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Portraits of Catherine the Great, Empress of all the Russias

Catherine the Great portraits. . Fyodor Rokotov, Portrait of Empress Catherine the Great, 1763, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia.
Fyodor Rokotov, Portrait of Empress Catherine the Great, 1763, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia. Detail.

History

Portraits of Catherine the Great, Empress of all the Russias

Catherine the Great (1729-1796) ruled almost the entire second half of the 18th century. Her reign was very successful on the world arena and gave solutions to a number of political problems. Take a look at these famous portraits of Catherine the Great, the woman who inspired people to call the century by her name – Catherine’s era!

Catherine the Great portraits.  Stefano Torelli, Coronation Portrait of Catherine II, 1763-1766, The State Russian Museum, Saint-Petersburg, Russia.
Stefano Torelli, Coronation Portrait of Catherine II, 1763-1766, State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Young Years of Sophia, Future Catherine

Catherine the Great, born Sophia Augusta Frederika of Anhalt-Zerbst, came from a small Northern German family. In 1744, Sophia Augusta arrived in Russia and married the heir to the throne, Grand Duke Peter.

However, Empress Elisabeth of Russia took a dislike to her daughter-in-law. Catherine seemed too smart, and therefore dangerous. She lived in an atmosphere of constant surveillance and hostility. However, she had no shortage of clothes and jewelry, as we can see in her portraits of that time.

Catherine the Great portraits.  Anonymous author, Catherine II as Grand Duchess, 1748, The State Historical Museum, Moscow, Russia.
Anonymous artist, Catherine II as Grand Duchess, 1748, State Historical Museum, Moscow, Russia.

Becoming the Empress

In 1762, Catherine II was behind a palace coup and became the Empress of all the Russias. She developed the intelligence and abilities of a major statesperson. She was very educated and knew much about science. Catherine regularly corresponded with Voltaire and his associates, discussing the Enlightened absolutism and tried to make this policy stick in Russia.

Read how Catherine was behind the opening of the first female educational institute in Russia!

Catherine the Great portraits.  Vigilius Eriksen, Catherine II of Russia in the mirror, 1762-1764, Hermitage Museum, Saint-Petersburg, Russia.
Vigilius Eriksen, Catherine II of Russia in front of the mirror, 1762-1764, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Catherine the Patroness of the Arts

Italian painter Stefano Torelli designed the coronation celebrations in Moscow, and then became a court painter. He painted Catherine as the goddess of wisdom, Minerva, in armor and a helmet, with an owl, a symbol of wisdom. Three female figures, as well as three cupids, represent the “three noble arts” – painting, sculpture and architecture. Two female figures on the left are allegories of peace and war, in the center is the muse of history, Cleo, who keeps historical records. Finally, there is Saturn with a scythe.

Catherine the Great portraits.  Stefano Torelli, Catherine II as Minerva, Patroness of the Arts, 1770, The State Russian Museum, Saint-Petersburg, Russia.
Stefano Torelli, Catherine II as Minerva, Patroness of the Arts, 1770, State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

The Empress even turned to journalism. In 1769 she began to publish the satirical magazine “Anything and Everything,” the main idea of which Catherine called “satire in a smiling spirit.” The Empress wanted to divert public opinion from criticism of the state system, therefore reducing the matter to ironic ridicule at fashionistas and dandies.

As you can see from Catherine the Great’s portraits, she was quite a fashionista herself! Read a beauty guide she would have used today.

Catherine the Great’s Roman Profile

Catherine the Great portraits. Fyodor Rokotov, Portrait of Empress Catherine the Great, 1763, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia.
Fyodor Rokotov, Portrait of Empress Catherine the Great, 1763, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia.

Catherine the Great herself called this portrait by Rokotov her favorite. It was timed to coincide with the coronation of the great Empress. Catherine II is depicted in profile. Her face is clearly visible against the background of classical architecture with a massive column. It looks just like the profiles of the great Roman emperors on coins and medals of antiquity.

Catherine the Great portraits. Vigilius Eriksen, Portrait of Catherine II in Guards Uniform on her Horse Brilliant, 1778, The State Russian Museum, Saint-Petersburg, Russia.
Vigilius Eriksen, Portrait of Catherine II in Guard’s Uniform on her Horse Brilliant, 1778, State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

The Danish portrait painter Vigilius Eriksen captured the 33-year-old Catherine on the day when, at the head of the twelve thousandth army, she left Petersburg to arrest the deposed emperor Peter III. But the matter did not come to military action, since Peter III voluntarily abdicated the throne.

The young Empress is depicted with a sword triumphantly raised in her right hand. This is a double portrait – in addition to the Empress, it depicts Brilliant (eng. Diamond), her beloved horse, whose appearance is very authentic and lively. He proudly arches his thoroughbred neck and expressively looks at the viewer with a clever, shiny eye.

Dmitry Levitzky’s Portraits of Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great portraits. Dmitry Levitzky, Portrait of Catherine II, 1782, The State Museum Pavlovsk, Pavlovsk, Saint-Petersburg, Russia.
Dmitry Levitzky, Portrait of Catherine II, 1782, State Museum Pavlovsk, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

While flirtatious and charming, the Empress still possessed a sharp mind. She did not know how to conduct secular conversations, claiming that the Parisian world would hardly have liked her since she did not know how to show the “subtlety of feelings.” But Catherine shone in conversations concerning issues of philosophy, history, and politics. Dmitry Levitsky, who equally skillfully mastered all forms of portraits, knew how to find an approach to such a difficult model.

Catherine the Great portraits.  Dmitry Levitzky, Catherine II the Legislatress in the Temple of the Goddess of Justice, 1783, The State Russian Museum, Saint-Petersburg, Russia.
Dmitry Levitzky, Catherine II the Legislatress in the Temple of the Goddess of Justice, 1783, State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Catherine the Great Russian

In general, the Empress was not a fan of excessive luxury. She even issued a special decree stating that it was forbidden to make silver or gold lace on caftans more than 9 centimeters wide. As a result, most of her images present a regal person with a neat hairstyle, without excessive splendor.

Catherine the Great portraits. Vladimir Borovikovsky, Catherine II during a walk in the Tsarskosyelsky Park [with the Chesmensky Column in the background], 1794, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia.
Vladimir Borovikovsky, Catherine II during a walk in the Tsarskosyelsky Park [with the Chesmensky Column in the background], 1794, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia.

All her life, Catherine wanted to become more Russian than the Russians themselves. And she succeeded! The woman, who spoke Russian with an accent, made a huge number of grammatical and spelling mistakes, really managed to become the embodiment of “Russianness.” She cultivated the national, without going into caricature.

Catherine the Great portraits.  Anonymous author, Portrait of Catherine II of Russia (1729-1796) wearing an old Russian dress, 1780s, The State Historical Museum, Moscow, Russia.
Anonymous author, Portrait of Catherine II of Russia (1729-1796) wearing an old Russian dress, 1780s, State Historical Museum, Moscow, Russia.

Find out more about Regal figures in Art:

A Russian historian herself, Elizaveta has a soft spot for Art (and not only the native one). Based in Moscow and trying to get as many people as possible to become Art lovers in every city she goes to.

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