Catherine the Great puts the great into the Hermitage

It is spectacular. The loan is up until November 9 and comprises about 450 pieces, including some of the most famous names in European art. These include Rembrandt’s, Titian’s, Anthony van Dyck’s, Peter Paul Rubens’s, and Velazquez’s.

When George Walpole – the grandson to Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole – decided to sell Granddad’s art collection in order to fund his extravagant life, he immediately contacted the Russian Ambassador to Great Britain, Alexey Muzin-Pushkin, who had arranged the purchase of Catherine’s collection for an astonishing amount of PS40,000 ($85,500).

Frans Snyders (1579-1657), Flemish – Concert of Birds (1630-40). Oil on canvas The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. The collection of Sir Robert Walpole at Houghton Hall in 1779 was acquired. Image courtesy of NGV.

The English felt humiliated and furious. They vilified Catherine in a thriving caricature media and secretly encouraged the wars that were designed to drain Russian coffers.

The Empress was unfazed and continued to collect some of the most important art collections of her time, including those formed by Johann Gotzkowski and Frederick II Prussia.

The Hermitage’s history would follow the pattern established by the German-born king, who was on the one hand a despot with ruthless plotting and on the second, an enlightened autocrat, hungry for art and lovers.

The State Hermitage Museum, which opened in 1862, is now one of the most prestigious art collections in existence. However, it is still the subject of controversy.

Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish (1577-1640). The Adoration of the Magi (1620). Oil on canvas The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Acquired in 1770 from the collection Dufresne of Amsterdam. Image courtesy of NGV.

Many of these treasures are on permanent display at the museum. They were assembled by the Empress herself. The Hermitage’s generosity is a response to the British Museum, which controversially loaned a part of their greatest treasures, the Elgin Marbles, to the Hermitage to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Hermitage.

The quirky pieces are what I’m drawn to. The crowds will be attracted by works such as Rembrandt’s Young Woman Trying Earrings, 1657 (see below), which is one of Rembrandt’s most intimate and famous masterpieces.

Rembrandt Harmensz. Van Rijn, Dutch (1606-69) – Young Woman trying on earrings (1657). Oil on wood panel. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Purchased from the collection of the Comte de Baudouin in Paris, 1781. Image courtesy of NGV.

Catherine purchased the Donna Nuda (see below) as an autograph by Leonardo da Vinci. It was undisputed for over a century. Although now it’s contested and generally attributed to the School of Leonardo, it is still a very startling piece.

Leonardo Da Vinci – Female nude (Donna Nuda), (early 16th Century). Oil on canvas. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. The collection of Sir Robert Walpole at Houghton Hall was acquired in 1779. Image courtesy of NGV

The painting is a very close copy of the Mona Lisa, except for a significant difference. La Giaconda appears completely naked. Her beguiling smile also takes on a sexually provocative aspect. Her gaze is inverted as she reveals to the viewer with her timid and penetrating glance. It is a surrealist, contemporary invention.

Diego Velazquez, Spanish (1599-1660) – Luncheon (c. 1617-18). Oil on canvas. The State Hermitage museum, St Petersburg, was Purchased between 1763 and 1974. Image courtesy of NGV.

Hendrick GOLTZIUS’s Bacchus, Venus, and Ceres from 1606, one of the works in the exhibition, is an absolute show-stopper. The Dutch master printmaker created an exquisitely detailed pen drawing using a goose quill. It is over two meters tall.

It is usually in Room 250 of the New Hermitage Building, St Petersburg. The room is located in an awkward place that makes viewing difficult. It is shown in Melbourne beautifully and with exquisite lighting.

The display at the National Gallery of Victoria, in general, is similar to the Hermitage. It retains much of the original color scheme. However, in many cases, the lighting is superior, and many of these works are displayed to an unprecedented advantage.

Frans Snyders (1579-1657), Jan Boeckhorst (1605-68), German (1605-68), Cook at the kitchen table with dead games (c.1636-37). Oil on canvas. State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. The collection of Johann Gotzwoksy in Berlin was acquired. Image courtesy of NGV.

The exhibition is not a collection of old masters’ paintings, drawings, and sculptures but a serious engagement with the Chinese art collected by Catherine, as well as applied arts, architectural and design drawings.

The empress’s rouge makeup was kept in an exquisite Chinese Crab shaped box woven from thousands of fine silver filigree filaments. She also had her Cameo service dinner set that she ordered from Sevres Porcelain Factory, France, in 1778-1779.

Alexander Roslin (1718-93): Portrait of Catherine II (1776-1777). Oil on canvas. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Acquired directly from the artist in 1777. Image courtesy of NGV.

It is the best old masters exhibition ever to come to Australia. This should bring in record crowds. When politics are forced on art and other cultural activities, a dark cloud is on the horizon.

I remember in 1979 when the Old Master Paintings of the USSR were touring Australia through the Australian Gallery Directors Council. Some politicians organized boycotts as that year the Soviet Union began its expensive and ultimately futile war in Afghanistan.

Some countries are now boycotting Australia and America for their current and equally meaningless involvement in a country. If nationalist zealots boycotted an exhibition in Russia because they disapproved of some of their foreign policies, then logic would dictate that the same thing would be true for China, Japan, Germany, and the United States. Art would be a lonely world.

It is only hoped that the Australian public is mature enough to appreciate an art exhibition as it is, and celebrate this event which is undoubtedly one of the most important in the Australian calendar.

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