The Late 18th Century: The Reign of Catherine the Great
Although she was a German by birth, Catherine II (ruled 1762–1796), known as Catherine the Great, regarded herself as the spiritual daughter of Peter the Great and continued his policies with striking success both militarily and culturally.
During her reign she carried out ambitious plans for Russian expansion, conquering territories to the south in order to acquire warm-water Black Sea ports necessary for Russian commerce, and in the west where she gained areas of land that had belonged to Poland.
Domestically she continued to encourage the spread of Western culture and values among the Russian elite. Schooled in the ideas of the Enlightenment, which espoused reason as the ruler of human life, she chose French culture as a guide and for a time appeared to be interested in the liberal theories espoused by such French writers as Voltaire. She even made French the official language of the court.
Catherine was an avid art collector patronizing both Russian artists and collecting foreign masterpieces including works by Van Dyke, Raphael, Rembrandt, and Rubens. Her collection grew to include 4000 works that were displayed in the Winter Palace, now home to the State Hermitage Museum.
Under her guidance, St. Petersburg became Russia’s “window on the West.” For the first time Russians were completely involved in the intellectual trends of Europe. Russians, not only aristocrats, but artists and architects as well, traveled the continent absorbing the culture of the period. Through travel, ideas, trends, and styles were spread. For instance, the architectural style of neoclassicism was so popular in the 18th century that it became the symbol of aristocratic romanticism in England, democratic republicanism in the United States, and authoritarian autocracy in Russia.
At the beginning of her reign Catherine favored religious tolerance, education for women, and civil rights within the bounds of class and rank. Although she disapproved of serfdom in theory, in practice she is frequently criticized for her inaction to reform it. Toward the end of her reign, as a result of the French Revolution (1789–99), which resulted in the overthrow of the monarchy in France, she became more suspicious of public opinion. She called Washington “a rebel” and imposed censorship on Voltaire’s writings and even on some laws she had written herself. This set the pattern for much of the 19th century, which would be marked by increasing conflict between the rulers and members of the educated classes, who demanded Western-style freedoms and rights.
About this work
Dmitrii Levitsky (1735–1822) is considered the greatest portraitist of his time. His father, a priest and an experienced engraver, instilled in his son Dmitrii an appreciation of art and beauty. Levitsky became an accomplished icon painter and this background is evident in his work. Not only does he strive to show a physical likeness, but also the souls of his subjects, without glossing over any of their less attractive characteristics.
In 1760, Levitsky was invited to St. Petersburg to assist the painter Alexei Antropov (1716–1795) in the decoration of St. Andrew Cathedral. Two years later, both artists traveled to Moscow to work on a ceremonial portrait of Catherine II, commissioned on the occasion of her coronation. Levitsky eventually became a court painter who produced official portraits of the Empress and members of her court dressed in grand, formal attire. Through his paintings he both documented and characterized St. Petersburg society, creating the image of an aristocracy to be emulated. He succeeded in finding a proper type of portrait and style for each class and type of person.
Levitsky is known as an artist who conveys the vitality and personality of his subjects with great technical proficiency. He paints his daughter Agasha in traditional Russian dress wearing a sarafan (a sleeveless jumper-like garment worn over a shirt) and a kokoshnik, a traditional headdress.
Despite his artistic success at the end of the 18th century, Levitsky’s popularity steadily waned in the early 1800s when tastes in painting styles shifted to a more romanticized approach.
- We know that this is a portrait of the artist’s daughter. Do you feel that this intimate relationship is revealed in the way the subject is depicted? Explain your response.
- Agasha stares straight out at us, meeting our gaze, as though she is aware of our presence and could speak to us. If we could bring this work to life, what might she say?
- If you are visiting the museum, compare this work with a more formal work by Levitsky, Portrait of A. D. Lanskoi (1782), pictured below. The subject of this portrait is Alexander Lanskoi, a young Guards officer who had a close relationship with Catherine II. In what ways are these two works similar; in what ways are they different from each other?
- Levitsky includes specific objects in this work. Based on Russian artistic tradition and knowing that Levitsky was also an accomplished icon painter, we may assume that these objects—the dark bread, goblet, and window—are not randomly chosen, but hold symbolic meaning. What meaning might these objects possess? If you were to make a portrait of a family member, what objects would you include to symbolize some important information about him or her? Explain.
- Levitsky was remarkable in his ability to render convincing textures and surfaces in paint. This was true both of his human characters and of the objects that surrounded them. How many different materials can you identify in this painting? Describe how it would feel to reach into the painting and touch the fabrics, objects, and surfaces.
- Assemble a selection of various textured materials, including fabrics, ceramics, glass, and wood, among others. Choose one and write a detailed description of its attributes. Then draw the same object trying to capture all the qualities you described.
English / Language Arts
- Levitsky paints Agasha in traditional Russian costume. Where can we still see and learn about traditional native costumes? Are you aware of any traditional clothing styles or garments that are associated with your own heritage?
- Consider the reigns of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. Why were these rulers dubbed “Great”? What qualities do you think a leader should possess to be considered “Great”? Research more about Peter I and Catherine II’s reigns and decide whether or not you think the term “Great” is deserved.
- Even in the 18th century new philosophies and styles were spread across boundaries through travel. With today’s global communications and abundant travel, consider what ideas and trends cross national and continental boundaries and how they impact the way we live today