- British Art Treasures from Russian Imperial Collections in the Hermitage Exhibition
From the beginning of the sixteenth century onward, there was an almost uninterrupted flow of paintings, drawings, and sculptures, as well as skilled craftsmen and specialists from the Continent to a wide variety of wealthy patrons and collectors in England. This magnificent exhibition of British Art Treasures from the Imperial Collections in the Hermitage marks the abrupt reversal of that pattern—the export of architects, painters, and national treasures from Great Britain to the Imperial Russia of Peter and Catherine the Great and their successors. At the center of this startling turn of events was the acquisition by Catherine of the Houghton Collection of Old Master Paintings that Sir Robert Walpole had assembled early in the eighteenth century. Unable to pay off his debts, Walpole’s grandson, George, the third Earl of Orford, sold the collection to Catherine in 1780—over the anguished protests of Horace Walpole, John Wilkes, and others—for the relatively modest sum of 40,000 £. On one level, this sale was part of a highly visible campaign of cultural imperialism, intended to promote the image of Russia as a civilized and liberal state in which, under Catherine’s philanthropic and Maecenas-like patronage, the arts were flourishing as nowhere else in Europe.
This exhibition includes a generous sampling of paintings from the Houghton collection. There are three magnificent Van Dykes: two full-length portraits, of Thomas Wharton and of the Earl of Danby, and a double portrait of two of Wharton’s daughters. Another gem is William Dobson’s riveting depiction of Abraham Van Der Doort, the keeper of Charles I’s art treasures. Dobson captured Van Der Doort’s haggard and careworn face six months before Van Der Doort committed suicide, apparently because he had lost a precious miniature entrusted to him by the king. The Houghton collection also includes three major portraits by Sir Godfrey Kneller. The first is a Rembrandtesque representation of Pyotr Potemkin, a Russian envoy in 1681–82, decked out in splendid, exotic garb against a rich, dark, brown background. The second reveals Grinling Gibbons deep in creative contemplation, his left hand resting on a cast from the head of Bernini’s Proserpine. The third is a portrait of John Locke in 1697, showing him without [End Page 361] wig and in informal attire. A fascinating aspect of this painting is the sitter’s inner state: Locke’s intense, nervous expression is radically different from the complacent, periwigged visages of Kneller’s portraits of the Kit Kat Club in the National Portrait Gallery. Little known in the West, these paintings could lead to a revision of the conventional estimate of Kneller as the bland memorialist of the Whig aristocracy.
Catherine was no dilettante purchasing paintings for specialists rather than to suit her own tastes. She personally ordered the acquisition of two major paintings in the show—The Iron Forge Viewed from Without and the Fireworks Display at the Castel S. Angelo of Joseph Wright of Derby, at a time when Wright was virtually unknown in England (even while she turned down Wright’s Hermit Studying Anatomy). Continuing to collect works after the Houghton purchase, she commissioned three major paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds—The Continence of Scipio, The Infant Hercules Strangling the Serpents, and Cupid Untying the Zone of Venus. Prominently displayed in the show, these grand machines present Reynolds in the unfamiliar guise of major European History Painter, able apparently to shift effortlessly in style, whenever it suited his purposes, from the classical baroque to rococo eroticism. Catherine also invited a number of British architects and gardeners to renovate the imperial and aristocratic estates around St. Petersburg and Moscow, most particularly her summer palace, Tsarskoye Selo. The most brilliant of these...