Catherine the Great in Melbourne

CG paintingI’ve just returned from a holiday in Australia: Melbourne to visit family and the NGV (National Gallery of Victoria), and tropical north Queensland for some warmth and nature. For those who’ve never been to Melbourne, the NGV has two locations – Australian art is shown at the NGV Ian Potter Centre at Federation Square and the international art at NGV International about 300 metres away on St Kilda Road. The NGV has one of the best international art collections in this part of the world mainly due to the Felton Bequest – a very generous bequest by Alfred Felton in 1904 that has been used to purchase over 15,000 works of art.[1]

Left: Alexander Roslin, 1776-7, Portrait of Catherine II, from the Hermitage collection.

As well as a very good permanent collection, for several years now the NGV has had a ‘winter masterpiece’ temporary exhibition, of which I’ve managed to see a few. One I particularly enjoyed in 2011 was on Vienna c. 1900 and I also went to the opening day symposium for that one. This year’s winter masterpiece is Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great

Catherine (1729-1796) reigned from 1762 until her death in 1796 at the age of 67. She was born in Germany (Prussia) as Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, and came to power following a coup d’état when her husband, Peter III, was assassinated. She became a great art collector and her collection formed the basis of the Hermitage in St Petersburg, Russia. Before seeing the exhibition, I knew only a little about her collecting – mainly about her purchase in 1779 of Sir Robert Walpole’s collection (1676 –1745, known as Britain’s first Prime Minister) as I wrote about his son Horace Walpole’s collecting practices during my art history studies.

Despite being born a princess, her family was relatively poor. Some of her art education came from reading the catalogues for works that she had bought. Collecting art was part of a wider economic and diplomatic programme aimed at improving Russia’s profile abroad and at encouraging innovative thinking, economic activity and industry at home (NGV website). She acquired many works from buying up existing collections, and I therefore find it difficult to see what her personal tastes were – but I haven’t studied her collecting so my knowledge is fairly superficial and gained mostly from the exhibition and the NGV website. You can also download the exhibition labels from the website if you want better information.

CG TitianThe exhibition explained that Catherine was too late on the scene to buy some of the more famous Italian Renaissance works, but she acquired some works by well-known 17th and 18th century artists. For example, there was only one Titian (left) and one ‘school of Leonardo’ in the exhibition, but at least three Rembrandts. She also acquired works by then contemporary French artists, such as Francois Boucher and Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Displayed on one wall was Greuze’s ‘Filial Piety’ surrounded by some of the preparatory drawings for it. Often the drawings revealed details that weren’t immediately obvious in the crowded painting – for example the dog in the bottom right (also on the theme of family!).

CG filial piety dogs

CG Greuze filial piety 1 1763    CG Greuze filial piety 2

It seemed to me there were a few well known artist ‘omissions’ but whether this was because Catherine didn’t collect them or they didn’t travel in this exhibition I don’t know. For example, there were no Caravaggios, only one drawing by Nicholas Poussin, and one painting by Claude Lorrain.

CG general scene  CG Carlevan loo orientalism

Left: general scene of ‘Catherine and the world’ room, with Greuze in background, Houdon bust of Catherine in foreground; Right: Carle Van Loo’s orientalist subjects (Madam de Pompadour as the Sultan’s wife drinking coffee, and Sultan’s wife embroidering).

So how was the exhibition arranged? There were about eight rooms – the first set the scene, it contained engravings – some of buildings designed for Catherine and some of classical and Roman subjects; sculptured busts by Marie-Anne Collot of Voltaire and Denis Diderot (the only French ‘philosophe’ to visit St Petersburg); a large oil painting of Catherine; part of her extensive cameo gem collection, and a small part of the Sevres 797-piece dining service, called the ‘Cameo Service’. The Roslin painting (copy at the top) was disappointingly reproduced in postcards and other merchandise – her blue-ish dress coming out brown.

A corridor led from this room; it included a four-minute video continuously showing at one end, with scenes from the Hermitage to accompanying music. The only slightly irritating thing was that you could hear the opening sequence of music from just about anywhere in the exhibition and even in some other parts of the gallery. The security staff must be sick of it by now! There was also another video which showed the so-called Raphael Loggia at the Hermitage – a replica of those at the Vatican. CG Raphael loggias

From there you turned into two rooms which showed Italian works – the one Titian of a young lady, the school of Leonardo of a nude woman (from Walpole’s collection), Francesco Cairo’s 17th century Portrait of a poet, Giulio Campi’s 1550s Portrait of a Man (see below), Paris Bordone’s Portrait of a lady with a boy (mid 1530s), and one work each by Guercino, Lorenzo Lotto, Luca Giordano, and Guido Reni (attrib). There were some others, but as I’m not very familiar with 16th and 17th century Italian art, I have to admit the second room made little impression on my memory.

