Russian Minerva. Biography of Catherine the Great in the exhibits of Tsaritsyno displays and reminiscences

Russian Minerva. Biography of Catherine the Great in the exhibits of Tsaritsyno displays and reminiscences
Fyodor Rokotov. Coronation Portrait of Catherine the Great. 1763
We will plunge into the 18th century with paintings and sculptures from the holdings of Tsaritsyno Museum Reserve, the Hermitage, the Russian Museum, the Tretyakov Gallery, the Museum of History, Rybinsk Museum Reserve and the Palace of the Grand Masters of the Order of Malta.

Throughout 2019, Tsaritsyno is celebrating the 290th anniversary of Catherine the Great's birthday. The Museum Reserve has already opened a number of exhibition projects dedicated to the Empress, who ordered to build this Royal residence. Two of them started at the Grand Palace on 18 August, the day of Tsaritsyno's History: 'Catherine the Great. To the 290th anniversary of Her Birthday' and the one-painting exhibition 'The Portrait of Catherine the Great with St. George Ribbon'.

Read about chief exhibits of both displays to run till 12 January 2020 in a mos.ru and Mosgortur Agency's collaborative article.

Family album

The portrait gallery of 'Catherine the Great. To the 290th Anniversary of Her Birthday' tells about the first years nee Sophie Auguste Friederike von Anhalt-Zerbst spent in Russia. Grand Princess Catherine is looking at us from the canvas. Next to her, you will see the portraits of her mother, Johanna Elizabeth, and the Russian Empress Yelizaveta Petrovna, who ordered mother and daughter to arrive in distant St. Petersburg. The daughter was to marry the heir to the Russian crown, but her mother was sent back because of her plotting in favour of the Prussian court.

Now you see Catherine's husband in a general's uniform of his native Holstein. His father was a nephew of King Charles XII of Sweden, and his mother was the daughter of Peter the Great and Yelizaveta Petrovna's sister. It is not surprising that the pretender to both thrones was named Karl Peter Ulrich in honour of both opponents in the Northern War. Later, Yelizaveta Petrovna baptized her nephew as Pyotr and brought him and Catherine together. They lived together for 16 years. But it was an unhappy marriage. Catherine wrote about it in her diary:

"I understood very well that the Grand Prince did not love me at all; two weeks after the wedding, he told me that he was in love with the damsel Karr, the Empress's lady-in-waiting, who later married one of the princes Golitsyn, the Empress' Master of the Horse. He told count Divier, his chamberlain, that there was nothing to compare about me and her."

The couple's discord soon turned into mutual hostility, but it did not prevent Yelizaveta Petrovna from having a long-awaited heir, future Paul I. The exhibition also features his portrait as a child.

Unknown artist. Grand Prince Pavel Petrovich. Late 18th century. Tsaritsyno Museum Reserve

Palace coup d'état 

After the Empress died, a gap formed between the Prussian-oriented Peter III and the top of the Russian aristocracy. Soon, a conspiracy developed around the monarch, who had not even had time to be crowned. The key figures of the Palace coup d'état of 1762 were the Orlov brothers, guards officers Alexei and Gregory, whose double portrait is presented at the exhibition.

Grigory Orlov, Catherine's favourite by the time, was hoping to marry her. Peter, whose abdication was witnessed by his brother, died under mysterious circumstances (according to the official version, from 'haemorrhoidal colic'). Although some call Alexei one of the killers, the cause of the Emperor's death is still a mystery.

"I do not believe that this Princess is so evil to be involved in the tsar's death. But since the deepest secret will always cover the real mastermind of this terrible deed, suspicions will remain on the Empress, who is enjoying its fruit now," wrote Béranger, French ambassador in Russia.

The portrait of the Empress in coronation vestments brought from the Tretyakov Gallery is a few steps further from the canvas with the image of Catherine in mourning. Fyodor Rokotov made this painting in 1763. During the 34 years of the Empress's reign, there were plenty of artists willing to paint her, but she considered this painting made at the time of her triumph the best.

'Allegory on the Accession of Catherine the Great' from the Museum of History brings this section of the exhibition to a symbolic close. This work by an unknown Russian artist is unique because he used a popular print (lubok) as a base of his painting. The painting depicts the Empress holding the little Paul's hand and pointing to the figures of Christ and angels soaring in the sky. Such images were intended to emphasise the legitimacy of her accession to the throne as viewed by common people, who (at least in St. Petersburg and Moscow) accepted the Queen Mother with delight.

Younger son 

A portrait of young Alexei Bobrinsky, son of Catherine and Grigory Orlov, painted by Carl Ludwig Christineck, came to Tsaritsyno Museum Reserve from Rybinsk.

