Officially, she is known as Catherine the Great. The title of the current temporary exhibition at Amsterdam’s Hermitage, “Catherine the Greatest”, is of course a pun. Not that the Tsarina would have minded. This self-made, self-educated, larger-than-life woman and ruler had a high opinion of herself, but also a sense of humour.
It must be said: this exhibition is far more interesting than the previous one on Spanish masters. Nevertheless, if one visited the “Art for Empire” exhibition in Canada in 2006, one is familiar with quite a few exhibits of the Amsterdam one. Which does not mean “Catherine the Greatest” is not worth a visit – on the contrary!
Catherine’s parents were disappointed their baby was not a boy. Once a brother arrived, the attention “lavished” on Catherine diminished further. But then: nobody could have dreamed this not that wealthy, not that pretty, obscure German princess from Stettin, would one day become the greatest Russian Empress.
Upon her move to the Russian court of Empress Elisabeth, the neglect and isolation got worse. Locked in a bad marriage and treated like a breeding machine, Catherine started educating and polishing herself. She read extensively, including works by Voltaire.
On the first floor of this exhibition, one not only comes across his bust, but also paintings of him and a small model of his home. Catherine’s admiration is clear. He became one of the people she corresponded with.
The exhibition not only shows Catherine’s drive, ambitions, dreams, passions – and legacy. It becomes clear this intelligent woman was an excellent networker. Her ability to forge ties with influential people in and from all over Europe, as well as build a trusted circle of close and capable friends, ensured her grasp for power ended successfully. Her reign is still considered a golden age.
One nearly forgets the new code of laws she wrote, her treatises on education and other works, did not improve the lot of Russian peasants and serfs. The exhibition does show why and how Catherine promoted the arts and started a collection which would become the fabulous Hermitage Museum. It also shows the importance of Catherine’s close circle of friends , who imitated her as patrons of the arts, universities, industry and trade, and much more.
The many myths about Catherine are also addressed. There is the contemporary gossip about who was Catherine’s real father. One finds portraits of Catherine’s mother, the mother’s husband, the mother’s lover. There is the false rumour about Catherine’s death. Another myth is the one about her innumerable lovers. Wagging tongues then and now got it wrong, but portraits of her favourites can be admired.
As for her brilliant reign: what she, her friends, and her advisors accomplished is impressive. But her reign also included revolts, annexations, wars. The exhibition explains Catherine’s ruthless obliteration of Poland. It also shows the conquest of the Crimea by Catherine’s lover Potemkin: a poisonous legacy.
Wars with the Ottoman Empire influenced Russian art. Captured banners aer shown, but also snuff boxes and other artefacts with Turkish themes. One of the last paintings to be admired, shows a sea battle which the Russians won.
As with so many paintings in this exhibition, it is a propaganda piece. Such pieces include portraits Catherine commissioned of herself. On many, the crown designed for her can be seen and a fabulous replica is on show.
Throughout this exhibition, film excerpts are also shown. One comes across actresses including Marlene Dietrich, Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Zeta-Jones and others. They play Catherine in films which range from total fabrication to the historically fairly accurate.
“Catherine the Greatest” is an impressive exhibition and can be visited in Amsterdam till January 2017. Included in the ticket price is an audio tour. Contrary to the one accompanying the Spanish Masters exhibition, this audio tour gives background information to various exhibition themes and pieces on show.
After “Catherine the Greatest”, one can visit the other exhibitions of the Amsterdam Hermitage. If one cannot take in more art and history, one can choose between the upstairs restaurant or – during the summer – the ground floor café and terrace with view of the building’s inner court. One can also browse the well-stocked museum shop. Here one finds the exhibition catalogue, Catherine’s memoirs, biographies, posters, postcards, and much more.
Hermitage Amsterdam: Catherina the Greatest, can be visited till the 15th of January 2017
“Catherine the Greatest, self-polished diamond” is the catalogue accompanying the Amsterdam Hermitage exhibition and is on sale in the museumshop.
“The Memoirs of Catherine the Great”, Catherine the Great, is available in various translations. An English paperback edition can be obtained through Amazon.
“Catherine the Great, Art for Empire”, ed. N. Bondil, hardback 328 pp, Snoeck Publishers, 2006. The catalogue accompanying the 2006 Canadian exhibitions.