Visual arts Christopher Allen surveys the magnificent legacy of Catherine the Great
Catherine the Great was one of the most remarkable rulers of the 18th century and even a cursory glance at her life reminds one of what an extraordinary combination of skill and good luck — what Machiavelli termed virtue and fortune — were required to achieve what she did. As a German princess with no direct connection to the Russian imperial line, it was already remarkable to have married the heir to the Russian throne and to have become the empress consort. Then there were the complex circumstances that led to the overthrow of her husband and her own elevation to the position of absolute monarch.
Merely hanging on to such a position would have been a feat in itself, but instead she embarked on ambitious campaigns of territorial expansion and economic and administrative reform. There were always threats to face, whether opposition from powerful interest groups within the country or a surprise attack by the king of Sweden while the army was engaged far to the south fighting the Ottoman Empire. But Catherine overcame all challenges and still found the time to be a passionate collector, as we see in the Hermitage exhibition, of everything from antique gems and views of the ruins of Rome to paintings and drawings from the Renaissance to her own time.
Catherine was almost an exact contemporary of the Qianlong emperor in China, the subject of another outstanding recent exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, and this one opens in much the same way, with a splendid portrait of the monarch by Alexander Roslin, flanked by busts of the two French philosophers with whom she was most closely connected: Voltaire, author of Candide, the Lettres philosophiques and other works, and Diderot, editor of the monumental Encyclopedie that was published in multiple volumes of text and plates throughout the 1750s. Interestingly — in another recollection of the Qianlong exhibition — there is a final room devoted to the passion for chinoiserie.
Denis Diderot would probably have first been known to Catherine through his writings in Grimm’s Correspondance litteraire, a literary review to which the overused term exclusive could for once be accurately applied, for it was circulated in manuscript form to a handful of highly paying subscribers, mostly crowned heads of central and eastern European states who wanted to keep abreast of Enlightenment ideas in Paris. Diderot contributed what are usually considered the first modern art reviews, brilliantly perceptive and witty and, because of the confidentiality of the private publication, completely uncensored.
Diderot helped Catherine to add to her collection, even then attracting criticism for being a party to the export of artistic masterpieces, and it is a selection of these works that are presented in the main part of the exhibition.
Interesting as the first couple of rooms are, it would be advisable to come back to the cameos, porcelain and architectural prints after looking at works that require fresh eyes and proper attention.
Walking through to the main part of the exhibition, we find ourselves facing a fascinating painting by a pupil of Leonardo, a slightly bizarre variation on the Mona Lisa: there is the same posture of the body and arms, and a very similar landscape background, but the head is turned to full face, losing the subtlety of Leonardo’s 7/8 angle, the hair is golden, and the torso is stripped to the waist, although the arbitrary shape of the breasts make it unlikely that any girl posed for this picture, which remains another curious example of Leonardesque sexual ambiguity. All around are other paintings by Titian, Giotto di Bordone, Domenico Fetti and others that remind you of the sheer enjoyment of looking at Italian Renaissance art — as American art historian Bernard Berenson once observed, it is rare to look at even a second-rate Venetian painting without pleasure — as well as some very fine drawings, including examples by Guercino, Bartolomeo Passarotti, Francesco Primaticcio and others.
Among the notable works in this first section are a portrait of an actor by Fetti — he holds a leather commedia dell’arte mask carefully in both hands — and Holy Family with St Justine by Lorenzo Lotto in which St Joseph draws back the sheet covering the sleeping baby and Justine stares in rapture at the infant’s genitals, proof of the incarnation of God in human flesh.
The later rooms contain works of the Dutch, Flemish, French and Spanish schools, as well as one room devoted to a selection from the Walpole collection, which the empress purchased in 1779. There are several paintings by Rubens or his school, for he had an enormous team of highly skilled assistants who painted most of the work from his workshop. Rubens’s own hand is to be seen in an outstanding Head of a Franciscan from the Walpole collection, a study for the Last Communion of St Francis (1619) which he painted himself because it was a homage to Domenichino’s Last Communion of St Jerome (1614). There is also an outstanding drawing after the Hellenistic bust then thought to represent Seneca.
Rembrandt is represented by a brilliant early — he was 25 — portrait of a scholar looking up at us from a huge manuscript folio, from which he appears to be taking notes on a sheet of paper. A later very fine work is the little Young Woman Trying on Earrings, poised between the inevitable vanitas association in this period and sympathy for the girl’s spontaneous pleasure and absorption. There is also a good workshop portrait of a young man, in which we feel how a high-spirited youth who could perhaps also be very silly has composed himself in a dignified manner to have his picture painted.