The boy was born a few months before the Palace coup d'état. According to the legend, in order to hide the childbirth from the unsuspecting spouse, Catherine's coterie took advantage of Peter III's passion to look at the city fires. With the first labour pains, count Ivan Gendrikov had to set his house on fire. However, the labour was complicated and long, so soon, the house of Empress's wardrobe-master Vasily Shkurin was set ablaze, too. After the accession of Catherine, both were showered with her favours. The first one became General-in-Chief, and the second one became a Privy Councillor.

From the first days, the newborn child was brought up in Shkurin's family. His mother saw him once again only two years after his birth. At the age of eight, the child was sent abroad to a boarding school. It was the time Christineck painted an identical portrait of the Queen's younger son in the same outfit, but from a different perspective. It is held by the Hermitage.

By the age of 13, according to a contemporary, the boy "was weak, timid, insensitive, but gentle and obedient" and his knowledge was limited to "only French and German, basic arithmetic and very little notion of geography". He received his second name Bobrinsky on his return to Russia together with the Bobriki Estate in the Tula province granted by his mother. Apparently, by that time the Empress abandoned her plans to marry Grigory Orlov and officially declare Alexei her heir.

He had no idea of his origin until his 19th birthday, when Catherine write to him:

"Alexei Grigoryevich. I know that your mother, being oppressed by various hostile and strong enemies, under the vague circumstances, saving herself and her elder son, was forced to hide your birth that took place on 11 April 1762."

Alexei Bobrinsky did not leave any noticeable trace in the history of Russia. When he got indebted by breaking bad on a trip to Europe, his mother banished him to Revel. After her death, Paul I openly declared him his brother, granted him the title of count, a mansion in St. Petersburg and lands, and promoted him in every way. However, Bobrinsky did not show much zeal. At the age of 36 he retired to his Tula estate, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Twin busts 

Two marble busts of Catherine the Great, connected by a common history, are among the sculptures presented at the exhibition.

The first one with a veiled head was made by the French artist Marie-Anne Collot in 1769. At the age of 18, she came to Russia with her mentor Étienne Falconet. The renowned sculptor entrusted his apprentice with the work on the head of Peter the Great for his 'Bronze Horseman' monument. The outcome was highly appreciated both by him and the Royal ordering customer, and it opened the doors of the Imperial Palace to Collot.

The author of the second bust is Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, who worked on it in 1772 in Rome by order of the Vice-Chancellor of the College of Foreign Affairs of Prince Alexander Golitsyn, who switched allegiance from Peter III to Catherine during the coup and personally brought her husband's abdication. Unable to work with a life model, Cavaceppi used a cast from the bust made by Collot. Moreover, the bust created by the French artist was also used in the most famous portrait of Prince Golitsyn by Dmitry Levitsky.

The exhibition dedicated to Catherine brought both works together in one room (Collot's bust came from the Hermitage, Cavaceppi's bust came from the Tretyakov Gallery), so the visitors have now a rare opportunity to compare these marble twins.

Gift to the Knights of Malta 

The one-painting exhibition opened at the Catherine Hall. The majestic full-height 'Portrait of Catherine the Great with St. George's Ribbon' by Dmitry Levitsky was brought from Malta. The painting that was diplomatically presented to Head of the Order of Malta in the midst of the Russian-Turkish War (1787-1791) came home for the first time.

For more than two centuries, the painting left the Palace of the Grand Masters of the Order in Valletta only twice. In the spring of 1935, it was taken to London for an exhibition of Russian art, and during the Second World War, when Malta, turned into a British naval base, was subjected to a blockade with the most severe bombings, the gift of the Empress, along with other values, was hidden from air raids in the heart of the island.

The portrait is associated with the annexation of Crimea to the Russian Empire in 1883 and the subsequent great journey of the Empress to new lands. A Russian attorney at the Order of Malta met her in Taurida. On behalf of the Grand Master, he presented the Empress with a palm branch. This gesture impressed Catherine, since Jesus was greeted with palm branches at the entrance to Jerusalem. A return gift from the Russian Empire was not long in coming. Soon, academician of the Imperial Academy of Arts Dmitry Levitsky was ordered a portrait.

The master of allegorical portraits depicted the Empress as Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and war. The Queen stands in the shade of a laurel tree symbolising victory since ancient times. A sheathed sword she is holding in her right hand is intertwined with a laurel branch. She solemnly points to the conquered land. In the Russian emblem studies of the 18th century, Minerva appeared long before the ascension of Catherine to the throne, but during her reign this goddess became a symbol of the Empress.

Catherine has a gold ornamented chain of the Order of St. Andrew, the highest award of the Russian Empire, and the Imperial Military Order of St. George the Great Martyr and his ribbon, established by the Empress 250 years ago, after another Russian-Turkish campaign. The painter also depicted a cuirass, for a purpose, too. In the reign of Catherine the Great, a cuirassier Military Order of St. George the Great Martyr with the knights of St. George was established.