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Accompanies the Royal Collection exhibition

Vigilius Eriksen (1722-82)

Catherine II (1729-96), Empress of Russia c.1765

Oil on canvas | 275.9 x 202.2 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external) | RCIN 404774

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Painted during the Danish artist Vigilius Eriksen’s 15-year residency in Russia, this image displays all the elements of grand state portraiture. The Empress stands, resplendent, raised on a porphyry dais, commanding attention; this is not just a portrait, but a statement of magnificence and power. The orb and sceptre, symbols of rule, are clearly in her possession. She wears a robe of silver brocade and imperial mantle emblazoned with the imperial double-headed eagle, and the imperial crown, made especially for the event by the court jeweller, Jérémie Pauzié (1716–79), decorated with over 5,000 diamonds and surmounted by a magnificent spinel of almost 400 carats.

A wax seal on the reverse of the canvas, recently identified as the coat of arms of a member of the Golitsyn family, has called into question the long-held belief that the painting was a diplomatic gift to George III. The seal would suggest that the painting was at one stage owned by the Golitsyn family. Members of the Golitsyn family, one of the most aristocratic and noble houses in Russia, held senior positions at court as ambassadors and advisors, and were amongst Catherine’s coterie during her reign.

Answers to questions surrounding the arrival of the portrait have yet to be unearthed, but thepainting is first mentioned in Benjamin Jutsham’ receipts and deliveries books, which track the movement of paintings from royal residences. Its delivery to the West Ante Room at Carlton House from Kensington Palace on 30 November 1813 suggests that it was relocated by the Prince of Wales to furnish the royal apartments in preparation for Alexander I and his entourage, who arrived on 6 June 1814.

The artist made the arduous journey to Russia in 1757, disappointed by his prospects in his native Denmark land. Having recently been turned down in the first gold medal competition organised by the newly established Art Academy, he felt there were few prospects for him as a portrait painter. An example had been set by fellow artist Louis Tocqué, who had travelled to St Petersburg in 1756. Eriksen must have found favour with the court, as one of his earliest known portraits is of Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter I. This portrait of Catherine II forms part of a trio of ‘iconic’ images made by Eriksen of the Empress; statements of power and authority that illuminate her reign and her personality. These commissions gave him the opportunity to fulfil his aspiration and demonstrate that ‘a portrait painter is just as important at Court as a painter of historical events’. For Catherine, a minor German princess, seen by some as a usurper of the throne, it was critical to be seen as a dominant, powerful ruler.

Eriksen travelled to Moscow in connection with this commission, and the coronation picture was delivered to the Academy of Fine Arts on 12 July 1765; a version was sent to Copenhagen two years later, and in 1769 another was sent to Berlin (Sanssouci, Potsdam).

Text adapted from Russia: Art, Royalty & the Romanovs, London, 2018