Of all, there were two collections which not only generate immense popularity for Catherine but dealt a great blow to the cultural spirit of two powerful nations- France and Britain. First came around the collection of Pierre Crozat the legendary French collector who had infused his banking fortune in amassing art. One of the most important during the period, this assemblage of paintings, old master drawings, and objets d’art representing Flemish, Dutch, Italian, and French schools of European art, was open for public view as opposed to galleries of the Court.
In 1772, two years after one of the Pierre Crozat’s heir, Antoine Crozat passed away, Denis Detroit turned his attention to his inheritance left behind. He convinced the remaining Crozat family members that a public auction of such heritage in an already stressed France was a bad and unacceptable idea. Though he was censured for his efforts, Detroit, himself a Frenchman, cracked the deal at a price worth more than three million dollars today. Needless to say, the sale brought furor in France for it was seen as a play to rob the country of its artistic heritage. French Journalist Pierre Descargues in his book The Hermitage Museum had added some reactions from the sale of Crozat collection. One of them said”
“The collectors, the artists, and the rich are all up in arms. . . . So much the worse for France, if we sell our pictures in time of peace, whereas Catherine can buy them in the middle of a war. Science, art, taste, and wisdom are traveling northward, and barbarism and all it brings in its train, is coming south.”
While The museum age by Germain Bazin recorded another reaction.
“If we do not take precautions, foreigners will succeed in stripping us of all our excellent paintings which have been the glory of our country and which were procured in Italy only after great effort and cost.” 57
In a replication of this feat, seven years later in 1779, queen Catherine also acquired the Walpole collection, which was of the same stature as Crozat, except in Great Britain. The country’s first Prime Sir Robert Walpole had made his collection at the same time as Crozat. Housed in in his family castle, the Houghton Hall, it included remarkable works as Bacchus and Vulcan’s Forge by Luca Giordano, The Prodigal Son and Democritus and Protagoras by Salvator Rosa and Guido Reni’s The Fathers of the Church Disputing the Christian Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Walpole and his son his son died in quick succession leaving deep debts behind. The 3rd Earl, the one also infamously called the ‘mad earl’ then made a deal through Russian envoy in Great Britain, A. S. Musin-Pushkin and sold it to Queen Catherine for about four million dollars in current times. Walpole’s collection formed the basis for Hermitage’s 17th-century Italian art collection. Some of these paintings would eventually become part of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C
The reactions in Britain was no different than France. The European Magazine wrote:
Gentlemen, the removal of the Houghton Collection of Pictures to Russia is, perhaps, one of the most striking instances that can be produced of the decline of the empire of Great Britain, and the advancement of that of our powerful ally in the North. That so noble a collection could not be retained in England, is very humiliating and deplorable.”
With her love of art, when queen Catherine could not acquire something, she would have it copied. Just as she had the engravings from Raphael’s famous loggia in the Vatican copied in an edifice built by her favourite architect, Quarenghi.“I won’t have any rest or peace until this is done,” she wrote to Grimm. The project was finally finished, nine years after the empress thought of it. In her lifetime Catherine the Great acquired over four thousand paintings that formed the foundation of the Hermitage Museum, second largest museum in the world today. It was an addition to her Winter Palace, serving as her living quarters and an arena to showcase the menagerie of her masterpieces. With books, paintings, gemstones, furniture, glass, tapestries, ceramics, mosaics, and porcelain including other things, the Hermitage became the emblem of Russian Enlightenment.
In the room devoted to seventeenth-century French art, the empress collected thirty-one of the sixty-one paintings and twenty of the thirty-two in the Flemish room. Twenty-eight of thirty-seven in the Rubens room, twenty-three of the twenty-six Van Dycks and thirty-one of the thirty-five celebrated “small” paintings of the Flemish school was collected by Catherine collected. It was an unparalleled achievement in the history of art.
Although this art pursuit of Catherine is often considered to be an unparalleled achievement in the collection history, it’s importance often gets mantled in the bright magnificence of her reign. A glance of her charming personality though can be read in the memoirs of prominent French painter Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun who had formerly served in the court of Marie Antoinette, the last queen before the French Revolution. Le Brun wrote of Catherine:
“The sight of this famous woman so impressed me that I found it impossible to think of anything. On the days when she made her public appearances, with her head held high, her eagle-like stare and a countenance accustomed to command, all this gave her such an air of majesty that to me she might have been Queen of the World.”