A minor German princess whose path to Russian empress wasn’t exactly kosher, Catherine the Great (1729-1796) had a dozen lovers — often much younger than her — and collected art shrewdly, ultimately creating St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum. But however diverting and newsworthy the truth about her is, misinformation endures.
“She had a lot of enemies who wrote quite negative things about her after she died and even when she was still alive,” says Susan Jaques, a Los Angeles-based writer whose new book, “The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the Transformation of Russia” will launch April 3 at a National Museum of Women in the Arts event.
After Catherine’s death, her estranged son Paul, who became czar, sought to erase his mother’s legacy and memory. A tug-of-war over how great Catherine really continued for some time.
Here are 10 things about the Russian ruler that might surprise you:
1. She was lonely.
A land-grabby monarch who likely had a hand in her husband’s death and who annexed the Crimean peninsula in 1783, partitioned Poland out of existence, and fought two wars against the Ottomans, Catherine was subject to the regular strain of loneliness. Lovers in their 20s couldn’t fill that void. “She fell very strongly for some of these young men,” Jaques says. “She’s coming off as rather needy. This is not the Catherine that we know. It gets a little bit sad. She’s still trying to have this emotional connection, and yet she’s in her 50s and 60s. It’s not working out for her.”
2. She was a prude.
Despite her extramarital affairs and illegitimate children, Catherine could be a prude. She hated Giulio Romano’s painting “Two Lovers,” which shows a semi-nude couple in a sexual position. “She had it put in the basement at the Winter Palace. It was so racy,” Jaques says. “It’s not mythological nor an allegory. It’s erotic. That was not acceptable, because she saw herself as this enlightened empress.” The Enlightenment prioritized reason and self-control.
3. She was (sort of) a good grandmother.
Catherine wasn’t able to raise her children, so she took over rearing her grandchildren. “She was a very doting grandmother,” Jaques says.
4. She traveled only in her imagination.
After arriving in Russia at age 14 to marry Peter III, Catherine never left Russia. “I think she was afraid to leave,” Jaques says. Others would have tried to usurp her throne. So she became an “armchair traveler” with a fantastic art library. She had parts of the Hermitage decorated to evoke works of art she couldn’t see, like Raphaels.
5. She was strategically humble.
Despite devouring art catalogues, Catherine humbly referred to herself as an art “glutton.” She told artists whom she commissioned that she knew less than a child about art. That was meant to disarm rather than intimidate, as she was a powerful woman who tended to be the smartest person in the room. “She did this for her political survival,” Jaques says.
6. She was a hands-on patron.
Catherine sent art agents throughout Europe to seek the best collections for her to acquire. Soon she told them what she wanted. Letters she sent to her favorite architect, Giacomo Quarenghi, include her own sketches and detailed French instructions. “She was not just, ‘Okay, I need a palace for my grandson Alexander.’ She was actually telling her architect what she wanted,” Jaques says.
7. She was tone deaf.
Though she wrote opera librettos and made operas, concerts, and ballets a fixture of her cultural life, Catherine described herself as tone deaf. “She reportedly had to be given a sign when to applaud,” Jaques writes.
8. She’d likely be good at social media at least with selfies.
Catherine devoted significant time to having her portrait painted and updated frequently. Among many depictions is one that casts her as the goddess Minerva (Athena). “Because she was German. Because she really bumped off her husband and seized power, she had a real legitimacy problem. She wasn’t even Russian,” Jaques says. “All her reign, throughout 34 years, she was constantly trying to reinforce her legitimacy, and art was a big part of that for her.”
9. Part of her collection became Washington’s National Gallery of Art.
In 1930 and 1931, Andrew Mellon, one of the foremost art collectors in the United States, ignored a trade embargo on the Soviet Union and bought 21 paintings secretly for the equivalent of $90 million today. He hid the works — 15 of which were Catherine purchases — in a Corcoran Gallery cupboard. Amid political scandal, as is wont in the District, the paintings, including a Raphael, a Veronese, and five Rembrandts, became the foundation of the National Gallery of Art, whose construction began in 1937.
10. She was partially ahead of her time.
Catherine, in many ways, anticipated a modern way of looking at the world, but in other ways she was firmly of her era. She chose not to take a progressive stance on serfdom, and when a cabinet maker tried to lecture her on the matter, she threw him out, Jaques says. “She’s full of contradictions. She’s ahead of her time; she’s enlightened in terms of art. But politically? Not so.”
The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the Transformation of Russia, Free, 1–2 p.m. April 3, National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave NW. 202-783-5000. nmwa.org.