She plunged into the art war that had erupted in Europe in the 18th century and she went about it like no rookie. Scrupulous in her choices, she perused the
“Read the descriptions of the paintings which the antique dealers are selling. By constantly studying catalogues of the paintings which I purchase, I have learned to . . . see. ”
She had her art agents, dealers, and ambassadors spread throughout the Europe who would hunt ongoing auctions and advise her. Russian Diplomat Dmitri Golitsyn did the looking for her while serving in the embassies to Paris and The Hague.
Ivan Shuvalov, Russia’s first Minister of Education and one of her favourites, worked as her agent in the Italian art market. Étienne Falconet, the French sculptor counted among the first rank of French Rococo sculptors, whom Catherine brought to Russia to create a monument to Peter the Great also continued to advise the queen about her collection.
One of the early coup de maître in Catherine’s conquest came from Germany. Word reached her that the king Frederick the Great was going to let go of a stunning group of old masters owing to the hardships of the recent Seven Years War. The collection with over two hundred pieces had been sourced for him by Johann Gotzkowski, the famed Prussian merchant who was also king’s art collector. Composed of entirely Flemish and Dutch Paintings, the assortment arrived with Frans Hals Portrait of a Young Man with a Glove. Soon after she also secured Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. That sixteen out of twenty-two Rembrandts hanging in the Hermitage today came from Catherine is another token of her fervor as an art collector. It did not take long for her adventure to start making news across the continent. She once wrote to Voltaire:
You have heard correctly, Sir, that this spring I raised the pay of all my military officers . . . by a fifth. At the same time, I’ve bought the collection of paintings of the late M. de Crozat [more about that later], and I am in the process of buying a diamond bigger than an egg.”
Catherine’s paroxysm of collecting art continued and in one clean sweep in 1768, Catherine the Great secured the 320 paintings of the noted collector, Jean de Julienne, and 6,000 old master drawings from the illustrious collection of Johann-Philip Cobenzl, making the Hermitage’s collection one of the best in the world.
Catherine’s agents haggled back and forth for five years before they brought her 119 pictures of Count Baudouin, “one of the best and most famous in Paris.” In 1785, she solicited the services of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the revered 18th-century portrait specialist. He created three works including The Infant Hercules Strangling Serpents which, was his allegory of a young but mighty Russia.