Vis­ual arts Christo­pher Allen sur­veys the mag­nif­i­cent legacy of Cather­ine the Great

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Christo­pher Allen

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

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