Women Artists in the Reign of Catherine the Great by Rosalind P Blakesley - review by Norma Clarke

Norma Clarke

No Way Through the Painted Ceiling

Women Artists in the Reign of Catherine the Great


Lund Humphries 152pp £45

The woman known to history as Catherine the Great was born Princess Sophie Auguste Friederike of Anhalt-Zerbst in 1729, the eldest child of a minor Prussian prince. She was married in St Petersburg in 1745 to her second cousin Karl Peter Ulrich of Holstein-Gottorp, who had been proclaimed heir to his aunt, Empress Elizabeth of Russia. Both young people converted to Russian Orthodoxy, but there the similarity ended. Where Peter (renamed Grand Duke Peter Fedorovich) was sickly, indolent and infantile, Sophie (who became Grand Duchess Catherine of Russia) was strong, decisive, intelligent, serious and studious. Peter was her ‘child husband’, she later wrote, and certainly not the father of her sons. By the time she gave birth to the second in 1762, Empress Elizabeth was dead, Peter had become emperor and her lover Grigory Orlov was plotting the coup that turned this ‘Pomeranian princess of little consequence’ into ‘Empress and Autocrat of all the Russias’. Peter, who had never learned Russian and sneered at Russian traditions, would probably have been glad to be sent home to Holstein. Instead, he was killed. So, for good measure, was poor Ivan VI, who had become emperor in 1740, aged two months, before being usurped by Elizabeth the following year. He had been a captive all his life in the Schlüsselburg fortress. Any thought that Catherine might reign as regent until her son Paul came of age were dispelled by the lavish coronation she arranged for herself, which was followed by festivities that went on for four months.

Rosalind P Blakesley tells the story of Catherine’s life through her patronage of the visual arts. From the very beginning, the usurper used portraiture to convey her right to rule. She commissioned a portrait of herself in mourning dress for Elizabeth, wearing the sash and star of the Order of St Andrew, the highest chivalric fellowship in Russia; shortly afterwards, Vigilius Eriksen painted a life-size portrait of her astride her favourite horse, Brilliant, dressed in guards uniform, wielding a sword, ready to lead. The message was clear: she was as good as or better than other European monarchs, and even if half the Russian court was illiterate, nobody was going to look down on her empire as an uncultivated backwater. Art, science, philosophy and literature would replace ignorant backbiting at court. Here, France was key. Denis Diderot, Catherine’s ‘lodestar’, had written that the birth of the arts showed ‘the people’s rise out of barbarity’ and the progress of the arts was evidence of ‘a people enlightened, powerful, and thriving’.

Only some people, of course. The system of serfdom remained and Catherine pursued a policy of aggressive imperialism – much of modern Ukraine was colonised – so that the total number of serfs actually rose during her long reign. Art and artists helped embellish the mantle of legitimacy. There was already an Academy of Arts. Catherine set about giving it a new home, a massive palace on the embankment in the heart of the administrative centre, where it still stands today. Here, too, it was only some people who were to benefit: specifically, men. Women were not allowed to be students, even though women were doing well as artists elsewhere, especially in France and Italy; Angelica Kauffman was thriving in London, having attained popularity among British grand tourists in Rome. Two prominent women artists were elected to the St Petersburg Academy of Arts: the sculptor Marie-Anne Collot and the portraitist Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. A few others, mostly relatives of painters, were also allowed access.

It is an awkward truth, given the title of this book, that Catherine was not interested in women artists or in extending the opportunities enjoyed by men to women as a whole. She became an avid collector, making some large-scale acquisitions, including the superb collection of Pierre Crozat in 1772 and that of Sir Robert Walpole, sold at a knockdown price by his grandson in 1779 to pay the family’s debts. In each case there was outrage in the home country. Diderot brokered the deal for the Crozat collection: ‘The connoisseurs are screaming; the artists are screaming; the rich are screaming.’ In England, Josiah Wedgwood complained that Russia was ‘pillaging our palaces and our museums’ and Horace Walpole vowed never to forgive his nephew. By buying up such collections, Catherine, through happenstance, acquired the works of important early women artists like Elisabetta Sirani and the ‘peerless’ pastellist Rosalba Carriera. On account of its softness, pastel was seen as being good for rendering flesh, and Carriera was especially adept in representing women in ecstatic, uplifted states, meaning her work was highly sought after. Blakesley is a little prim on the eroticism of the work and the ‘fetishistic fascination’ of male viewers with the opalescence of the skin, heightened, she suggests, by the knowledge that a woman’s hand was behind it. 

Paris was the cultural mecca for Russians and the Academy sent its best students there. In 1773, Catherine persuaded Diderot to travel to St Petersburg. The journey nearly killed him (colic, bad roads) but he stayed for four months, admiring Catherine’s rapier wit and enquiring mind. He would slap her legs to emphasise his points so that she emerged from their discussions black and blue, until she put a table between them. He declared that she had ‘the soul of Brutus in the body of Cleopatra’. After the French Revolution in 1789, the dial shifted to Rome, where Kauffman had settled. Kauffman was in demand: elites of many lands queued to have their portraits painted by her. Catherine became a fan. She commissioned canvases showing literary and historical subjects, making it known that she was always willing to pay more than others. The Hermitage has a strong collection of Kauffmans as a result.

Vigée Le Brun, official artist to Marie Antoinette, was forced into exile by the revolution. Having spent time in Vienna, where she painted many Russians, she was eager to gain favour at the Russian court. She arrived in St Petersburg in 1795, was presented to the empress within days and stayed for six years. She commanded high prices but it was not all plain sailing. Catherine disliked her portrait of her granddaughters and said so. She saw in the work ‘neither likeness nor taste nor nobility’; the children looked like ‘two ugly little Savoyardes’ or ‘two pug dogs’. Vigée Le Brun repainted it.

There was not much encouragement for Russian women to become artists, though Paul’s second wife, Maria Fedorovna, was both a patron and a practitioner. She was competent as a pastellist but her main interest was in techniques of wax modelling, ivory carving and engraving. An ivory, amber, glass and gilt-bronze inkstand depicted here displays her skill while at the same time reminding us that these were not activities for ordinary folk. Rosalind Blakesley’s useful survey helps us understand the difficulties artists faced in despotic times.

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