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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.

Imaging Catherine: The Spector of a Sexmonster

Imaging Catherine: The Spector of a Sexmonster

A German magazine last week ran the headline, “Ist Donald Trump ein Sexmonster?” (“Is Donald Trump a Sexmonster?”). Although most compound nouns in German are unintelligible to English speakers, the meaning of Sexmonster is humorously evident, and, as a result, the headline went viral.

This attention merited a fun article in Slate, which, in addition to highlighting some amazing German words (like Schlammschlacht), briefly touched upon the seriousness of calling someone a name in German. The author points out that “when they use Sexmonster for Trump… [i]t implies behavior beyond the pale; it’s recently been used to describe both Catherine the Great and Ariel Castro.”

Uh, what?

Meaning someone who has a lot of sex with connotations of being ravenous and insatiable, it is hard to see the connection Sexmonster denotes between Ariel Castro, a man convicted of kidnapping and raping three women over the course of a decade, Donald Trump, a racist and misogynistic businessman who might have sexually assaulted more than ten women, and Catherine II.

Catherine’s accuser, as the embedded link showed, was another article, entitled “Die Zarin, die als Sexmonster verunglimpft wurde“ (“The Empress who was reviled as a Sexmonster”). Clearly the article was meant to be a bit of light fun and to capitalize on the salaciousness of the term, Sexmonster, because it purports to lay out the evidence of her sexual life and asks the readers to come to their own conclusion.

So, was Catherine a Sexmonster?

No. Not at all.

Well, that is my answer to the question and not at all what the article wants you to conclude. Instead, it presents three major sexual offenses that warrant this label:

1) She slept with many men—more than 20 of them! I cannot defend her from this charge, since it is true. However, the fact that such a big deal is being made of the number of sexual partners she had, a woman who lived well into her sixties, is inherently misogynistic, because it assumes “normal” women do not have sexual needs.

In addition, it minimizes the tenuous nature of her reign. As a German-born princess with a dead (marginally) Russian husband, her only claim to the throne was in the name of her infant son, Paul. If she were to remarry, providing a more socially acceptable avenue for expressing her sexuality, rival factions within Russia would be quick to wrestle her authority away from her, claiming that her duty was to her new husband and no longer the Russian Empire. Remarriage being out of the question, she still wanted companionship, friendship, and, yes, sex, so she had favorites who helped fulfill these needs.

2) She used her bed as leverage to support her position as Empress. This accusation is, again, embedded in misogynistic assumptions and historical misunderstandings. Nevertheless, there is some credit to this claim, particularly before the coup d’etat and the death of her husband. Some scholars believe that, for example, Paul was not Peter III’s son. Based upon the contentious and abusive nature of their marriage, it would not be that far fetched to assume that Catherine and Peter did not often have sex. Without a child, however, Catherine’s place at court was anything but secure—she was the foreign wife of the adopted heir to the Russian throne. Until she gave birth to a son, she had no power. By taking a lover who fathered her child, she was ensuring her power in Russia as the mother to the heir of the Russian Empire. Even this, though, is just wild speculation, because no evidence exists to suggest that Paul was not Peter’s son (and, temperamentally, both Peter and Paul seem remarkably alike). Yet, if this happened, then it would be an example of Catherine using sex to get what she wanted at court.

Beyond this case, however, there is absolutely no other example of her leveraging her position through sexual favors. In fact, when her known lovers are taken in the aggregate, they are almost uniformly Russian noblemen from relatively good families, who were increasingly younger than her with little political power of their own to wield. What, then, could these men with little experience, wealth, and power do for her that she, the eventual Empress of the Russian Empire, could not do for herself? By the end of their time as Catherine’s favorites, they all had good careers and were widely respected and wealthy—all of which was bestowed on them by Catherine, as a reward for public service or out of love and appreciation.

No evidence exists to suggest that she coerced these men into any sexual acts; and, likewise, no evidence exists to suggest that they coerced her into any sexual acts. The longevity of this rumor is based solely upon the misogynist assumption that she 1) had to have taken lovers for more than just companionship and sexual desire and 2) they had to exercise influence over her political decisions. This logic suggests that women, then and now, cannot separate the political from the personal in relationships, and that their political power is dependent on male authority—both of which do not bear out in Catherine’s case.

3) Which leads to the final, and most damning, charge: that she may have coerced her guards through sexual acts to overthrow and kill her husband. Besides the fact that Catherine was a serial misogamist her whole life and wasn’t in the habit of taking non-noble lovers, this claim assumes that the only reason people would have supported Catherine’s coup was because she used her feminine wiles to convince them. The promise of sex, yes, can influence action, though I believe its influence is greater in books and stories than in real life. Also, sex is but one of the many reasons people act. Catherine, for example, was a kind and friendly woman, who was proficient in several languages, well read, and very smart. She was known for being kind to servants and loved to spend time at parties. Although one of the main leaders of the coup was her lover, the rest of the men who came out to support her claim most likely did so because of her political acumen, her intelligence, and her personal strength as well as the numerous embarrassing deficiencies of her husband.

Despite the fact that most of these claims are, at best, half-truths, and, at worse, flat out false, the fact that the question—Is Catherine a Sexmonster?—doesn’t seem far fetched gives me pause. Obviously, this article was not only poorly researched, it was also purposely written to attract attention—the use of the term Sexmonster being something in between a red herring and click bait. However, it taps into a larger critique of women in power, a critique which was common in the 18th century and continues to be so nearly 225 years later.

Video game writers, TV producers, armchair historians, and romance novelists continuously evoke her image and name as a stand in for uninhibited female lust and the dangers of a vamp. This appropriation is certainly not new (she was popular in 19th-century British spanking pornography… a subject for a different day), but its longevity is worthy of scrutiny.

I want to better understand how Catherine is portrayed, both in her time and up through today, in order to appreciate how modern society tries to create images of female power. What visual and literary cues do people invoke when they discuss Catherine? What tropes emerged and when? What role does her female body play in these images? And what role does her power play, too? Over the next few months, I am going to highlight particular examples of how Catherine’s image was used in order to answer some of these questions.