Browse Exhibits (2 total)

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.


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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