There are fine landscapes from the 17th century too, including an impressive view of a cascade by Jacob van Ruisdael, a city by night
— in fact just before dawn — by Aert van der Neer, a specialist in nocturnes, and an Italian landscape by Claude Lorrain. It is an appealing picture — the trees and clouds are particularly beautiful — but far from the best example in the Hermitage collection, and one feels that in this case they could have made a better choice, especially when they are presenting an important artist to a public that may have had little prior experience of his work.
Interestingly, the Vernet painting to the left of the Claude, though by a lesser artist, is a better example of his work, and one can see this principle elsewhere too: the Van Dyck family portrait is better than any of the Rubens pictures in the same room, and in the Italian section the portrait of a poet by Francesco del Cairo and Fetti’s commedia actor represent the artists better than the pleasant but rather bland studio Titian. Museums are clearly more willing to lend firstrate pictures by second-ranking artists than by the greatest masters.
It is no doubt for this reason we have the interesting Filial Piety (1763) by Greuze, especially relevant here because it was so highly praised by Diderot. I used to think it mawkishly sentimental, but it repays inspection in the original, and it is particularly useful to see it hung with some of the portfolio of studies Catherine purchased with the painting.
Also from the 18th century is a little landscape by Boucher, not particularly remarkable except for the way he overdoes a new colour on his palette, the Prussian blue invented in 1706 and the first of many synthetic pigments that were to follow in the 18th and 19th centuries; indeed the Norton Simon Museum in Pasade- na, California, is showing A Revolution of the Palette, an exhibition devoted to the new blue pigments developed in the 18th century.
There is an interesting painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, of an iron forge by night, here — as in his much larger picture of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius with a full moon over the bay of Naples (London, Tate Gallery) — emphasising the contrast of the warm light of the forge and the cool light of the moon in the landscape to the left. A small Chardin work is mainly memorable for the vision of a maid hanging up washing, seen through the doorway: it feels like something glimpsed and imprinted in the mind. Next to this is a work that is once again more interesting although by a lesser artist: it is a vivid oil painting, though one could almost mistake it for a pastel, by an artist indeed better known for this medium, Jean-Baptiste Perronneau. What is notable about this painting from the 1740s is that in subject and composition it recalls slightly earlier works by Chardin: a child at a desk, seen from the side, occupied with an object, in this case a book.
But at a deeper level everything about this picture is the antithesis of Chardin, whose children, whether occupied with reading, building a house of cards or watching a spinning top, are profoundly still and entirely absorbed. If Chardin had painted this picture, the boy would have been quietly concentrating on the book; instead he looks around at the viewer, his fingers playing distractedly with the pages of the vol- ume. There are many fine drawings in the exhibition, including, apart from those already mentioned, a study by Poussin for Moses Striking
the Rock (1649) also in the Hermitage (Walpole collection) and which it would have been nice to have had in the show. Another particularly good drawing is Claude Mellan’s portrait of the scholar Peiresc, not long before the latter’s death.
Most remarkable of the drawings, however, is Hendrik Goltzius’s enormous Bacchus, Venus and Ceres (1606), entirely rendered in fine pen and ink hatching, like the web of lines that would compose an engraved image. Goltzius was a virtuoso engraver, and he has included his own portrait in the background, displaying the hand, crippled by fire, whose malformation turned out to be perfect for holding the engraver’s burin. The subject is the Latin proverb sine Cerere et Baccho friget Venus — without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus is cold, or in other words, unless you’ve had dinner and a drink, you’re unlikely to feel amorous. Sure enough, all three divinities are present, and there is a blazing fire on the left. Ears of wheat and vine leaves — representing the two gods — rather improbably fuel the flames in which Cupid is seen tempering his arrowheads.
Some analogy is clearly implied between Cupid’s arrow and the artist’s tools: perhaps Goltzius is suggesting that the genius of art can have the same power over the soul as erotic passion. At any rate, he has cleverly inscribed the date of this extraordinary work, which seems to unite the media of drawing, engraving and painting, inside the lid of the love god’s quiver.
Two Actresses (1699) by Jean-Baptiste Santerre, left; Sultan’s Wife Drinking Coffee (1750s) by Charles Vanloo, above
Clockwise from far left, Portrait of an Actor (1620s) by Domenico Fetti; Portrait of Catherine II (1776-77) by Alexander Roslin; Portrait of a Young Woman (c. 1536) by Titian; Head of a Franciscan Monk (1615-17) by Peter Paul Rubens; inset below, Portrait of a Poet (17th century) by Francesco Cairo