An empress' Louvre and labor of love

Washington Post

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.

Collot's white marble portrait busts are highlights of this show. It seems almost odd to find such fleeting expressions of liveliness and affection rendered in hard stone. Among them is a simple, unadorned work showing Catherine as a plump 40-year-old with double chin, but emphasizing her intelligence and suggesting a kindly disposition. It gives no hint of the autocrat who had unseated her hapless husband, Paul I, took control of Russia and, it is widely assumed, had something to do with his subsequent murder.

When Collot returned to France after 12 years in Russia, she was given a life pension by Catherine, and she needed it. Having married Falconet's son, she now had a daughter to tend and, soon, a father-in-law who was paralyzed. She appears to have abandoned her career soon after her return to France.

The best-known artist here was Vigee-Lebrun, whose closeness to the ill-fated French queen Marie Antoinette forced her to flee with her daughter during the French Revolution. She was living in Vienna when she met the Russian ambassador, Count Razumovsky and others close to the Russian court. They convinced her she would find many patrons in St. Petersburg.

Arriving in 1795, she quickly received several commissions, including one from Catherine to paint her two granddaughters. But the empress was displeased: Of this sweet, idealized double portrait, Catherine wrote, "Madame Lebrun captures the two figures on a divan, twists the neck of the younger, giving both of them the air of two pug dogs warming themselves in the sun."

Other Russian aristocrats remained enthusiastic. By the time the harsh climate forced Vigee-Lebrun to return to France in 1801, she had completed more than 48 portrait commissions and was a member of the academy, for which she created her spirited self-portrait.

This show raises one question it never answers: Was Catherine partial to the work of female artists? And did she make a special effort to find and support them?

One thing appears certain: She did not support Russian women artists, if there were any. One of the catalog essays credits Catherine with founding a school for young noblewomen where art was taught. But it wasn't until the late 19th century that women were admitted as full-time students to the Imperial Academy of Arts.

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