A Russian Empress's Ransom

An exhibition of jewels, paintings, and royal regalia sheds light on the legendary ruler

CATHERINE THE GREAT, who ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796, is one of those bigger-than-life figures cloaked in exaggerated lore and extreme opinions.

There is the Catherine we know from biographers who describe her insatiable appetite for jewels, power, and young Russian courtiers. Then there is the politically shrewd Catherine who married the grandson of Peter the Great, plotted to depose him, and took the throne when he "mysteriously" died (at the hands, it is proposed, of Count Orlov, one of Catherine's lovers).

The exhibition of Catherine's treasures, which is currently on view at the Dallas Museum of Art, was shown at the Armand Hammer Museum here earlier. It offers a sumptuous look at Catherine's world via some 300 objects of art and culture on loan from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

As the former Soviet Union enters its post-communist era, and in keeping with the revisionist histories that have already begun to recast dark crannies in the Soviet past in more palatable light, this show offers a new, improved, and unusually positive version of Catherine.

The exhibition underplays Catherine's legendary Machiavellian qualities and emphasizes her generous arts patronage, and the advancement of culture that took place under her aegis.

It is unarguable that at the height of her power during the late 1700s, Catherine brought the thinking of the French Enlightenment into Russia. Her close personal and intellectual ties with French scholars like Voltaire opened up the European consciousness to a Russia that, until then, seemed to the West an exotic, distant, and uninviting land.

There is no question that for nearly three decades Catherine the Great built and ruled one of the richest and most pampered monarchies in Eastern Europe.

It is also true, however, that most of the people in Catherine's Russia lived meagerly. They eeked out a livelihood on lands belonging to a small courtly circle sated by this astute queen, who understood the importance of a contented military and a bemused nobility.

The paintings, costumes, jewelry, royal regalia, tapestries, and dishes on view confirm that Catherine knew how to amuse and please herself and others. The artistic legacy of this policy is the wonderful trove of objects that make up the show.

Catherine's court lived in such splendor that even by today's standards of excess, we marvel. For their sheer voluptuousness of design and execution, these objects inspire jaw-dropping awe. The range of articles exhibited is top notch. Many passed to Catherine from Peter the Great; these older objects are exceptional.

There is one royal carriage crafted in France in 1725 of ornately carved woods inlaid with bronze and silver. The small carriage paintings are thought to be by the famous French artist Francois Boucher.

Equally remarkable is the royal "Carnival Sleigh" made in 1775 that features a perfectly tooled dragon rearing its head from under the seat to meet the spear of a nearly life-size sculpture of St. George on horseback. The mind can't help but imagine this ponderous sleigh pulled by horses and carrying the queen through snow-covered streets.

There are amazing miniature replicas of the royal crowns made by the famous eggmaker Faberge, complete with hundreds of miniature gems exactly duplicating those that covered the life-size crowns.

Most of Russia adopted the Orthodox faith brought by Emperor Constantine on his conversion to Christianity, and as the religion broke with its classical past, it slowly lost all the perfect realism of ancient art. We all recognize those lovely wide-eyed, flat-faced Russian icons that functioned as prayer altars in churches and homes.

In "The Kazan Mother of God," (1775), Mary looks down on Jesus through a dizzying maze of pearls, gems, and silver. The irony of such opulence applied to an object of traditional simplicity is doubled because Catherine openly endorsed reason over religious faith.

Although the pervading royal custom was to import renowned craftsmen from foreign art centers, the intelligent Catherine understood the intense nationalism of the Russian spirit and used many Russian artists. Their unique Eastern sensibility enlivens works that would otherwise have come down to us as less-interesting French art made in Russia.

Whether or not we like the woman, we come from this experience with a better understanding of Catherine the Great, whose portraits depict a fair-faced Prussian teen and later a barrel-chested, jeweled matron (it is hard to see either the temptress or the maker of empires in these images).

There are two ways to view the works in this show, and both are valid. First, every courtly object is a self-contained statement of perfected craft, color, and composition, to be enjoyed as art for its own sake. Another perspective is to accept each object not only for its beauty but also as a window into a social and political order wherein art was the legal tender of power at a time when less was definitely not more. "Catherine the Great" is on view at the Dallas Museum of Art until Nov. 29, 1992. It then returns to the Hermitage.

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