Browse Exhibits (12 total)

Power in Portraiture

Exhibit Author: EW

In his famed “Equestrian Portrait of Catherine the Great of Russia” (c. 1764), Vigilius Ericksen captures the most dramatic moment of the 1762 coup in which Catherine wrested the empire from the incapable hands of her husband, Peter III.[1] On June 28th, one regiment aroused Catherine from her bed at Peterhof to bring her to the capital, where they proclaimed her tsar. Shortly thereafter, the Church named officially her the sovereign. On the following day, Catherine donned a guard’s uniform, mounted her stallion Brillante, and led the troops to arrest the still-ignorant Peter at Oranienbaum. Fully cognizant of the symbolic power of this moment, Catherine quickly commissioned Ericksen’s portrait, which still hangs above the throne in the throne room at Peterhof.[2]  

As with most of Catherine’s maneuvers, the portrait performs multiple functions: it establishes her as a commanding figure worthy of the crown, indicates her planned style of rule, signals her support for the military, and distances her from the disastrous policies of Peter III—all while hinting at her intent to lead Russia by the principles of Enlightenment.   


[1] For a more detailed chronicle of the coup, see Isabel de Madariaga, Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 29–31.

[2] Philip Mansel, Dressed to Rule: Royal and Court Costume from Louis XIV to Elizabeth II (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 24.

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The Rise of the Russian Intelligentsia

Exhibit Author: FV

Catherine’s proclaimed dedication to enlightened ideals is evident through her correspondence with various French philosophes, and her political treatise, the Nakaz. Though the Empress was often labeled as an “enlightened despot,” she nonetheless views herself as a just and tolerant ruler who worked to establish rational rules for her subjects. Equally as controversial as Catherine’s enlightened tendencies, is the question of whether the emergence of a noble “intelligentsia” constituted an evolution in the Russian public sphere. Though Western ideals began to make their way into Russia under Peter the Great in the earlier 18th century, Catherine, an enthusiastic patron of the arts and academia, tentatively encourages the wider growth of public ideas. Burgeoning 18th century Russian intelligentsia thus began to develop intellectual pursuits, but they remained relatively unsophisticated and largely an extension of the state. The public exchange of intellectual ideas was limited both by the systemic issues in Russian politics and society, as well as by the autocratic nature of Catherine’s rule.

The Russian nobility’s ventures into intelligentsia pursuits were fragile because little progress could be made in the public sphere without Catherine’s approval. Although Russia continued its modernization and Westernizing trend throughout Catherine’s reign, the lack of separation between the state and public sphere prevented the generous proliferation of writers and thinkers that were so prominent in Western Europe. Instead, the limited intellectual pursuits of the 18th century nobility could only set the stage for the formation of the so-called authentic intelligentsia of later decades.  

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