Censer, Russian, late seventeenth century. Silver and parcel gilt. Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens, Washington, D. C.
Crowned empress of Russia in 1762, Catherine II was determined to change the perception throughout Europe that Russia was a cultural backwater. Having lived at court since 1744, when she became engaged to the future Peter III, Catherine had immersed herself in Russian culture, language, and the Orthodox Church while still maintaining ties with Western Europe. Her correspondence with the French philosophes in particular eventually strengthened French taste in Russia and enabled Catherine to foster the arts, science, and education.
Though best known for collecting paintings, the empress commissioned splendid metalwork, porcelain, glasswork, and books-for her own use and as gifts for courtiers-that expressed her desire to blend the traditions of Byzantine art with the Western neoclassical style that was a hallmark of the Enlightenment. Thirty-eight examples in gold, silver, porcelain, and enamel are on view in Exuberance of Meaning: The Art Patronage of Catherine the Great (1762-1796), an exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Art organized by Asen Kirin, associate professor of art and associate director of the University of Georgia’s Lamar Dodd School of Art.
The majority come from the collections at the Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens assembled by Marjorie Merriweather Post, the sole heir to the multimillion-dollar Post Cereal Company, in the 1930s. Interestingly, as Kirin says, the show allows viewers “to contemplate the art collections of two extraordinary women, who lived at different times and could not have come from more dissimilar environments. One is Europe’s Old Regime of absolute hereditary monarchies, the other-the modern, industrialized America of free enterprise.”
Exuberance of Meaning: The Art Patronage of Catherine the Great (1762-1796) · Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, Athens · September 21 to January 5, 2014 · georgiamuseum.org