Diamonds Are Forever: Catherine the Great at Hermitage Amsterdam


A great wind is blowing, and that gives you either imagination or a headache.
Catherine the Great

First museum visit of the year, check!

Last October my mum and I went to a lecture about Catherine the Great. Ever since we've been full of anticipation to go and see the exhibition Catherine the Greatest: Self-polished Diamond of the Hermitage at -you've guessed it- the Hermitage in Amsterdam...

Detail of Portrait of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna (c. 1754) by Georg Caspar Prenner.

At the beginning
About 250 years ago Catherine the Great (1729-1796) founded the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg. What started of as her own personal affection towards art, soon turned into one of the oldest and biggest museums of the world.[1] After a visit to the Vatican in Rome, Catherine was stoked to create such an atmosphere at home. However back in Russia they weren't that much into (neo)classicism thanks to czarina Elizabeth (ruling over Russia from 1741-1762) and her preference towards the Rococo movement. But that was soon to be changed.[2]

Above: detail of a mid 18th century gilded weapon. Below: a canapé made in St. Petersburg mid 18th century.

In 1764 the German merchant Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky had some (a lot of) money problems. He was about to go bankrupt, with depts to many, including Russia. To cover the debt Catherine chose for something else than hard cold cash, namely 317 paintings. And not just any kind of paintings. I say Rembrandt, Rubens, Frans Hals, Raphael, Titian and the name dropping goes on and on.[3] This way Gotzkowsky provided Catherine with the heart of the now over 3 million counting Hermitage collection.[4]

Above: detail of a folding fan made out of vellum, ivory, foil, pearl and copper in Western Europe mid 18th century. 
Below: Detail of another folding fan from Western Europe mid 18th century.

Russia at the canals
There are three official exhibition centres from the Hermitage museum (so exhibition spaces that are outside the museum).[5] One of them opened their doors in the heart of Amsterdam, facing the canals, in June 2009.[6] The Hermitage museum in Amsterdam is the only non-Russian based exhibition centre and works independently from its big brother (but naturally with the stuff of its big brother).

One of Catherine's 'military' style dresses from mid 18th century.

A self-polished diamond in a jewel box
In this exhibition there are about 300 objects from St. Petersburg. The Hermitage Amsterdam museum describes the exhibition as 'a jewel box with Catherine's best possessions and the story of Catherine as the main piece: a self-polished diamond'.[7] I think this idea of a jewel box really gets further explored through the exhibition design. Think different shades of pink on the walls that embrace the objects as well as give it a certain warmth (although that isn't such a hard thing to do with this freezing cold weather). The yellow-ish wooden floor in combination with the reflection of the glass cases perfectly outweighs the 'heaviness' of the objects in an otherwise sweetly 'perfumed' room. Although I expected and wanted there to be more, more and more, the story of Catherine is so full and decadent and, well, extraordinary that it at no point will leave you feel empty.

Above: Catherine II on horseback (c. 1770) model by Johann Joachim Kaendler. 
Below: detail of Enthroned Catherine II from the 'Berlin dessert dishes' (1770-1772) model by Friedrich Elias Meyer.

Here are some things you need to know about Catherine the Great:
  • She's the last woman to reign over Russia and also Europe's longest reigning empress.[8]
  • She herself added 'the Great' to her name (as a way to connect herself and her 'reign' with the heritage of Peter the Great).[9]
  •  There are a lot of (weird) myths surrounding her person (like the one where they say she didn't die of a cerebral hemorrhage on the toilet but of a horse collapsing on her while having sex with it). (I said it was weird). (But untrue, reassured the calming voice of the audio tour guide, while an old lady standing next to me was shaking her hands and didn't knew where to look...). 
  • She's a self-made woman who knew what she wanted from a very early age and did everything in her power to get that. This attitude has been an inspiration for iconic actresses like Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis and Cathering Deneuve.[10]
  • She's a big fan of the (French) Enlightenment and penpals with Voltaire and Diderot. At the beginning she was very progressive in her politics trying to 'enlighten' Russia, but she got more and more conservative as the years went by (1. because she got scared by the results of the French Revolution and the decapitation of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, 2. because the measurments she wanted to make -for instance making the aristocracy 'disappear'- weren't met with enthusiasm and when she was saved by them when the threat of deposition came very close, she realised she needed them to stay in power).[11]

Detail of Portrait of Pjotr Tsjernysjov with his family (1750) by David Lüders.

