Catherine's acquisitiveness unleashed a craze for art collecting among the wealthy Russian royals and aristocrats. And it was the lure of commissions from them -- especially for portraits -- that brought [Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun] (1755-1842) to St. Petersburg. It also lured two other stars of this show, French sculptor Marie-Anne Collot and Scottish painter Christina Robertson, to [Peter]'s city on the Gulf of Finland. 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.
It is the 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, the well-known sculptor Etienne-Maurice Falconet, in creating a monumental equestrian 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 swiftly produced substitute made her reputation. The following year, at age 19, Collot became the first woman 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, among them a life portrait of Catherine, a simple, unadorned work (near the entrance) that shows her as a plump 40-year-old with double chin, but emphasizes her intelligence and suggests a woman with a kindly disposition. Made as a gift to the French writer Voltaire, (who, along with Diderot and Montesquieu, was Catherine's correspondent and adviser), 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.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.