger than a postcard and illustrates Catherine reading a letter as her desk”, he says. Above her is a bust of perhaps Voltaire, with whom she kept a large correspondence and after his death in 1778, she bought his correspondence (which included her own letters written to the philosopher) and his extensive library of 6,000 books, which are now housed in the National Library in St Petersburg. According to Boele, “Catherine wanted to have her letters that she sent to Voltaire in her possession after he died, and that is one of her motives for purchasing his entire library. That’s why we included a marble bust of a young Voltaire by the French sculptor Marie-Anne Collot (1748-1821) who was commissioned to do several busts for Catherine including one of Peter the Great and one of herself in 1769.” Contrary to Frederick the Great of Prussia, who was an avid art collector, enlightened thinker, and had a mutual friendship with Voltaire, Catherine had a better developed taste in art. The Prussian emperor was only interested in contemporary art of the eighteenth century, while Catherine had much broader taste. She purchased contemporary and old art. Catherine’s first main acquisition was in 1764, when she bought 317 paintings from the German merchant and art collector, Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky who originally had purchased and collected them for Frederick the Great of Prussia. However the Prussian emperor was in the midst of the Seven Year War (1756-1763) and ran into financial problems from the costly war, and was not able to buy them from Gotzkowsky. Instead of loaning Frederick the Great the money, who was her mentor as well as her rival in Europe to purchase the collection, she bought it herself. Afterwards she acquired several collections and the works included the old masters of Italian and Dutch art such Reni, Pittoni, Van Dyck, Teniers the Younger, Rembrandt, Ter Borch, and Jan Steen. For Rembrandt, Catherine had an entire room in the Hermitage reserved where she had 14 of his works. St. Petersburg – cultural and intellectual centre During Catherine’s reign in the late eighteenth century St Petersburg emerged as a stately city with numerous palaces, churches and government buildings in the classic style.

The city’s intellectual life flourished thanks to her, and in 1783, the Russian Academy was founded in St Petersburg as a center of Russian linguistics. The Academy’s first president was a woman, Princess Ekaterina Dashkova, who became a long-time ally of the tsarina. In the same year, construction started on the Bolshoy or Great Theatre, which later became the Mariinsky Theatre. During her reign Catherine closely supervised the activities of many educational institutions in Russia, and considered the Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Fine Arts that were founded under Elizabeth, as an important means to help promote and advance Russian culture. Snuffboxes Catherine used art and culture also as a tool for political propaganda and promote the successes of her foreign policies. She commissioned the great artists of her day including the Danish painter Vigilius Eriksen (1722-1782), who worked at Catherine’s imperial court between 1757 and 1762, and was also the painter for King Christian VI of Denmark. Eriksen portrayed Catherine on a horse after she was crowned tsarina in 1762. Catherine wanted to portray her status as the successor of Peter the Great and glorify her reign and image as an enlightened monarch in Europe. Catherine should be seen in the context of her era. “In the late eighteenth century Catherine was not the only female monarch, as Queen Maria Theresa was on the throne of the Habsburg Empire, and her other rivals were Frederick the Great of Prussia, Louis XVI of France, and George III of England, who were all trying to outdo each other with their collection of philosophers and artists at their courts. Boele argues, “in this realm, Catherine tried to create an image of herself as an Enlightened monarch and ruler of the Europe’s most powerful states”.

While Catherine tried to project a positive and rational side of herself for the Russian people and the rest of the world, she also had a human facet, which the exhibition equally sheds light on. In a portrait of Catherine in a traveling costume that she sat for when she was around 60-years-old, we can clearly the profile of her face. “Catherine was proud of her Greek nose”, Boele grins. Everything that was Greek including architecture and the revival of the classicism in the arts were modern in the late eighteenth century. We know this from her memoirs, and the audio tour also includes her words and quotes. “The exhibition of Catherine is a full-sensory experience”, he says.