Diamond's are a girl's best friend, and in Catherine's case she herself was her own diamond. Thanks to playing the game, smart politics and self-assurance she polished herself into a highly desirable, smart and foremost powerful ruler (with weird myths and legends hunting her through history).


You can still visit the exhibition Catherine the Greatest: Self-polished Diamond of the Hermitage at the Hermitage Amsterdam until the 15th of January 2017.

Love,
Dominique


Sources
[1] Hermitage Museum, "Hermitage in Facts and Figures", https://www.hermitagemuseum.org/wps/portal/hermitage/about/facts_and_figures/?lng=nl, 2 January 2017.
[2] D. Kostman, Lecture 'Catherine the Great: Czarina of the arts', 6 October 2016.; Wikipedia, "Elizabeth of Russia" (30 December 2016), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_of_Russia, 2 January 2017.
[3] D. Kostman, Lecture 'Catherine the Great: Czarina of the arts', 6 October 2016.; Wikipedia, "Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky" (29 September 2016), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Ernst_Gotzkowsky, 2 January 2017.
[4] Hermitage Museum, "Hermitage in Facts and Figures", https://www.hermitagemuseum.org/wps/portal/hermitage/about/facts_and_figures/?lng=nl, 2 January 2017.
[5] Hermitage Museum, "Hermitage in Facts and Figures", https://www.hermitagemuseum.org/wps/portal/hermitage/about/facts_and_figures/?lng=nl, 2 January 2017.
[6] Hermitage Amsterdam, "Hoe het ooit begon", http://hermitage.nl/nl/hermitage_amsterdam/welkomstwoord.htm, 2 January 2016.
[7] Hermitage Amsterdam, "Catharina de Grote", http://hermitage.nl/nl/tentoonstellingen/catharina_de_grote/, 5 January 2017. 
[8] Hermitage Amsterdam, "Catharina de Grote Achtergrondverhaal", http://www.hermitage.nl/nl/tentoonstellingen/catharina_de_grote/achtergrondverhaal.htm, 6 January 2016. 
[9] D. Kostman, Lecture 'Catherine the Great: Czarina of the arts', 6 October 2016.
[10] Hermitage Amsterdam, "Catharina de Grote", http://hermitage.nl/nl/tentoonstellingen/catharina_de_grote/, 5 January 2017. 
[11] D. Kostman, Lecture 'Catherine the Great: Czarina of the arts', 6 October 2016.;
Hermitage Amsterdam, "Catharina de Grote Achtergrondverhaal", http://www.hermitage.nl/nl/tentoonstellingen/catharina_de_grote/achtergrondverhaal.htm, 6 January 2016.

Comments

  1. Such beautiful details!

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    1. They are! Even better in real life. They also showed a replica of her crown, which sparkled the life out of you! It was SO SHINY! (But sadly impossible for me to photograph -in the pictures you can only see a reflection of me drooling infront of the glass case... SO SHINY!).

      Love,
      Dominique

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  2. I love when heritage and history can be celebrated in such a classy way. This is truly remarkable and so gorgeous :) http://www.bauchlefashion.com/2017/07/todays-fashion-forecast-pencil-skirts.html

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    1. Hermitage Amsterdam always makes the most classy exhibitions! I particularly liked the use of different shades of red/pink in this exhibition as a way to demonstrate the passing of time and the events that took place that shaped that time. And, I mean, Catherine the Great is quite a character... ;)

      Love,
      Dominique

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