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Women artists resurface from Russia's basements

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"It is interesting to see that both sitter and artist in the 18th century are aware" that each portrait captures only one of many roles the sitter can play, says Angela Rosenthal, author of the forthcoming book, "Becoming Pictures: Angelika Kauffman and the Art of Identity."

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The style of a portrait signified a family's taste and social status.

"Hung in the dining room or reception room," Dr. Rosenthal says, "it becomes part of the representation of the whole household, a demonstration of its wealth."

Works in the show illustrate this point. In a bust Catherine the Great commissioned as a gift to the French philosopher Denis Diderot, Marie-Anne Collot portrayed the Empress without jewelry, wearing a simple headdress that recalls early depictions of priestesses to the goddess of reason.

Christina Robertson's full-length portraits of Nicholas I and his wife in sumptuous regalia greeted visitors in the rotunda of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg and announced the beauty, taste, and status of its owners.

In Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun's self-portrait of 1800, intended for the Imperial Academy of Art, the artist depicts herself sketching the Empress Maria Fedorovna to remind the Academy of the high patronage she enjoyed.

Several of these portraits were created in St. Petersburg, a city to which 18th-century European artists "flocked for its wonderful clientele," says Alison Hilton, a professor of art history at Georgetown University. "The city presented a picture of opportunity that, in the rest of crowded Europe, these artists might not have had."

At the same time, European paintings circulated on the local art market, works by expatriates served as models for Russian students, and many in the nobility traveled west to buy art.

Russian artists could not help but be influenced by foreign painters, including Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Rembrandt. And the show makes clear that women also had an influence. The Kauffman paintings, for instance, were purchased or commissioned by prominent Russian nobleman Count Yusupov when he and his wife visited Kauffman's successful studio in Rome.

The absence of Russian artists in the show highlights another aspect of St. Petersburg society. Women happily posed for portraits, bought artworks, and many - including Catherine and her daughter-in-law Maria Fedorovna - were accomplished artists. But society only allowed Russian women to study and practice privately.

By contrast, foreign women received well-paid commissions and gained recognition from the Imperial Academy of Arts. Collot was accepted as an honorary member in 1767 and Vigée-Lebrun in 1800, a full century before the Academy awarded degrees to women.

Did these foreign women pave the way for their Russian sisters in the way Kauffman helped break the gender barrier? It's hard to say, Pomeroy says as she strolls through the galleries. But, "we like to think so."

An Imperial Collection is on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts until June 18, and at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle July 26 to Nov. 30.