Buying Paintings and Building Up Nations : Notes on Catherine the Great
May 2 is the birthday of a ruler who showed off Russian power by acquiring treasure troves of European art. Yet key works of her collection now reside in a capital city that didn’t exist during her reign.
Catherine II of Russia (1729–1796) touched off a storm of public indignation in England with what British people saw as her raid on a national treasure.
Before his death in 1745, Britain’s first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, had created one of the finest collections of European paintings of his time. It included works by Rembrandt and other masters of the Dutch Golden Age. But Walpole’s heirs struggled to maintain the collection’s home in stately Houghton Hall. Heavily burdened by debt, George Walpole sold about two hundred paintings to Catherine in 1779.
“More than a collection of paintings was being removed from the country; a whole chapter of British history and culture was being shipped away,” wrote Robert K. Massie in his biography, “Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Queen.”
A Walpole heir called the sale a “theft.” There had been talk of having the U.K. government buy the Walpole collection and house it. There was a failed bid to raise public funds to try to buy back the paintings. But the empress had no intention of relinquishing these purchases, which had established her reputation as Europe’s foremost collector of art.
“The Walpole paintings are no longer to be had for the simple reason that your humble servant has already got her claws on them and will no more let them go than a cat would a mouse,” Catherine wrote in a letter to a friend, as quoted in the “The Empress of Art,” a biography written by Susan Jaques.
Catherine II would over time build a collection of almost 4,000 paintings. In the Massie biography, Catherine is quoted describing her drive to collect as a kind of mania: “It is not love of art..It is voracity.. I am a glutton.”
Her private gallery in Saint Petersburg, called the Hermitage, grew into one of the world’s most impressive museums.
I visited the Hermitage in 2017. There still are trophies from Catherine’s Walpole purchase on display, including the Rembrandt painting shown below.
But what caught my eye was another of Catherine’s Walpole trophies.
With that purchase from the U.K., Catherine acquired these lively market scenes done by Flemish painter Frans Snyders (1579–1657). The photos below are taken from the excellent website of the Hermitage. It still owns these paintings. Each of them contains a bit of animal whimsy.
Did you spot the unexpected visitor to the fish stall?
Notice what the horse is up to in the painting below? Then it looks like you have spotted something that the women chatting on the right side of this painting have not.
Notion of Nations
In most portraits, Catherine the Great seems to wear the same kind of clothes as did wealthy western European woman of her time. Look at these portraits of Catherine and of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France (1755–1793).
More rare is the kind of depiction of Catherine as shown below. She wears a headdress that a modern eye may quickly read as Russian, given our exposure to the many photos of the last Tsarina, Alexandra, in similar attire.
When Catherine arrived in Russia in 1744 as a teenage queen-in-waiting, the Russian elite had an interest in western dress. Peter the Great (1672–1725) bullied the Russian nobility into western Europe ways. He put a tax on men who wanted to keep wearing beards, as had earlier been Russian custom. Peter dressed as did his counterparts in western nations. He expected the nobility to do the same. Below are portraits from Peter the Great’s father, Alexis I, and his western-oriented son to show the difference in styles.
Catherine the Great was an ardent admirer of Peter the Great, but she revived Russian dress habits to her political advantage. Peter was born in Moscow as the son of a tsar. Catherine needed to burnish her Russian credibility. She had been born Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. She was raised in a German-speaking family with connections to nobility. It was only through a series of lucky connections that she married the heir to the Russian throne in 1745 at the age of 16.
Her husband, who was initially named Karl Peter Ulrich, was a grandson of Tsar Peter the Great. But like his bride, Karl had been born to German-speaking families in cities near the Baltic Sea. Sophie was from Szczecin, which is now part of Poland. He was from Kiel, north of Hamburg. They both converted from the Lutheran religion to Orthodox Christianity to ascend to the throne in Russia.
Elizabeth, a daughter of Peter the Great, led Russia from 1741 until 1762. Childless, Elizabeth chose Karl Peter as her heir and Princess Sophie as his bride. Sophie was renamed Catherine, Karl was called Peter. Their union was not a happy one. A bout of smallpox had left Peter disfigured.
Elizabeth of Russia died in January 1762. Catherine’s husband briefly succeeded her as Peter III. He died in July 1762. It’s never been exactly clear what happened to him, but murder has long been suspected. Catherine succeeded Peter III and ruled Russia until her death in 1796. She famously had many lovers over the years. Under her reign, Russia added new territories, which included Belarus and Lithuania.
Catherine also was an early champion of vaccination. She underwent a form of smallpox vaccination in 1768 and encouraged the practice among Russian nobility. About 150 of Catherine’s subject followed her example, including her son and heir. Her British physician, Thomas Dimsdale, and his son, Nathaniel, were given Russian titles and other tributes, wrote John Griffiths in a 1984 article for the Bristol Medico-Chirurgical Journal.
