Catherine did a little more for art than for literature, for art appealed only to the upper classes, and sounded no tocsin of revolt. Popular music, however, was unwittingly revolutionary, for nearly all of it consisted of sad songs, in a minor key and with plaintive accompaniment, telling not only of hearts broken in love but of lives worn out with toil. The nobles rarely heard those songs, but they enjoyed the Italian operas that were brought to St. Petersburg by Galuppi, Paisiello, Salieri, and Cimarosa, all paid by the state. Catherine herself did not care much for opera. “In music,” she said, “I can recognize no tones but those of my nine dogs, who in turn share the honor of being in my room, and whose individual voices I can recognize from a distance.”100
She confessed, too, that she had no understanding of art. She did what she could to develop such understanding in Russia. She provided the funds with which Betsky set into actual functioning (1764) the Academy of Arts that had been organized under Elizabeth (1757). She bought acknowledged masterpieces abroad, and displayed them in her galleries; so she gave 180,000 rubles for the collection of Count von Brühl in Dresden, £40,000 for the collection of Sir Robert Walpole at Houghton Hall, 440,000 francs for Choiseul’s collection, and 460,000 for Crozat’s. Without knowing it, she made fine bargains, for these gleanings included eleven hundred pieces by Raphael, Poussin, Vandyck, Rembrandt, and other perennials, whose value has grown with the advance of time and the retreat of currency. Through Grimm and Diderot (whose Salons she followed carefully) she gave commissions to French artists—Vernet, Chardin, Houdon. She had life-size copies made of Raphael’s frescoes in the Vatican, and built a special gallery for them in the Hermitage.
She gave few commissions to native artists, for to her French taste there was little of lasting worth in the Russian art of her time. However, she provided funds for the education and support of students in the Academy of Arts, and sent several of them to study in Western Europe. From that Academy came the history painter Anton Losenko and the portrait painters Dmitri Levitsky and Vladimir Borovikovsky. After five years in Paris and three in Rome, Losenko returned to St. Petersburg (1769) to teach in the Academy. He made a stir with Vladimir before Rogneda , but—perhaps too burdened with academic duties—he failed to produce the masterpieces expected of him, and death took him at thirty-six (1773).—Catherine employed Levitsky to portray some of the young women who were studying at the Smolny Institute; the result is a testimony to their beauty. His portrait of Catherine concealed her amplitude under flowing robes. She sat also for Mme. Vigée-Lebrun, who was one of many French artists whom she invited to give Gallic grace to Russian art.
The greatest of her imported artists was Falconet. He came in 1766, and stayed twelve years. Catherine asked him to design, and cast in bronze, an equestrian statue of Peter the Great. He had brought with him a young woman, Marie-Anne Collot, who modeled the colossal head. Falconet dared the laws of physics by representing the horse as springing into the air, with only its hind feet touching terra firma—an immense boulder brought from Karelia to symbolize the massive resistance that Peter had overcome; to secure equilibrium Falconet showed a brass serpent—symbol of envy—biting the horse’s tail. This chef-d’oeuvre kept its poise while St. Petersburg changed into Petrograd and then into Leningrad. Falconet took longer with this work than Catherine had expected; she lost interest in it, and neglected the sculptor, who returned to Paris disappointed with her, Russia, and life.
In 1758 Nicolas-François Gillet came from France to teach sculpture at the Academy. Three of his pupils achieved excellence in Catherine’s reign: Chubin, Kozlovsky, and Shchedrin. Chubin was commissioned by Potemkin to carve a Catherine II for the rotunda of the Taurida Palace; experts called it “lifeless and cold”;101 so too seems the statue Chubin made of Potemkin. Kozlovsky achieved similar rigidity in his tomb for Marshal Suvorov, and even in his Cupid . Shchedrin’s main work was done under Alexander I: to 1812 belongs the Caryatids Holding Up the Celestial Sphere —woman bears the world. Ivan Petrovich Martos specialized in funerary monuments; cemeteries in St. Petersburg were peopled with his pleurants ; “he made marble weep.” Native sculpture lagged except in imitation of foreign styles. Orthodox churches excluded statuary, and the nobles were content with such artists as they found among their serfs.
