During the eighteenth century in Europe the most renowned longest serving female monarch of Russia, Catherine II (1729 – 1796) led her people to participate fully in the political and cultural life of Europe.
Her legacy of beauty and form in art and design forms the basis for the Hermitage State Museum in St Petersburg today (complex of six buildings) and is on show in Melbourne, Australia until November 8 for the National Gallery of Victoria winter exhibition Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great
Known to be loyal and generous to her friends and merciful of her enemies, Empress Catherine’s intellectual and philosophical interests and the extraordinary collection of art objects she amassed were extensive, and fed her curiosity.
She corresponded with French writer, historian and philosopher Voltaire (pseudonym of François-Marie Arouet) who was a tireless and courageous crusader against tyranny, bigotry and cruelty.
Voltaire (1694- 1778) became known as the ‘innkeeper of Europe’ and renowned for having a mind that was both ‘precise and generous’.
This is revealed in his lively animated portrait in marble by French artist Marie-Anne Collot, which is on display. He helped propagate the ideal of progress we inherently follow today.
Both he and encyclopaedist Denis Diderot (1713-1784) made lasting impressions.
Diderot struggled always with earning his living and to relieve him of financial worries in 1772 Catherine the Great bought his library and gave him an annual salary for life.
He went to St. Petersburg in 1773 to thank her where he was received with honour and warmth, leaving after five months and having completed a Plan d’une université pour le gouvernement de Russie (“Plan of a University for the Government of Russia”)
This was because reputedly he discovered that in Russia theory and practice in the political arena or in society did not align.
For a long time the French connection was strong in Russia and it is not surprising that Empress Catherine took an interest in the arts and culture of the country of these two men she admired for their ability to reason in order to find better social and political solutions.
Catherine amassed some impressive French paintings including the stunning delicate portrait of a ‘Boy with a Book’ whose fragility of youth is captured warmly and so poignantly by the artist in this great age when encouraging children to learn was both seen as a fashion and necessity if he was to grow into the modern world being born.
Among the French objects at the NGV International in Melbourne are the the great Cameo Dinner Service Catherine II commissioned in 1778-9 from the Sevres Porcelain Factory as a gift for Prince Grigory Potemkin. He must have indeed been ‘special’ because it took her some thirteen years to pay the sum off.
The French National porcelain factory had been founded in 1738 in the Chateau de Vincennes with the workmen from Chantilly employed 100 workers by 1750. The appointment of J.J. Bachelier as its art Director in 1751 heralded the beginning of its period of its artistic greatness.
During the following year Louis XV (1710-1774) became its principal shareholder and his influential mistress Jean Antoinette (Reinette) Mme de Pompadour (1721-1764) also took a financial interest and by 1753 it had become the ‘Manufacture royale de porcelaine’ .
The Marquise was also a great friend of Voltaire whose visit to England recorded in his Lettres philosophiques (1734) provided a ‘model of philosophical freedom, experimental use of reason, enlightened patronage of arts and science and respect for the new.
His ideal of progress that many nations have remained responsive to included believing that enlightened kings could be ‘indispensible agents of progress’, which was what Catherine the Great purported to be.
At this time an edict was issued prohibiting the manufacture of porcelain anywhere else in France (including earthenware imitating white porcelain).
The royal cypher of crossed ‘L’s”, used occasionally before this date, now became the official factory mark.
In 1756 the factory moved to a new building in the village of Sévres just below Mme de Pompadour’s glorious small Chateau at Bellevue. From the moment of her arrival she directed and inspired everyone, untiring in her efforts and quest for perfection and the result was that the arts reached a high point of excellence and beauty under her direct influence.
A patron of artists, Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764) was said to have looked after all those who enjoyed her patronage by personally ensuring they were paid and, for that alone they adored her.
The failure of King Louis XV’s architect to produce a building suitable for industrial design meant that Sevres the factory soon fell into debt and by 1759 it was taken over wholly by the King, who became its chief client and salesman.
He held sales annually in his private dining room at Versailles and courtiers were expected to buy.
Bellevue was the only house of any size Reinette ever built. In its day it was the most perfect example of French domestic eighteenth century ‘Rococo style’ architecture.
The only image we have of it and her today is by one of the artists she commissioned to complete wonderful works on panels that were mounted over the doors throughout the chateau by Charles-André van Loo (1705-1765) one of a successful dynasty of painters whose origins were Dutch.
Two of these are also on display at the NGV. One that depicts Madame de Pompadour as Sultana and La Conversation Espagnole, which depict the Marquise as acting in two plays she used to create for private theatricals she presented for Louis XV among their small set of close friends.
Both were left by the Marquise to her brother when she died, who said that they were the only portraits to give a true likeness of her. Sold in the massive sales held after Madame du Pompadour’s death by her brother, they arrived in St Petersburg, acquired from the collection of Madame Marie-Therese Geoffrin in 1772.
As a young woman Catherine the Great had grand plans to expand education, establish order and justice and give the people a constitution, which would not become a reality.
On assuming the throne instead of emancipating the serfs from the masters that made up the aristocracy who backed her decisions she instead owned their ‘souls’, she was forced to strengthen the system and ‘tighten their bonds’.
The ‘sweat from their brow’ kept her military, economic and cultural projects humming along.
With great energy she was a ruler who encouraged scientific investigation and founded schools, creating while controlling outcomes to the best of her abilities.
She expanded trade and built a hundred new towns, renovating and reorganising her properties.
The list of her achievements is impressive.
What she is most known for today which gives us an insight into her personality is the extraordinary collection of visual arts she gathered around her on display in her purpose built secure place to be, a building that became known as her ‘Hermitage’.
Capable of being ruthless when her interest or that of the state was at stake, Catherine the Great was judged severely by some and loved and admired by others.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015