Imaging Catherine: Collecting on Behalf of the Empire

Imaging Catherine: Collecting on Behalf of the Empire

Our journey today does not begin with Catherine, but with a German merchant–Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky (1710-1775), a man described as “a gallant German, stupid, comely, cordial.

Although he made his fortune selling desirable trinkets and dealing art to wealthy noblemen, Gotzkowsky decided to buy a porcelain factory during the economic turmoil that followed the Seven Years’ War. Sadly for him the regional economy remained unstable, and, despite luring many gifted artisans to his factory, he had difficulty remaining solvent. When an expensive trade deal with Russia for a large amount of (it turns out) poor grain bankrupted him (and much of Amsterdam, Hamburg, and Frankfort) in 1764, he agreed to pay his debt to Russia from his extensive art collection which he had collected for Frederick II of Prussia (who could not pay for the paintings himself).

Gotzkowsky’s loss, however, turned into Russia’s gain, because these paintings from some of Europe’s most celebrated artists, alongside the collections of Baron Pierre Crozat (1772), Sir Robert Walpole (1779), and Count Baudouin (1781), went on to form the backbone of the Hermitage Museum’s world-class collection.

Some people believe that Catherine’s art-related spending spree was simply motivated by a desire to fill the many blank walls of her many palaces. I think that, though true, this line of thought focuses too much on the quantity of art purchased and ignores the specific details of the collecting. Why that art? Why then?

From Catherine’s perspective, the Gotzkowsky acquisition was a double win: not only did she gain a nice collection of Dutch and Flemish art for a great price, but the purchase itself showed off Russia’s economic strength and Catherine’s cultural sophistication to her European peers.

I propose that the Hermitage Museum, all of its buildings and collections, should be seen as a portrait of Catherine herself. Most of the time, how Catherine was seen, drawn, or understood was out of her control–think about her depiction as a Sexmonster from my last post. Yet, when you look at the facade of the Hermitage or wander its halls, you are actually looking at one of the clearest self-portraits Catherine ever painted.

The Hermitage, interpreted in this way, depicts Catherine as a great reformer of Russian society, an art lover, and believer in Russia’s potential to compete artistically with Europe–all characteristics she saw in herself.

Catherine as Reformer

The Winter Palace, the iconic St. Petersburg residence of the Emperors and Empresses of Russia, began its life in 1734 under the direction of Anna I and was heavily revised by Elizabeth I. I cannot decide what aspect of the palace is the most stunning: its location at the wide intersection of the Big and Small Neva rivers across from the imposing Peter and Paul Fortress, making it stand out in the landscape of St. Petersburg; its dramatic and ornate Late Baroque facade, with its famous green color, shimmering gold details, and trompe l’oeil paintings; or its historical significance as the location of the Decembrist Uprising (1825) and a large portion of the February and October Revolutions (1917).

In the late 1760s, Catherine commissioned a couple of well-known architects to design a small, adjoining palace, which she called her Hermitage, a word occasionally used by Elizabeth to describe a private, personal, and (often) religious getaway. Although connected to the more formal Winter Palace, it was markedly different in both purpose and style. For Catherine, her new two-story palace was a retreat, where she could find solitude, host small dinners, and relax among her favorite belongings.

This small (for a palace, that is) private building, the first of three in what would become the Hermitage Palace, was actually a profound visual statement. One of the first buildings in Russia to be built in adherence to Neoclassical design, it stood out from its Baroque neighbors. As the name of this aesthetic movement suggests, neoclassicism was a reinterpretation of ancient Roman and Greek architecture with copious use of white marble, imposing columns, and muscular human sculptures on the facades of buildings. The movement itself was an attempt to recreate the monumental styles of the past and harken back to the “pure” days of Plato and Socrates, scholars whose work had been recently rediscovered and examined as part of the Renaissance and, later, the Enlightenment. Royalty, like Catherine, were drawn to this new style, because it highlighted their connection (however imagined) to the original European Empire (Greece followed by Rome) and depicted their dedication to the ideas and values that emerged during the Enlightenment.

