The State Tretyakov Gallery keeps three important paintings of Catherine II that demonstrate her impeccable style and what made her a trendsetter outside of Russia.
Rokotov was the first Russian artist to have a special honor of painting the coronation portrait of Catherine II in all her imperial regalia. The painter pictured the Empress sitting on a throne in a brocade silver dress and an ermine robe. In her right hand she holds a scepter, leaning her left hand on the velvet pillow with the orb lying on it. The console to the right of the figure is decorated with a monogram of the empress in an ornamental frame.
Fyodor Rokotov painted a ceremonial portrait of the “just monarch”, under whose scepter the Russian Empire was to prosper. The composition of the canvas is based on the comparison of a strict, emphatically “heraldic” profile of the depicted figure and her body in a turn of three quarters. The gesture of Catherine II, full of greatness, is not addressed to the viewer, but to the invisible company. The viewers do not enter the space of the picture, they are only witnesses to the demonstrated scene. The artist created the effect of timelessness and detachment, strictness and solemnity of the event.
This is facilitated by a coloristic solution based on a combination of contrasting colors: cool silver-lilac tone of the dress and blue shade of the St. Andrew’s ribbon with a rich crimson tone of the throne’s upholstery and a green hue of drapery. Rokotov achieved a brilliant decorative effect in the picture by comparing large colorful surfaces designed to make a portrait contemplated from afar. Saturation of the color palette matches the expressiveness of the picture.
Catherine’s profile is delineated by a thin continuous line emphasizing the sloping forehead, thin pressed lips, and double chin. In the garment of the empress, the folds of the dress and mantle are slightly marked by separate “fine” lines, while the contour above them becomes more elastic and precise.
The image is based on a shoulder-length sketch made the same year, probably from the Empress herself. The picture accurately depicts the turn of Catherine’s head and her hairstyle with powdered hair interwoven with pearly threads.
The portrait was recognized as the official image of the Empress. In 1766, at the request of the Collegium of Foreign Affairs, Rokotov made six replicas for Russian embassies abroad.
Catherine is depicted in the Temple of Themis, the Goddess of Justice. The Empress burns poppy flowers on the altar, which, according to the ancient tradition, were considered a symbol of sleep and quietude, thereby expressing readiness to sacrifice her own peace for the sake of Russia’s prosperity.
The Empress is depicted not inside the palace, but among the dense greenery of the park, her clothes are emphatically unofficial. There are no attributes of power customary for imperial portraits. However, the pose of the Empress is full of dignity. The movements and her gesture, while pointing at the Chesme Column erected in honor of the victory in the Russian-Turkish war (1768-1774), are restrained and majestic.
The surrounding nature is more beautiful than the lavish staterooms. For the first time in Russian art, the background of the portrait becomes an important element in the characterization of the hero. The artist praises a human being among the natural environment and interprets the nature as a source of aesthetic pleasure.
The State Tretyakov Gallery