CG Campi portrait of a man

The next room was devoted to Flemish works, among which were some well-known names (Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony Van Dyck, David Teniers II) … and some not so well known, such as Cornelis de Vos, and Paul Bril with a lovely seascape. Frans Snyders’ Concert of Birds was another acquired from Walpole’s collection.

CG snyders concert of birds

A Dutch room followed. In 1769 Catherine purchased the collection of Count Heinrich von Brühl, which included spectacular landscapes by Jacob van Ruisdael, Peter Paul Rubens, Isaack Jansz. van Ostade, as well as four Rembrandt portraits, including the wonderful Portrait of a scholar, 1631 and Young woman trying on earrings, 1657. The Hermitage collection of Dutch works is particularly good.

CG rembrandt scholar  CG rembrandt earrings

A French room followed, but also including some other works that were acquired in France; from the NGV website: ‘The Russian aristocracy spoke French and modelled their manners and styles on those of the French Court. Catherine the Great followed the great intellectual strides of the French philosophes with passionate interest. She also embraced the arts, luring French artists, architects and craftsmen to St Petersburg and rewarding them more handsomely than their local counterparts. Catherine relied on agents and advisers in France to identify and acquire works of art on her behalf. In this way she secured the collection of Paris banker Louis-Antoine Crozat, Baron de Thiers, and other important bodies of work in France. Her holdings of French art came to encompass works by Renaissance masters as well as seventeenth-century landscapes and history paintings by Sébastien Bourdon, Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin. Catherine also acquired examples of work of her own century, by Rococo artists such as Antoine Watteau…Greuze and Chardin.’ There was only one by Watteau in the exhibition – a Savoyard with a marmot rather than his more typical ‘fete galante’ subjects (that subject was represented by a Nicholas Lancret); and one Laundress by Chardin.

CG Watteau Savoyardwith marmot 1716  CG Chardin Laundress 1730s

The next room was called Catherine and the world. It included a wall of drawings by various artists, such as Albrecht Durer, Luca Giordano, Rembrandt, Francois Boucher, Luca Signorelli, Nicholas Poussin; as well as a few Spanish and other paintings. The one Velazquez (below left) – an early work, called Luncheon, initially came into Catherine’s collection as a Flemish work by an unknown artist! (The one on the right is by a well known Flemish artist, Anthony van Dyck – Family Portrait.)

CG Velazquez Luncheon c1617  CG van dyck with people

After that room was the Walpole Collection room – although as I’ve already noted a few originally from Walpole’s collection were included in other rooms. In here were two large Van Dyck paintings of king Charles I and his queen Henrietta Maria, and another Van Dyck portrait of two young girls (Philadelphia and Elizabeth Wharton, 1640); an erotic allegory of Venus by Joshua Reynolds and a portrait by Godfrey Kneller of the wood carver Grinling Gibbons.

CG Walpole room

Lastly, there was a Chinese room, showing the delight in Chinoiserie prevalent at the time throughout Europe.

“One of [Catherine’s] regular and most influential correspondents was French philosopher Voltaire, who praised the Celestial Kingdom, its monarchs and men of wisdom; only in China, he thought, was a man’s life, honour and property truly protected by law. Such a clear link between Catherine’s desire for justice and order in Russia and general perceptions of good Chinese government, combined with the Enlightenment fashion for curiosities of all kinds, led to great Russian interest in China in the second half of the eighteenth century.” (NGV website)

The exhibition gave a good overview of Catherine’s collecting practices and a selection of the many works she bought. My main complaint was that many of the labels were in white text on a red background at shin level – difficult to read and even harder to photograph if you wanted a record of the labels.

CG snyders label


[1] The Bequest of a Century, The Age, 12 Jan 2004, URL:


2 thoughts on “Catherine the Great in Melbourne

  1. What a wonderful exhibition – I’m envious! Thanks for describing it so well. A small quibble as regards the French philosophes who visited Catherine in St Petersburg: you say that Denis Diderot was the only one. Baron Melchior Grimm – another encyclopaediste – also spent time with Catherine in St Petersburg during the 1770s and was apparently very close. Technically he wasn’t French, but in all cultural, linguistic and residential respects he was a Parisien to his boots.


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