Browse Exhibits (4 total)

Catherine the Equestrian

Exhibit Author: FV

Mounted on her majestic horse, Catherine the Great prepares to capture the dethroned Peter III in Vigilius Eriksen's famous portrait.[1] Surrounded by her loyal Preobrazhensky regiment, the painting captures not only Catherine’s triumph, but also her conscious effort to legitimize herself as Empress of Russia. With only a tenuous claim to the throne through her estranged husband and underage son, Paul, Catherine carefully constructed her image as a woman capable of adopting masculine tendencies, and as a ruler eager to carry on Peter the Great’s legacies. A look at more conventional images of Catherine dressed in exquisite court dress will further reveal her the full extent of her power, but Eriksen’s image continues to stand out. The portrait depicts, with the shadowy regiment in the background, much about Catherine’s tenuous power situation in the early years of her reign and her desire to actively legitimize her rule. Though Catherine’s manner of succession traditionally faced more challenges abroad than at home,[2] the Empress, aware of the power and influence of appearances and ceremonies, strived to be depicted as a legitimate Russian ruler in the line of Peter the Great. It is this connection and legitimacy that Eriksen’s painting depicts.  

[1] Vigilius Ericksen, Equestrian Portrait of Catherine the Great. Post-1762. Oil on canvas.        

[2] Simon Dixon, Catherine the Great (London: Pearson Education Limited, 2001), 34-35.



Catherine's Triumph

Exhibit Author: SM

Catherine came to the throne in a way that did not make her legitimacy easy to prove.  Because Catherine was not actually the heir to the throne, and there was suspicion around the death of her husband, the former tzar, Catherine needed to prove her right to the throne through reasons that most leaders at this time did not have to provide.  One very powerful method that Catherine used to reinforce her legitimacy was portraiture.  Through this type of source, which in the time before photography was often the only image the people of Russia would have of their ruler, Catherine could manipulate her image to convey exactly what she wished people to view her as.

In Catherine’s portraits, she depicts herself as a successful ruler, and one that is loved by her people.  Instead of a birth right to the throne, she is the tsarina due to the fact that she is the most capable ruler of her country.  She is depicted as a strong ruler, providing her people with life’s necessities.  Often, these portraits also show favor from the heavens, whether in the form of Peter the Great or of God himself.


Imperial Gardening

Exhibit Author: AS

Over the course of Catherine the Great’s long life, she forthrightly confessed to only two passions, one being her grandson Alexander I, and the other being English Gardens.[1] As a traditional noble gift for the birth of her first grandson, Catherine bequeathed 1000 hectares along a picturesque stream by her Tsarskoe Selo palace to her son, the future Paul I.[2] Upon this land, the future Pavlovsk Gardens, she constructed a magnificent landscape with the help of British designers. The use of foreign sources demonstrates the influence of Western, specifically British, culture and economic thought on the Russian court. These gardens were intended to be used by Catherine as a teaching model for her subjects in their economic lives as well: they demonstrated how commerce should run according to “natural” principles. Her center of rule demonstrated not only how the world at large was built, but provided a model for the rest of society. She was merely following precedence in this regard, mimicking past tsars in their emulation of the West, while at the same time using this emulation as a model for the rest of Russia. The scope and dynamics of this cultural borrowing are best exemplified through the use of gardening. Gardeners learned from Catherine, but also set the tone for economic growth and stratified society by wealth and social status in doing so.

[1] Dmitry Shvidkovsky, A
Grandmother’s Garden for the Heir to the Imperial Throne, in Garden History,
vol. 24, no. 1 (1996), 107.

[2] Dmitry Shvidkovsky, The Empress
and the Architect (New Haven, Yale University Press: 1996), 117.

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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