Catherine the Great was quite the home-maker. Her reign over Russia from 1762 to 1796 was known for her patronage of the arts, literature and education, but her passion for collecting saw her buy up thousands of works of art including those by Rembrandt, Rubens, Velázquez and Van Dyck, Poussin, Rubens, Clouet and Greuze. When Catherine II couldn’t get what she wanted she had copies made for her palace.
Now 400 works from her personal collection have left the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg (opened to the public in 1852) and form the National Gallery of Victoria’s Winter Masterpiece show Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great that opened to the public today.
Catherine the Great’s thirst for ideas reflects the Age of Enlightenment. The exhibition’s organisers say Catherine saw herself as a reine-philosophe (Philosopher Queen): “Guided by Europe’s leading intellectuals, such as the French philosophers Voltaire and Diderot, she sought to modernise Russia’s economy, industry and government, drawing inspiration both from classical antiquity and contemporary cultural and political developments in Western Europe”.
The show, which runs until November 8, sees the downstairs galleries of the NGV’s St Kilda Road building transformed by paint, plaster, wallpaper and video to create a sense of The Hermitage’s grand rooms.
And then there is the art: