The reign of Catherine the Great was a magnificent era during which, according to a contemporary, "Russia became a European country and St. Petersburg came to occupy an important place amongst the capitals of the educated world."
As an adherent of the French philosophers of the time, Catherine II patronized the development of the arts and sciences in Russia. In 1764, construction of the building of the newly-established Academy of Arts was begun (architects Vallin de La Mothe and A. F. Kakorinov). Over many years, numerous talented Russian architects, artists, and sculptors graduated from the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, which became a centre for the dissemination of progressive ideas, the ideas of the Enlightenment. According to academic doctrine, painting was the most important genre, although under Catherine II portraiture was of particular significance.
The Hermitage portrait gallery of the second half of the 18th century presents individuals from various levels of Russian society; it includes formal portraits of Catherine the Great, of statesmen and courtiers, servicemen, clergymen and numerous persons who were prominent in various fields. These portraits were created both by Russian artists and foreigners who came to work in Russia.
Today we can still derive great pleasure from these fine portraits by Fyodor Rokotov, Vasily Borovikovsky, and others, including the most splendid portrait-painter of the mid-18th century, Dmitry Levitsky. His portraits of general-in-chief M. N. Krechetnikov and of a rich merchant from the town of Kaluga, Ivan Bilibin the Elder, and his son Yakov Bilibin the Younger, reveal the splendour of the individual.
Fyodor Rokotov created one of the first formal portraits of Catherine II, which was approved by the Empress and repeated both by the author himself and other artists.
Portraits by Vasily Borovikovsky are in tune with the sentimentalist ideas that appeared in literature in the mid-18th century. He produced many small, half-length portraits, such as those of Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna (daughter of Emperor Paul I) and General Alexander Arsenyev.
In Russia, particularly in St. Petersburg, numerous foreign painters, sculptors, architects, and other masters worked alongside local craftsmen. We should also mention Carl Ludwig Christinek (portraits of Count A. G. Bobrinsky and Samuel Greig), whose works are somewhat cold, but elegant and fine in colouring. On the contrary, works by Alexander Roslin (portraits of Catherine II and Z. G. Chernyshov) are vivid and spectacular. Equestrian Portrait of Catherine II and Portrait of Catherine II in front of a Mirror are considered to be the most important works of Vigilius Eriksen. In 1790, Giovanni-Battista Lampi the Elder, a favorite artist at the Russian court, created a portrait of Prince Alexander Potemkin in armour, and in 1794 one of the last formal portraits of Catherine II.
Of interest are landscapes by Semyon Shchedrin, whose works were inspired by sentimentalism. After graduation from the Academy of Arts, the artist worked in Italy and this influenced his entire career. As in Large Pond in Tsarskoye Selo, his landscapes combine reality with a poetical perception of the surrounding world.
The great popularity of miniatures during Catherine II's reign led to the creation of a class of miniature painting at the Academy of Arts. Andrey Cherny was author of remarkable miniature portraits of Catherine II and Count Grigory Orlov.
During the second half of the 18th century, applied arts reached new heights. An edict devoted to the liberty of Russian nobility, issued by Peter I, stimulated the development of country estates, and, following Catherine II's example, the urban nobility also built mansions in St. Petersburg and the surrounding area. Numerous works of art were commissioned in Europe to adorn these palaces and mansions. Local production also received a stimulus-throughout this period imperial and private factories and estate workshops were set up in the capital and around Russia. Russian craftsmen mastered the fine art of marquetry, such as a famous kidney-table produced by St. Petersburg craftsmen from 1780 to 1790. Its splendid top is decorated with ivory and inlaid with various precious woods such as rosewood, box, maple, and beech. A gilded armchair for the president of the Military Collegium was intended personally for Prince Grigory Potemkin, while the pupils of the Smolny School for Young Ladies produced embroidered upholstery for a gilded armchair intended for Empress Maria Feodorovna (wife of Emperor Paul I).
The Imperial Porcelain Factory reached its peak under Catherine the Great. In the 1760s the Empress commissioned the Orlov Service, which she presented to her favourite Count Grigory Orlov. The series Peoples of Russia, made after models by Jean Domenique Rachette, was created on the basis of research by the ethnographer Johann Gottlieb Georgi.
In 1777, the Empress commissioned the Gardner Porcelain Factory (one of the first private factories, which appeared in Russia between 1760 and 1770) to produce several formal services bearing representations of the Russian orders - the Orders of St George, Alexander Nevsky, St Andrew and St Vladimir.
Tula armourers were noted for the diversity of metalworking techniques used in making not only arms and armour, but a wide variety of other objects in steel: caskets, chessmen, toilet sets complete with mirrors, censers, candelabra, seals and much else. The Tula artists cut steel into diamond facets, coloured and chased the surface, and inlaid it with non-ferrous metals. The facets sparkle as brightly as precious stones. Such objects were to become much prized and collected as rarities - Catherine II herself had her own collection of Tula steelwork - and served as diplomatic gifts.
Ivory pieces by craftsmen from the town of Kholmogory (Archangel Province) reveal virtuoso skill and employ a diversity of motifs. The Hermitage collection is rich in carved plates with portraits of Russian emperors and empresses, table cabinets decorated with ivory and bone, carved vases and toilet sets, and many other items. Nikolay Vereshchagin's splendid openwork vases are masterpieces of the carver's art.
Although the era of Catherine II was marked by great progress in politics, economy and culture, it was the flourishing of the sciences, arts and crafts which her reign particularly magnificent.
Portrait of Prince Andrey Vyazemsky
Jean Louis Voille
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