The Hermitage, then, was the first architectural example of Neoclassical ideals in Russia. Not only would this style come to dominate all new construction in St. Petersburg and Moscow (the theater I am writing about, the Petrovskii, was strikingly Neoclassical), it would become visual shorthand for Catherine herself. The muted green of Catherine’s palace stood in contrast to the shocking green and gold of Elizabeth’s Baroque Winter Palace. The impressive columns along the second floor and the arch of the windows evoked the structure of ancient forums under which students learned from the great philosophers. And the marble and bronze statues that lined the roof and balconies reminded passers-by that beauty was inherently good, a key component in Neoclassical (and Enlightened) thought, and that Catherine brought this beauty to the city.

Catherine as Art-Lover

Not only is this museum important today as an irreplaceable archive of more than one million works of art, it is also one of the best examples of how Catherine II wanted people in Russia and Europe to imagine her: as a lover and protector of art.

I am not going to spend too much time arguing this point, since, as we will see over the coming months, she was not shy about sharing her love of art with the world.

Instead, what is important for the time being is that Catherine wanted to make sure that her art and the art of Europe had a place to reside. Her collection, for which her Hermitage was, in part, built to house, quickly outgrew its new home. So Catherine built another museum space, and then another, and another. With each expansion, Catherine was carving out dedicated space in the landscape of St. Petersburg specifically to house art. The Hermitage Palace washer way of declaring loudly and clearly that art would always have a place in Russia, because it was beautiful and worthy of protection.

Catherine as Torch Bearer

If you were an European artist in the 18th century, you likely spent most of your day copying the works of your master and other paintings you could access. The motivation behind this method was rather simple: in order to master the medium, you had to first copy the masters. As more wealthy noblemen started collecting paintings and sculpture, the more widely available materials to copy became, especially if you lived in the capitals of Europe. Contemporaries, for example, believed that the emphasis on artistic instruction and the wealth of art from the Renaissance combined to create modern artists who were unmatched throughout history with no peer outside Europe.

But what if you didn’t have any art to copy? Or, what if you could only copy a couple of local paintings? What would your art be then? Well, the blunt answer: your art would be crap.

According to Catherine, lack of European art (literally not having any art on the walls) was seen as the biggest obstacle to the development of the arts in Russia. Their logic: Well, of course Russian art is horrible! Our young artists have nothing to study to make them any better. It was not that Russian artists lacked talent; it was that they lacked access. In Catherine’s mind, this was an easy problem to fix. So, she started buying up as much art as she could, which she then made available to artists-in-training to copy and inspired other Russians to do the same (though none would come close to Catherine’s powers of collecting).

This logic not only applied to art in Russia, but also to the Enlightenment writ large. As Nikolai Karamzin, a well-known Russian author, wrote while on a grand tour of Europe in 1789: “The path to education and enlightenment is the same for all nations; all of them advance on it one after another,” Europeans, he continued, “knew more than Russians, and thus we had to borrow from them, to learn from them, to make use of their experiences. It is sensible to seek for that which has already been found? Would it have been better if the Russians had built no ships, trained no soldiers, established no academies, constructed no factories, because none of this was originated by Russians? Which people has not borrowed from another? And must we not equal before we surpass?” (411)

Catherine’s Hermitage, within this framework, was one way the Empress wanted to help lift Russia up and set it on equal footing with its European neighbors. Even today, though the facilities of the museum suffered from neglect during Soviet and Post-Soviet periods, the Hermitage stands as a physical reminder of Catherine’s personal influence on the artistic development of Russia, establishing St. Petersburg as a cultural capital on par with any in Europe and inspiring the great Russian artists of the 19th century.

More than 500,000 tourists, schoolchildren, and art-lovers crowd the halls of the Hermitage each year, each one of them fulfilling Catherine’s personal dream by experiencing and enjoying her rich collection of art in her little, secluded getaway.

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