Catherine II: Russia's Empress of style

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.

Portrait of Catherine II, Empress of Russia in the Park (1794) by Vladimir BorovikovskiyThe State Tretyakov Gallery

Catherine II: The Empress of Style

Catherine II the Great (born Sophie Auguste Friederike von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, in Orthodoxy Yekaterina Alekseyevna, April 21 [May 2], 1729, Stettin, Prussia – November 6 [17] 1796, Winter Palace, Petersburg) – the Empress of All the Russias from 1762 to 1796.The daughter of the Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, Catherine came to power as a result of a palace coup that dethroned Peter III, her unpopular husband.Catherine’s era was characterized with the maximum peasant serfdom strictness and a comprehensive expansion of the privileges of the nobility.Under Catherine the Great, the borders of the Russian Empire were significantly expanded to the west (partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) and to the south (inclusion of Novorossiya, Crimea, and, partially, the Caucasus).The system of state administration under Catherine II was reformed for the first time since the time of Peter I. Culturally, Russia eventually became one of the great European powers, and the empress herself contributed a lot to it: she was fond of literary activity, collected painting masterpieces, and led correspondence with the French enlighteners. In general, Catherine’s policy and her reforms fit into the trend of enlightened absolutism of the 18th century.

Portrait of Catherine II (1763) by Fedor RokotovThe State Tretyakov Gallery

1763: The coronation portrait

This coronation portrait of Catherine II combines the traditional ceremonial style of imperial portraits of the first half of the XVIII century – portraying an inherently grand and noble figure – with the newer trends that were emerging under the influence of the New Age. It was at this time that the ideal of an enlightened monarch was being cultivated. 

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.

Portrait of Catherine II the Legislatress in the Temple Devoted to the Godess of Justice (Beginning of 1780s) by Dmitry LevitskyThe State Tretyakov Gallery

Catherine II – Legislator in the Temple of the Goddess of Justice

This work is quite special for the 18th century art. In its allegorical form, it captured the ideal of the era – an image of an enlightened monarch. The artist depicts his heroine as the priestess of Themis, the Goddess of Justice.

The initiator of this ceremonial portrait of Catherine II was Nikolay Lvov, a famous poet, architect, and musician. The picture’s content is revealed through a complex system of allegories. The Order of St. Vladimir emphasizes merits to the Motherland.

The Empress wears a dress resembling an ancient toga, with a laurel wreath on her head and not a crown.

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.

At the feet of Catherine there are books (a set of state laws) and an eagle with an olive branch in its beak, embodying an enlightened, strong, and peaceful Russia.

Portrait of Catherine II, Empress of Russia in the Park (1794) by Vladimir BorovikovskiyThe State Tretyakov Gallery


Catherine II (1729-1796) is depicted in accordance with the ideal of sentimentalism. The artist presents her in the form of a beholder walking in the company of her beloved Italian greyhound and meditating in the bosom of nature. This portrait might have been the prototype of the final scene of Alexander Pushkin’s novel “The Captain’s Daughter”.

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.

Credits: Story

The State Tretyakov Gallery

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