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An empress' Louvre and labor of love

At a time when Russian nobles pursued French tastes, Catherine championed the arts. An exhibition marks St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary.

March 03, 2003|Jo Ann Lewis | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — French portrait painter Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, a favorite of Marie Antoinette, knew a sophisticated city when she saw one.

Of her six-year stay in St. Petersburg, Russia, which began in 1795, she later wrote:

"There were innumerable balls, concerts and theatrical performances, and ... I found all the urbanity, all the grace of French company. It seemed as though good taste had made a jump with both feet from Paris to St. Petersburg."

The opening through which French taste jumped was Peter the Great's "window on Europe," the new Russian capital he built on the Neva River in 1703 to give Russians greater proximity to European culture, and to showcase Russia's wealth and burgeoning cultural institutions.

It took the better part of a century and Empress Catherine the Great -- wife of Peter's grandson -- to make it happen. But she did. Now "An Imperial Collection: Women Artists From the State Hermitage Museum," an exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, has arrived from St. Petersburg to mark the 300th anniversary of that city, offering us a view of Catherine as patron of the arts, and of 15 female artists, none from Russia, who reaped the benefits of her efforts.

The show comprises 49 paintings and sculptures by artists who are well represented in the museum Catherine founded as Russia's answer to the Louvre.

Catherine bought some of the greatest private art collections in Europe, ultimately installing them in a new building adjoining her Winter Palace, which she called her Hermitage, or hideaway. By the time of her death in 1796 she had accumulated one of the greatest Old Master collections in the world, including paintings by Giorgione, Botticelli, Perugino, two each by Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci, eight Titians, seven Veroneses, 10 Tiepolos and 24 Rembrandts, not to mention thousands of drawings and manuscripts, carved gemstones and innumerable decorative objects.

Catherine unleashed a craze for art collecting among Russian royals and aristocrats. And it was the lure of commissions from them that brought Vigee-Lebrun (1755-1842) to St. Petersburg, as well as two other stars of this show, French sculptor Marie-Anne Collot and Scottish painter Christina Robertson. The remaining dozen artists represented here -- among them Angelica Kauffman, portraitist Anna Dorothea Therbusch-Lisiewska and genre painter Marguerite Gerard -- never set foot in Russia, although their work wound up there.

The artists in the show are little known apart from Vigee-Lebrun, represented here by a dazzling self-portrait that is her masterpiece, and a very charming, very French portrait of Catherine's two granddaughters. Some appear to have been rescued from dim storage bins by Russian curators who have been doing research on the Hermitage's female artists but hadn't had a chance to trot them out until the Women's Museum asked for a show.

But there are two wonderful rediscoveries here: the living, breathing marble portrait busts by the young French artist Collot, who became one of Catherine's favorites; and, from a half-century later, the full-length portraits by Robertson (1796-1854), a Scotswoman who worked for the imperial house of Nicholas I. It was Robertson who painted the very large, strikingly elegant and idealized portraits of czar Nicholas' wife and three daughters that come as a revelation in the final gallery here.

Little is known about Robertson except that she was a successful miniaturist in London before traveling to St. Petersburg. She bore eight children (only four survived infancy -- the sort of thing you learn at the Women's Museum) and was in Russia twice, from 1839 to 1841, and again in the late 1840s.

Her most memorable paintings here are the delicious portrait of two upper-crust Russian children with a parrot, and some wonderfully relaxed and informal watercolors of Nicholas' wife and daughters. Robertson died in Russia in 1854, still unpaid for a portrait of Nicholas' daughters-in-law that did not please him.

But it is French sculptor Collot (1748-1821) who emerges as the most important resurrected talent in this show. An orphan and prodigy, she was only 18 when she left Paris for St. Petersburg to assist her teacher, sculptor Etienne-Maurice Falconet, in creating a monumental portrait of Peter the Great, commissioned by Catherine the Great. When, after three tries, Catherine was still displeased with the face Falconet had designed, she asked Collot to create one. Collot's substitute made her reputation. The following year, at 19, Collot became the first female member of the Imperial Academy of Arts, and received many subsequent commissions from the grateful empress.

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