Catherine the Great was never meant to rule Russia. Born a minor German princess, at age fifteen she was betrothed to Grand Duke Peter III, seemingly fated to live unhappily in his shadow. But this was not to be. In 1762, when Peter took the country’s reins, he proved hugely unpopular. Within months, Catherine and her supporters had moved to depose him, arresting him at the Menshikov Palace and moving him to Ropsha Palace. There he was forced to sign over his rule to Catherine; thus, from Peter the Great was born Catherine the Great.
Catherine is one of the most memorable women in history. By her death, she had transformed Russia from a turbulent provincial state into one of Europe’s major players, leaving a legacy that has, most recently, inspired the Hulu hit ‘The Great’. So how did she become so iconic? By amassing a totally legendary art collection.
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“I am glutton for art” – Catherine the Great
As a German from a minor provincial court, Catherine began her reign on uneasy ground. To win over the Russian people, she decided to do like her deceased husband’s great grandfather and westernize. She began investing in European fine art and architecture and in turn, modernized Russia. Catherine perceived the fray playing out between European leaders over art and plunged without pause.
Across her life, the Empress acquired four thousand Old Master paintings and at least six thousand drawings. Scrupulous in her choices, she haggled, sought advice and pursued only the best, stationing art agents like spies across Europe. She was also a close friend of Voltaire, a writer and the first person in Russia to publish children’s fiction. Rightly enough, Catherine the Great declared herself the Empress of the Enlightenment.
A Great Fact
Catherine’s rule saw the rise of female artists in Russia. Previously, Peter I had established reforms giving women greater access to education, but it was during the mid-18th century, the time Catherine was in power, that female artists also gained power.
The Great Way to collect art
Catherine’s wit, charm and gender led many European leaders to underestimate her. This was often compounded by her love for art, which she deprecated as a gluttony but was, in truth, a shrewd political strategy. For Catherine, the line between collecting as a practicality and as a passion did not exist. As one historian noted, she was Catherine quite contrary.
Catherine collected up until her death, relishing all the controversies her purchases generated. Her collection formed the foundation of the Hermitage, one of the world’s most lauded museums. Here, in the room devoted to seventeenth-century French art, the Empress contributed thirty-one of the sixty-one works and twenty of the thirty-two works in the Flemish room. Twenty-six of their Van Dycks were collected by her, as were thirty-seven Rubens. This is an unparalleled achievement in the history of art.
If Catherine’s legacy is to teach the contemporary collector anything, it is that art harbours a unique power. It is life-affirming and pleasurable, while also being bold, political and culturally symbolic. It can unite communities and incite wars, awaken a nation and offend its core – not unlike Catherine herself.
Build your own legacy through art
Catherine may have loved beauty, but she was not frivolous. She led Russia into two wars against the Ottoman Empire, annexed the Crimean Peninsula and partitioned Poland out of existence. She also had a reputation for courting younger men. Her life may have been idiosyncratic and dramatic, but it was always awe inspiring. Synthesizing her duality is this excerpt from a letter Catherine wrote to Voltaire;
“You have heard correctly, Sir, that this spring I raised the pay of all my military officers . . . by a fifth. At the same time, I’ve bought the collection of paintings of the late M. de Crozat [more about that later], and I am in the process of buying a diamond bigger than an egg.”