For Catherine, art symbolized power

When it came to art, Catherine II, Empress of Russia, was omnivorous. Her collecting greed laid the foundations of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Yet in the catalog for a major Canadian exhibition of works on loan from that massive museum is an essay that asks: "Did Catherine II have taste?"

She certainly had likes and dislikes. For example, she detested the emotive extravagance of the 17th- century Baroque and espoused the purer, more severe Neoclassicism fashionable in 18th-century Europe.

Still, for this "Minerva of the North," the line between art judged for its simple beauty and art as a symbol of imperial and personal power could be blurred.

She imported art to invest Russia with greater cultural status. Although German-born, she was a Russian nationalist, greatly encouraging Russia's sense of its own identity. She also collected art from abroad as an example to home-grown artists and architects and as a challenge to manufactories of decorative artifacts, such as tapestries and porcelain. She used advisers such as Diderot and Voltaire, significant thinkers of the French Enlightenment, to develop her collections - though she did not always agree with them.

Nathalie Bondil concludes her catalog essay about the empress's taste by saying: "Catherine II may have had little taste, but she did have single-mindedness."

Like many monarchs - particularly ones who started out as usurpers - she understood the power of portraiture to establish her magnificence and importance. She was crowned three months after a coup in which her husband had been deposed and murdered. She was probably conveyed to her coronation, ironically enough, in the highly baroque coach shown here.

Portraiture continued to be a tool to maintain her position in the eyes of Russians and foreigners, when she clung to power in spite of her son's legitimate claim to the throne. Royal portraiture can also be a way of transforming a human being into a kind of icon. Once an effective icon is achieved, it can be reproduced (before photography, by engravings and oil copies). The portrait by Fedor (Fyodor) Rokotov is, in this way, a version of a full-length regal icon of Catherine by Swedish artist Alexander Roslin. Many replicas of this portrait were made, but Catherine had the face that Roslin painted replaced by the face from an earlier portrait by Rokotov. She thought Roslin's depiction of her features was too accurate. Or, as she put it, like that of a "plain and boorish Swedish cook."

An inscription in this portrait reads "Completing what was begun." This refers to Catherine's determination to fulfill reforms of the empire initiated by the first Russian emperor, Peter the Great. She emulated Peter, doing everything she could to convey the idea that she was his heir. This included using art as propaganda.

"Catherine the Great, Art for Empire," is at the Art Gallery of Ontario until Jan. 1. It will be at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Feb. 2 to May 7, 2006.

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