“They were loaded with valuable gifts, and were entertained lavishly at
banquets, balls and shooting parties,” Griffiths wrote.
Peter III was said to have never learned much Russian, while Catherine had plunged quickly into deep study of the native language of her new land on arrival. She saw her life’s work as taking up the causes of Peter the Great, expanding Russia into an empire and strengthening its ties to Europe.
But as a foreigner, Catherine understood the value of embracing Russian customs. In her private court, she allowed a mix of western and Russian dress, as seen in this portrait with the classic Russian headdress known as the kokoshnik.
To me, this portrait has an unexpected similarity to another of the treasures Catherine acquired in her art binges, this Rembrandt painting now titled “A Polish Nobleman.” Catherine bought this painting from Johann Karl Philipp, Graf von Cobenzl, another European collector who experienced financial hardships.
There is some thought that this may be a fanciful and quite embellished self-portrait, according to the National Gallery of Art of Washington, D.C. Rembrandt may have been playing around with trappings associated with Slavic nobility such as the lush furs and ornate gold jewelry.
Catherine enjoyed a long correspondence with the French philosopher Voltaire, a champion of civil liberties. This did not prevent her from expanding the Russian institution of serfdom, which tied peasants to specific lands and limited their rights. In the wake of rebellions in the 1770s, Catherine sought to strengthen her ties with members of the nobility by granting them greater control of their serfs and lands.
The empress tried to heed lessons of the past, Laura Cumming wote in a 2000 article in the Guardian on an exhibition of works collected by Catherine.
“She kept Voltaire on the nightstand, watercolours of classical ruins by her bed, never wishing to forget how quickly empires could decline and fall,” Cumming wrote.
Imperial Russia collapsed in 1917. By the 1920s, leaders of the Communist-led Soviet Union needed foreign currency to finance plans for rapid industrialization of Russia. They sold off religious icons and other treasures confiscated from Orthodox churches and Russia’s imperial family, and the aristocracy, according to the website for the Hillwood Museum in Washington, D.C. Hillwood was the estate of Marjorie Merriweather Post, who became a major collector of Russian art. Hillwood’s holdings include many objects connected to Catherine the Great, whose portrait welcomes visitors in the entry hall.
By the late 1920s, the Soviet leaders eyed the treasures in the art collection Catherine had begun to build. They quietly arranged sales of works from the Hermitage. This caught the interest of American financier Andrew Mellon (1855–1937). He had plans for putting the United States on a more even cultural footing with major European powers. The National Gallery of the United Kingdom had opened in 1824, seemingly in small part due to the stinging loss of the Walpole collection to Catherine.
Mellon wanted his young country to have a fine national art museum as well. He bought 21 paintings from the Hermitage, including Frans Hals’ Portrait of a Young Man, seen below. This had been part of Catherine’s Walpole purchase.
Also included in the Hermitage sale to Mellon was the Rembrandt painting of the Polish nobleman.
Mellon also purchased from the Hermitage another of Catherine the Great’s acquisitions, a painting titled “A Girl With a Broom.” Scholars have attributed this lovely work to Rembrandt’s student, Carel Fabritius.
Catherine the Great acquired this sensitive painting in 1772 through the intercession of her friend, French art critic and philosopher Denis Diderot. At that time, the U.K. was beginning to have trouble with its American colonies. Decades would go by before Washington, D.C., emerged as the capital of the newly formed United States.
Washington lagged the major American cities of the 19th century in cultural offerings. By 1900, art museums had either been built or were in the works in New York, Boston and San Francisco. Mellon sought to change that. In a 1936 letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Mellon offered to donate works to a new museum he would pay to have built in Washington.
“By reason of the rarity and importance of these works of art, the general character of the collection is such that it will furnish the nucleus of a great National Collection and will give our country at once a National Gallery that will rank with the other great galleries of the world,” Mellon said in his letter to FDR.
Mellon insisted that the new museum not bear his name, but instead be called something like the National Art Gallery. In time, the name was finalized as the National Gallery of Art. It became the home of the paintings Mellon purchased from the Hermitage.
I love the twist in that.
Mellon’s founding gift for the National Gallery of Art included works from Catherine’s Walpole purchase. So our National Gallery got its start with paintings that were the center of a sale that helped sparked the foundation of the UK’s National Gallery. The market power of Catherine’s riches, drawn in large part from abuses of serfs, gave way to Mellon’s fortune, based in American industries — steel and industrial finance.
And, as much as I’d love our American Empire to last indefinitely, I sometimes wonder what in time may be the next home for masterpieces housed in our great collections. A sale of Catherine’s Walpole trophies from her private Hermitage might once have seem as unthinkable as the idea of a loss of Rembrandt’s works from our national museum.
Click here for a bibliography of works used in research for this essay.