Empress Catherine II of Russia (1729-96) has long attracted popular interest for the remarkable achievements of her reign. Her extensive and assiduous efforts to cultivate and consolidate her image as a suitable, successful and therefore sovereign ruler throughout her 34-year reign came at an enormous cost, in every sense of the word. While this was hardly uncommon among her contemporaries, who ruled over subject populations, conducted bloody wars and spent huge sums on cultural patronage, Catherine was a female ruler who had gained her throne by usurpation, following the regicide of her husband Peter III. Her artistic patronage formed a significant part of her ultimately successful pursuit of respect and prestige, with the most frequently and deliberately invoked image being that of Catherine as “the Russian Minerva”.
There has been a considerable and impressive body of scholarly work concerning Catherine’s encouragement of “cultural enrichment” in Russia, particularly regarding her direct interventions and those of the Russian elite. Rosalind Polly Blakesley’s new book examines the contributions made by women artists in Catherine’s pursuit of her goals. Blakesley has published extensively on the history of pre-Revolutionary Russian art, including the award-winning The Russian Canvas: Painting in Imperial Russia, 1757-1881 (Yale 2016). Her expertise is reflected in her assured presentation of the subject matter, which draws together an impressive body of visual, documentary and scholarly material.
The central theme of the book is the complex relationship between gender, art and patronage during Catherine’s reign. The first two chapters discuss the personal, political and cultural context in which Catherine established herself at the Russian court, initially as wife of the heir to the throne and subsequently as ruler. These chapters illustrate Catherine’s use of imagery and patronage as part of her political strategy. While her predecessor, Empress Elizabeth (who reigned 1741-62), had established the Imperial Academy of Arts in 1757, it was Catherine who increased its resources and provided regular patronage for it to function as the leading institutional hub of Russian artistic endeavour from 1764 onwards. The same year also saw Catherine’s purchase of her first major art collection—225 works in total—the best of which subsequently formed the basis for the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Thereafter, the chapters explore the careers of women artists whose works were commissioned or purchased by Russian patrons during this period, led by the empress herself.
Catherine’s personal attitude towards women artists and their work is one of the major aspects of the book. Remarking on her extensive collection in her correspondence with Friedrich Melchior, Baron von Grimm, Catherine wrote (albeit in a throwaway manner): “I’m not a connoisseur; I’m simply greedy.” Her approach to collecting and commissioning art clearly placed considerable emphasis on its reflection of status and prestige. In this respect, Catherine showed no particular inclination to favour the work of women artists on account of their gender. Rather, she read widely and consulted well-placed advisers on prospective purchases and patronages, among them Denis Diderot and fellow art collectors from the Russian elite, such as Dmitry M. Golitsyn and Nikolai B. Yusupov. Simply put, Catherine wanted “the best”, as reflected in her high-profile, controversial purchase of the famous art collections of Pierre Crozat and Robert Walpole in the 1770s.
By the same token, Catherine’s approach meant that she was drawn to the work of both established and emerging women artists, whether as part of purchased collections or via reports and recommendations. The empress and her court in St Petersburg, as well as the Russian elite, offered rich potential for patronage and commissions that attracted the attention of well-known women artists such as Angelica Kauffman and Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, and helped to establish the reputations of others such as Marie-Anne Collot. Blakesley’s discussion provides insightful and sophisticated analysis of the works by these artists that were purchased or commissioned by Russian patrons. Although Catherine naturally looms large in this respect, her patronage was mirrored by others. This period established the place of work by women artists in the collections of the Russian elite, even if, as Blakesley notes, this had little impact on the wider public.
The book provides impressive coverage of its subject. Those already familiar with the work of major figures like Kauffman and Vigée Le Brun will nevertheless find fresh insight into their Russian connections here. The chapter dealing with Anna Dorothea Therbusch features the dynastic galleries of Chesme Palace, for which the artist and her brother were commissioned by the German-born Catherine to paint portraits of the Hohenzollern royal family. It is a fascinating case study in Catherine’s politicised use of art and, unlike some of the other private collections, the palace was intended as a destination for visitors travelling from the capital to Tsarskoe Selo.
Although most of the women artists discussed were professional, the book also examines Catherine’s daughter-in-law, Grand Duchess Maria Fedorovna—who married the future (and short-lived) Emperor Paul in 1776—as an example of an amateur woman artist (while warning against an anachronistic understanding of this distinction). In addition to her extensive patronage of the arts and her renovation of the imperial estates at Gatchina and Pavlovsk, Maria sought artistic training in engraving and turning with resident (foreign) specialists, which resulted in some very well-regarded pieces. Blakesley explores how Maria’s patronage and artistic work reflected her efforts to establish herself at the Russian court, not least in relation to the formidable presence of Catherine.
A significant aspect of the book is its exploration of the challenges and risks that such women artists faced in pursuing their careers. Even those who succeeded in establishing themselves as professionals experienced the effects of commonplace misogyny that imposed restrictions on them, such as with the form and genre of work considered appropriate for them to pursue or in their recognition and inclusion by leading art institutions. The problematic attitude of Diderot—a leading art critic and an aforementioned source for Catherine—towards Therbusch when she was in Paris provides an illustrative example. Yet the book also examines the innovative ways in which women artists approached and dealt with these challenges, for example by subtly and skilfully subverting established artistic tropes or by demonstrating excellence in a form like engraving or turning, commonly thought unsuitable for women.
Another challenge is that these foreign women artists were largely exceptional in the Russian context. As Blakesley acknowledges, there is relatively little direct evidence of Russian women artists during this period. In part, this is related to a paucity of available sources, but also reflects prevailing attitudes—Russian art institutions only permitted women to join from the mid-19th century onwards. Blakesley’s intention with this book, however, is to gather and present what can be found for this important transitional period for women artists, and she highlights the presence of Russian women in relation to the artistic sphere where possible. She also raises useful questions about areas where research is ongoing or needed.
Overall, this engaging, accessible and beautifully illustrated book provides a welcome and stimulating contribution to scholarship on 18th-century art and patronage, particularly on the relationships (and rivalries) fostered by Catherine and members of the Russian elite with their contemporaries in the rest of Enlightenment Europe.
• Rosalind P. Blakesley, Women Artists in the Reign of Catherine the Great (Northern Lights Series), Lund Humphries, 152pp, 62 colour illustrations, £45/$64.99 (hb), published 27 January 2023
• Paul Keenan is a lecturer in international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science