Princess Sophie Frederica Augusta of Anhalt-Zerbst was born in Germany and had not a drop of Russian blood in her veins. Yet she went on to become Empress of Russia and, when she died in 1796, she had ruled the country for thirty-four years. So how did a minor German princess become Catherine the Great, the most powerful ruler in Europe? The latest exhibition focused on her life and work at the National Museums Scotland attempts to tell this dramatic story.

Pieces from the Cameo service, Sèvres Porcelain Factory (1776-1779), State Hermitage Museum. Photography courtesy of National Museums Scotland.

This large exhibition is presented to stunning effect in the museum’s new galleries in Edinburgh. The Director managed to persuade the State Hermitage Museum to lend them an extraordinary array of objects from the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. This treasure trove of works includes paintings, porcelain, cameos, jewellery, glassware, snuff boxes, firearms, examples of court dress and even a winter sledge. Six hundred items have been lent to allow us to explore and understand Catherine’s personal and political life. The objects displayed highlight her different roles as patron, collector, military commander and as a keen promoter of intellectual and cultural life in Russia. This is the first exhibition of its kind in Scotland and offers the public a unique opportunity to see examples from the extensive collection at the Hermitage.  We can see items from the Imperial Porcelain Factory, the Tula Armories and works from the palace at Tsarskoye Selo.

Carnival Sledge (1760-1770), State Hermitage Museum. Photograph courtesy of National Museums Scotland.

The timing of this exhibition is deliberate as 2012 coincides with the 250thanniversary of the year that Catherine ascended the throne. This year then is an opportune moment to re-examine her reign.  The focus of the exhibition is Catherine the Great as ‘an enlightened Empress’. Certainly, Catherine did a huge amount to promote Russian art and culture. She also continued the work of Peter the Great in opening up St Petersburg to the West and drawing on European expertise in her quest for knowledge.

Catherine II in her Coronation Robes, attri. Vigilius Eriksen (after 1762). Image courtesy of State Hermitage Museum

We enter the exhibition through a pair of doors modelled to look like the visitor is entering a royal palace crowned with the Imperial double headed eagle. The layout is broadly chronological starting with her early life, arrival in Russia and conversion to Orthodoxy. After her coronation the emphasis becomes more thematic looking at different aspects of her life such as her time at Tsarskoye Selo and war with Turkey. There are three portraits of Catherine which depict her at different moments in her life. However, the highlight of the exhibition has to be the portrait of her in coronation robes attributed to Vigilius Eriksen. This impressive portrait depicts Catherine crowned as Empress in magnificent state robes, with all the symbols of Russian Imperial Power, holding the orb and sceptre. To emphasise the point, the painter has her standing on porphyry, a rare red stone that is associated with great rulers of the past. It is clear from this painting and, many other works in the exhibition, that Catherine was very aware of the power of art as propaganda. This painting has been specially cleaned for this exhibition and this is the first time it has been seen outside of Russia. The portrait previously languished in the Hermitage’s vast vaults and has not been displayed since before the Russian Revolution in 1917. Catherine the Great was the founder of the Hermitage. She was legendary for her passion for art and science. She understood the potency of aesthetics in projecting power and promoting Russia’s image abroad. She saw portraits as a way to assert her identity as a powerful ruler in the public’s imagination. Several paintings reflect this theme such as Catherine II laying the Trophies of the Battle of Chesme on the Tomb of Peter the Great by the German artist Andreas Caspar Hühne. The tomb itself did not exist but, in this image, the artist underlines that Catherine was continuing Peter’s foreign policy of strengthening and expanding the empire. The key message is that she was his worthy successor as Empress. Another painting is an equestrian portrait of Catherine at the Grand Palace at Peterhof. She is depicted in Horse-Guard’s uniform on her white stallion looking every inch the military commander-in-chief.

Interior shot of Enlightened Empress featuring busts of philosophers inc. Diderot & Voltaire, State Hermitage Museum. Photography courtesy of National Museums Scotland

Catherine became friends with a number of leading contemporary intellectuals. These relationships are examined in a room devoted to the French and Russian thinkers of her day. Voltaire called her ‘the brightest star of the North’ and Diderot described her as having ‘the soul of Brutus and the head of Cleopatra’. Two of her most famous acquisitions were the libraries of these great French philosophers. Catharine had a passion for books and created a library of 40,000 works in Russian and foreign languages. Several white marble busts of these prominent individuals are displayed in the exhibition alongside a beautiful model of Voltaire’s house at Ferney.

Carlo Rastrelli 'Emperor Peter I' (1729). State Hermitage Museum. Photograph courtesy of National Museums Scotland

Another triumph of the exhibition is that the museum secured the loan of the major bronze of Peter the Great by Carlo Rastrelli. This larger-than-life size bust by the Florentine sculptor of the Emperor depicts him as a great warrior. Carved onto his armour are scenes of military triumphs and on the left is a representation of the Classical sculptor Pygmalion carving the figure of Galatea, intended to be read as Peter creating a wonderful new Russia. Next to the sculptor is useful background information and images of the famous Bronze Horseman sculpture, on the banks of the River Neva in St Petersburg, to set the work in context. Catherine was a prolific collector. In her lifetime she amassed over 3,000 paintings and 10,000 engraved gemstones. Several of her finest cameos are presented in the exhibition in vitrines which allow for up close viewing of these tiny, detailed objects. She also valued craftsmanship and one of the more unusual items displayed is a box from the Tula Factory with a set of chess pieces made of steel. The lid and slides are decorated with the designs for a factory that was ultimately never built. There are a number of links between Scotland and Russia which are highlighted throughout the exhibition by special blue labels featuring the Imperial eagles with a thistle. These exhibits serve as a reminder of the important role that Scottish individuals played during Catherine’s reign. For example, Dr John Rogerson who was her personal physician and James Tassie who created thousands of copies of engraved gemstones for her. During her lifetime she made numerous acquisitions and the final room looks at Catherine as an art collector. There is a study here of Peter Paul Rubens’ designs for the ceiling of the Banqueting House and a landscape by Claude Lorrain. However, there are only a dozen or so pictures and it must have been difficult to select so few paintings out of such a vast collection. However, the examples here serve as a useful, if brief, introduction to her collecting.

Peter Paul Rubens 'The Apotheosis of James I' (1632-33). Image courtesey of State Hermitage Museum

Next year we will have an opportunity to see many more of these pictures from the Hermitage. In 1779 Catherine purchased a large proportion of the British collection assembled by Sir Robert Walpole, the first Earl of Oxford and later Prime Minister. The Hermitage acquired nearly 200 treasures which were from Walpole’s country seat, Houghton Hall, in Norfolk. These notable Dutch and Flemish works are to be displayed back in the UK for the first time next summer at a major exhibition at Houghton. Significant paintings include Rembrandt’s Sacrifice of Abraham and Van Dyck’s family portraits which will be brought back to England and displayed in their original home setting in July 2013. National Museums Scotland have created an important and visually stunning exhibition that reasserts Catherine’s role as one of Russia’s greatest rulers and collectors. Through the choice of objects on display we can understand different aspects of her private and public life. This show provides the British public with a great opportunity to see many significant objects from the Hermitage without having to travel to St Petersburg. Well worth a visit. Catherine the Great: An Enlightened Empress Open: 13 July – 21 October 2012 Venue: Exhibition Gallery 1, Level 3, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh Cost: Members free, adults £9, concessions* £7.50