Masterpieces from The Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great, will showcase some 500 + works from their great collection of fine and decorative arts.
On show at the National Gallery of Victoria 31st July to 8th November 2015, the display includes a portrait of the lady herself by Swedish portrait painter Alexander Roslin, who detailed the shimmering qualities of the textiles as he insightfully recorded the sitter at the pinnacle of her reign.
Founded on the outstanding and vast personal collection of one of its most dynamic rulers, Empress and Autocrat of All the Russia’s Catherine II (1729 – 1796), the Russian collection of treasures has been added to over the centuries and in St Petersburg today The State Hermitage Museum contains many great paintings of history.
Russia is a country that emerged from its long hibernation and influence on its arts of the Asian steppes and Byzantium after 1703. This was when Czar Peter 1 made sweeping reforms, founding the city of St. Petersburg as the new Russian capital. It’s siting offered direct access to the Baltic Sea and gave impetus to Russia’s rise as a world power politically, culturally and geographically.
Catherine the Great’s efforts both diplomatic and through conquest, were part of the strategy to modernise Russia and at the forefront of the age of ‘Enlightenment’ in Russia, she contributed to it becoming recognized as one of the great powers.
She had to catch up with everyone else so went through Europe purchasing whole collections of paintings, taking them home to St Petersburg where she established the Hermitage Museum.
A formidable woman, the 1st Prime Minister of England Sir Robert Walpole gave up his renowned Houghton Hall collection at her bidding, as did Mme Marie-Therese Geoffrin of Paris.
In 1772 she gave up Charles Van Loo’s painting of a Sultan’s wife drinking coffee.
Catherine’s age had developed a taste for the exotic and oriental, and this work by Charles Van Loo (1705-1765) features the enigmatic Madame du Pompadour, King Louis XV of France’s royal mistress as ‘Sultana.
Madame du Pompadour was in charge of the King’s entertainments, and he enjoyed as did all the court, the private theatricals she arranged and often starred in herself. The painting by Van Loo was left to her brother Marquis de Marigny on her death and he said it was one of the few real likenesses of his beloved sister.
The work was painted by Van Loo as one of a pair of overdoors for the Grande Chambre, known as ‘Chambre á la turque’ in her delightful Rococo style Chateau of Bellevue (later demolished).
It had been built overlooking the village of Sevres, renowned for its porcelain making, which she also oversaw on behalf of the King, and which Catherine the Great also collected. Pieces from her 300+ dinner setting from Sevres, will also be on display.
The period of great learning that began with the advent of printing in the mid 15th century was by Catherine’s age, expanding its reach. It gained considerable impetus during the 17th century, revealed in the Portrait of a Scholar by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669) who was involved in the ‘printmaking’ trade himself.
I love this image … captured at a moment in time, the Scholar makes notes from a large handwritten folio. His costume tells us he is a wealthy man, the sheer quality of the textiles the very best money could buy and the rustic quality of the bench, a marvelous contrast. Rembrandt gives us a portrait where both light and shade merge imperceptibly and the contours are softened to unify the figure with its surrounding atmosphere, a characteristic of paintings at this time.
Catherine’s collection of great works of art that founded The Hermitage museum is enormously instructive.
There was no way a lady of Catherine’s rank and ambition would have anything less than the best in her collection, including works by Italian Artist Titian (Tiziano Vecellio 1488 – 1576)
Art theorist Giovanni Lomazzo in 1590 observed that Titian was ‘…the sun amidst small stars not only among the Italians but all the painters of the world.’
Titian painted the portrait of a young woman c 1536 wearing a jaunty hat with a feather
She is wearing a bracelet and pearls, both earrings and necklace and not much more really, gathering the few textiles involved around her and holding onto them tightly to cover her modesty.
She is an interesting study, one that captures her captivating qualities and cultural sophistication.
A bit like Catherine perhaps, the lady is of high born rank and both a strong and forceful personality. Although she does offer us just a hint of vulnerability, while giving off a slight air of imperiousness; the private and the public persona on show together.
The collection that is coming is of great breadth and diversity after all there are some three million items to choose from at the Hermitage, which has the largest collection of paintings in the world.
A painting recording the painted decoration by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino known as Raphael (1483 – 1520 of the Loggia he designed at the Vatican in Rome by Russian artist Konstantin Ukhtomsky was acquired from the artist in 1860.
It reveals the incredible cycle of fabulous frescoes – scenes from Biblical stories Raphael originally planned out for the 65 metres long and 4 metres wide colonnade, which is sited on the second floor of the Apostolic Palace at Rome. Collectively, they are called ‘Raphael’s Bible’.
Catherine was so enamoured with this painted architectural space she had the Raphael Loggias exactly copied all the frescoes and incorporated them into the grand Palace of The Hermitage in St Petersburg.
She had the copies made in Italy under the aegis of Christopher Unterberger who supervised the working artists who completed the frescoes showing the Old Testament scenes in 12 bays, the 13th revealing those from the New Testament.
The work on the original Loggia at Rome had been unfinished at Raphael’s death, completed by eleven of the artist disciples from his workshop to his designs.
Raphael’s paintings inspired many artists and designers down the centuries and I have a reproduction of two detailed panels of the designs for the loggia with both arabesque and grotesque decorations, which are always admired.
The style of the frescoes were in their turn inspired by the painted walls of ancient Roman Emperor Nero’s excavated Domus Aurea or Golden House.
Roman Biographer and antiquarian, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, known as Suetonius (75-160 ACE), described Nero’s palace in great detail for posterity.
‘To have an idea of its size and its magnificence, it suffices to recall the following details: there was a vestibule in which a colossus was erected in Nero’s likeness, one hundred and twenty feet high. So vast was this vestibule that its interior had arcades with triple rows of columns for a length of one thousand paces, and a pond that looked like a sea, surrounded by buildings formed like cities.
Furthermore, inside there was countryside, rich with fields, vineyards, pastures and woods with a great number of wild and domestic animals of all species. In the rest of the building everything was coated with gold and embellished with gems and mother of pearl’.
The ceilings of the banqueting halls were of moveable, perforated ivory so that the flowers and perfumes could be sprinkled over the guests. The greatest of these halls was round, and turned continuously all day long on its own axis, like the world…
Some of its surviving rooms were found eventually below ground during the 15th century. They were covered with delicately painted stucco reliefs by the artist known as Fabullus (who lent his name to our term for works of indescribable beauty), which the palace in all its richness clearly was.
It caused Nero himself to declare when it was finished….’Good, now at last I can begin to live like a human being.’ Perhaps Catherine felt the same way as she gathered her collection around her. It would be like us today rocking in and purchasing all the works in the NGV International, where The Legacy of Catherine the Great from The Hermitage State Museum in St Petersburg from July 31, 2015 will be sure to please.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015