The self-aggrandizing Catherine II (1729-1796) was an obsessive, voracious collector.
As art journalist Jaques (A Love for the Beautiful: Discovering America’s Hidden Art, 2012) amply shows in this well-researched biography, Catherine amassed paintings, sculpture, books, jewels, furniture, furs, and palaces not because she was an aesthete, but “to legitimize her shaky claim to rule and reinvent herself as Russia’s enlightened ruler.” Married at 16 to the ineffectual Grand Duke Peter in 1762, with a lover’s help, she staged a coup and installed herself as empress. Shortly after, Peter was murdered. Besides legitimizing her claim to rule, Catherine wanted to put Russia on the international stage as a sophisticated, cultivated nation. By 1791, writes the author, her museum at the Hermitage boasted paintings by Europe’s major artists, 38,000 books, 10,000 engraved gems, 10,000 drawings, and an extensive natural history collection. She commissioned the best European jewelers to create “rings, earrings, snuffboxes, and exquisite gem flower bouquets.” At the Winter Palace, she filled her diamond chamber with tiaras, aigrettes, hairpins, and a 189-carat diamond “the size of an egg,” she boasted to her friend Voltaire. Notorious for her spending, she also was infamous for a succession of ever younger lovers, bestowing riches and titles upon them as parting gifts. The longest of her relationships was with Grigori Potemkin, who emerged as her co-ruler, persuading her to annex the Crimea. In addition to augmenting Russia’s dominion, the annexation enriched Potemkin with large parcels of land and serfs to toil on them. Jaques notes that Catherine had “drained Russia’s treasury” by 1789 but does not explain the next seven years of unceasing spending. Russia’s opulence did not fool the visiting Swedish king. “These people are not like those in the rest of Europe,” he remarked. “They have the politeness, the brilliance, the grandeur, the wit and the vices, but they do not have the virtues.” The author provides a unique perspective on the woman who “transformed Russia from a northern backwater to global superpower.”
An intriguing biography of a ruler whose ruthlessness encompassed art.