Legacy of Catherine the Great, Russian Masterpieces at NGV 1


The Hermitage Museum, the Winter Palace in Summer, from across the Neva River, St Petersburg Photo: Andrey Terebenin

The eternal human quest for beauty in a forever-disordered world can be found at St Petersburg in The State Hermitage Museum, one of the greatest repositories for fine and decorative arts in the world founded on the collection of Empress Catherine the Great (1729 – 1796) of Russia.

Commencing July 31, 2015 at the National Gallery of Victoria, the exciting Winter Masterpieces exhibition Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great will showcase some 500 + great works until 8th November 2015.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries St. Petersburg as the imperial capital, became a major European city of the Enlightenment. This lasted for two centuries and 14 years, the city becoming an integral aspect of Europe. (1703-1917).

Full of gems of neoclassical style, during the reign of Catherine II, or Catherine the Great, the acquisitions of the imperial collection in The State Hermitage at St Petersburg exceeded those made by Le Louvre over a period of several centuries.

They were gathered during her 34-year reign, revealing her passionate pursuit of both the arts and culture.

What a coup this is for Australia, to have some of the greatest works of art ever assembled all together in one place at Melbourne. It is arguably the finest touring exhibition to come down under and enable Australians as well as visitors to our shores, to enjoy a feast of all the senses.

Sevres Service Catherine the Great

SÈVRES PORCELAIN FACTORY, Sèvres (manufacturer) France est. 1756 Cameo Service 1778–79 porcelain (soft-paste), gilt The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg Commissioned by Catherine ll as a gift for Prince Grigory Potemkin in 1777; Potemkin’s Taurida Palace, St Petersburg from 1779; transferred to the Hot Marshal’s Office of the Winter Palace after his death; 1922 transferred to the State Hermitage Museum

Let’s face it, not many of us have the privilege of travelling to St Petersburg, the city that became the symbol of Russian culture, admired by the most enlightened personalities of all time.

The collection today is internationally renowned for the extraordinary quality and sheer excellence of its paintings, sculpture and rare and wonderful objects, reflecting the development of art, design and style in both Russia and other cultural centres.

Catherine loved French porcelain and her extensive and superb service of Bleu Celeste Sevres soft paste porcelain dinner wares commissioned in 1778 is not only one of the most important services from the manufactory during the eighteenth century, but also the finest.

It arrived in 1779 and featured subjects from Greek and Roman history and mythology, the exquisite and beautifully detailed decoration was produced in the form of bas-reliefs and cameos. They were hand painted on a turquoise blue ground, inspired by antique models, along with her monogram and coronet.

The skill of craftsmanship at Sévres during the second half of the 18th century has never really been surpassed. The cost tremendous, and even though Catherine was the richest woman in Europe in her age, it took some 13 years to complete the purchase.

Catherine the Great’s legacy of great works includes those by the finest Dutch and Flemish artists, including Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641)

Girl with Earring Rembrandt

REMBRANDT Harmensz. van Rijn, Dutch 1606–69, Young woman trying on earrings 1657 oil on wood panel, courtesy The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg,  Acquired from the collection of the Comte de Baudouin, Paris, 1781

They will no doubt attract great crowds.

Rembrandt’s Young Woman trying on earrings of 1657 is an intimate portrait of an aspect of the morning routine or ‘toilette’ many highborn ladies daily took their time achieving.

After all they were on public view all of the time just like contemporary celebrities.

In the history of art Rembrandt is perhaps one of the world’s greatest storytellers, his works infused with his own particular brand of magic, his ability to reveal the character behind the face in the mirror.

A painter of light, shade and uncompromising realism, Rembrandt’s extraordinary works worried many both then and now with their ‘realism’.

He expertly fashioned contour, form and colour into a thing of wonder, earning the enviable reputation for preferring ugliness to beauty.

He went out of fashion for centuries, but then was wheeled right back in during the enlightenment, when men and women were endeavouring to find a way forward.

It was all about nurturing human potential and giving it a platform to thrive, which is all about society’s sustainability and well being in the long term.


Anthony van DYCK Flemish 1599–1641 Family portrait (c. 1619) oil on canvas, courtesy The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Acquired from the private collection, Brussels, 1774

This was happening at a time when the aristocracy was starting to come to terms with treating children not as miniature adults but small individuals.