But architecture flourished under Catherine, for she was resolved to leave her mark upon her capital. “Great buildings,” she said, “declare the greatness of a reign no less eloquently than great actions.”102 “You know,” she wrote in 1779, “that the mania for building is stronger with us than ever, and no earthquake ever demolished as many structures as we have set up. … This mania is an infernal thing; it runs away with money, and the more one builds, the more one wants to build; it is a disease, like drunkenness.”103Though she told Falconet, “I can’t even draw,” she had her own mind in art, or a mind influenced by the Roman excavations at Herculaneum and the books of Caylus and Winckelmann. She turned her back upon the ornate baroque and flowery rococo that had reigned under Elizabeth, and cast her vote for the chaster neoclassic style. Some contemporaries credited her with providing explicit instructions and preliminary sketches for her architects.104
Finding no native artists who could realize her conceptions, she called to Western Europe for men who had inherited the classical tradition. So came Jean-Baptiste Vallin de La Mothe, who built for her on the Neva the Palace of the Academy of Arts (1765-72)—a Renaissance façade of coated bricks and classic portico, and, within, a majestic semicircular stairway leading to a rotunda under a dome. As an adjunct to the Winter Palace Vallin built the famous Hermitage, which Catherine thought of as a refuge from court etiquette, but which became her art gallery, and is now one of the principal museums of the world. Catherine described it to Grimm in 1790 as “my little retreat, so situated that to go there and back from my room is just three thousand paces. There I walk about amid a quantity of things that I love and delight in, and those winter walks are what keep me in health.”105
From France, too, came the Scot Charles Cameron, who had studied classic ornament there. Catherine was delighted with the brilliance and delicacy with which he adorned—with silver, lacquer, glass, jasper, agate, and polychrome marble—the private apartment that she reserved for herself, her lovers, and her dogs in the Grand Palace at Tsarskoe Selo. “I have never seen the equal of these newly decorated rooms,” she wrote; “during the last nine weeks I have never tired of contemplating them.”106 Around this palace she had a park designed in the “natural” and “English” style, which she described in a letter to Voltaire: “I now madly love the jardins à l’anglaise , the short lines, the curved lines, the gently graded slopes, the pools and lakes.... I have a profound aversion to straight lines; in a word, Anglomania dominates my plantomania.”107 For her son Paul and his lovely second wife Cameron built in Pavlovsk (another suburb of the capital) a palace in Italian villa style; here the Grand Duke and Maria Feodorovna housed the art collected in their West-European tours.
From Italy came Antonio Rinaldi, who raised two luxurious mansions as gifts from Catherine to Grigori Orlov: the Marble Palace on the Neva, and, near Tsarskoe Selo, the Gatchina Palace, which became the favorite residence of Paul I. And from Italy came Giacomo Quarenghi, who had been fascinated by the Greek temples at Paestum and the masterpieces of Palladio in Vicenza. In 1780 he submitted to Catherine, through Grimm, plans and models for various structures that he hoped to build. Catherine was attracted, and from that date till 1815 Quarenghi raised, in or near St. Petersburg, a profusion of buildings in classic style: the theater of the Hermitage, the Smolny Institute (which he added to the Smolny Monastery of Rastrelli), the Bank of the Empire, the Chapel of the Malta Order, the English Palace at Peterhof, and the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo. This was designed for Catherine’s grandson the future Alexander I, who moved into it in 1793, two years after its completion. “It is one of the masterpieces of eighteenth-century architecture.”108 *
But were there no Russian architects fit to spend Catherine’s rubles? Yes. Hoping to leave a monument to her memory at Moscow, she commissioned Vasili Bazhenev to design a stone Kremlin to replace the brick Kremlin of Ivan the Great. Bazhenev conceived an immensity that would have dwarfed Versailles; those who saw the wooden model—which itself cost sixty thousand rubles—marveled at its architectural excellence. But the foundations laid for it sank as the soil subsided through the action of the Moscow River, and Catherine withdrew from the enterprise. However, she found funds that enabled Ivan Starov to build, on the left bank of the Neva, the Taurida Palace; this splendor she presented to Potemkin to commemorate his conquest of the Crimea.
Whatever the cost of her buildings, Catherine achieved her object. The contemporary Masson wrote: “A Frenchman, after winding along the inhospitable shores of Prussia and traversing the wild and uncultivated plains of Livonia, is struck with astonishment and rapture at finding again, in the midst of a vast desert, a large and magnificent city, in which the society, amusements, arts and luxuries abound which he had supposed to exist nowhere but in Paris.”109 And the Prince de Ligne, after seeing nearly all Europe, concluded that “in spite of Catherine’s shortcomings her public and private edifices make St. Petersburg the finest city in the world.”110 The flesh and blood of ten million peasants had been turned into brick and stone.