During the seventeenth century the cities in Europe were all undergoing substantial urban renewal setting a pattern for future living. Family portraits became important.

Flemish artist Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) and Cornelis de Vos both left a significant legacy of extraordinary and very appealing visions of family life.

Essays expounding the nature and nurturing of children were being taken very seriously.

They helped parents to realise that their children needed time for play so that they could develop both their bodies and minds, especially their imagination.

Cornelis de Vos (1584-1651) worked in the city of Antwerp providing refined images underscoring the notion of family happiness.

His brush strokes inspired in part by his admiration for Rubens reveal intense facial expressions and glorious rendering of architectural detail.

The beguiling self-portrait of his own family, painted around 1634, shows they are an affluent unit the quality of the lavish textiles best telling the tale.


Cornelis de VOS Dutch/Flemish (c. 1584)–1651 Self-portrait of the artist with his wife Suzanne Cock and their children (c. 1634) oil on canvas , The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Donated by Prince G. A. Potemkin, 1780s

By 1620 most countries seem to have understood the essential principles of civilized life and applied them as best they could.

At Antwerp successful merchants and art lovers were busy filling their houses with paintings of the first rank, just as other connoisseurs and collectors were doing at the same time in Venice, Madrid and Paris.

Paintings at this time served two functions, one that was decorative and one meant to issue a moral lesson using symbolism to reinforce ideas that were put forward in the literature of the period.

It was in Antwerp, known as a great trading metropolis during the first half of the seventeenth century, that art lovers filled their houses with paintings of the first rank.

This was in line with what other connoisseurs and collectors were doing in Venice, Madrid and Paris.


Peter Paul RUBENS, Flemish 1577–1640, Landscape with a rainbow 1632–35, oil on canvas courtesy The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Acquired from the collection of Count von Bruhl, Dresden

The country’s successful painters themselves also boasted of considerable collections.

This included Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), whose ‘Landscape with a rainbow 1632 – 1635 found its way into the collection of Count von Bruhl of Dresden before reaching The Hermitage.

Rubens purchased a magnificent townhouse with a palatial studio in 1610, transplanting the idea of an Italian villa in Antwerp.

During his career he produced many paintings, tapestries and sculpture on both sacred and secular themes, with the help of assistants, apprentices, collaborators and engravers.

Rubens Adoration of the Magi

Peter Paul RUBENS and workshop Flemish 1577–1640 The Adoration of the Magi (c. 1620), oil on canvas, courtesy The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Acquired from the collection of Dufresne, Amsterdam, 1770

He painted the story of the Adoration of the Magi (Matthew 2:1) from the Bible, more than any other story in the life of Jesus, the Christ. I love this version, the rich textiles beautifully rendered. His narrative style worked so well for religious imagery.


Anthony van DYCK Flemish 1599–1641 Portrait of Philadelphia and Elizabeth Wharton 1640 oil on canvas, courtesy The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg , Acquired from the collection of Sir Robert Walpole, Houghton Hall, 1779

Anthony Van Dyck was perhaps Ruben’s most talented assistant, and he thrived amongst his master’s sensuous interplay of light and colour on canvas, which he transformed onto his own.

His ability to detail costume and décor was second to none.

He stayed with Rubens until his individual career was taking off and his works appreciated for their own sake, particularly for their tender emotion.

His delightful portrait of Philadelphia and Elizabeth Wharton 1640, is just one of those acquired by Catherine the Great when she purchased lock stock and barrell, the famous and fabulous painting collection of England’s 1st Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole of Houghton House in Norfolk.

It combines an elegant colour scheme; the silvery blue and pearl-grey satin textiles glimmering with the virtuosos skill he used to convey their texture and how they caught the light.

It is enormously appealing as indeed is the collection of masterpieces coming to the NGV International Gallery of Victoria from the Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg.

This is a show not to be missed.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015


Hermitage Museum, the Winter Palace in Winter, St Petersburg Photo: Andrey Terebenin

Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great

31st July to 8th November 2015

National Gallery of Victoria – International
St Kilda Road, Melbourne









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