- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 22, 2003

Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun engages viewers directly and boldly in her "Self-Portrait" (1800). The painter seems to exult in her success at Catherine II's Russian court. She knows she is pretty and even flirts a bit with onlookers.
A feminist success story centuries before feminism, Vigee-Lebrun (1755-1842) is one of three artists highlighted in "An Imperial Collection: Women Artists From the State Hermitage Museum" at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. This exhibit and "Myths of St. Petersburg: Impressions of the City From the Hillwood Collection" at the Hillwood Museum and Gardens, are Washington's answer to Baltimore's "Vivat! St. Petersburg," a 300th-anniversary celebration of the founding of St. Petersburg.
Vigee-Lebrun, unusually successful for a female painter of her time, enjoyed the indispensable backing of two powerful 18th-century female rulers. She was painter to Empress Marie Antoinette before the French Revolution and settled in St. Petersburg after fleeing Paris. There, Vigee-Lebrun won the patronage of Catherine as well as the wealthiest and highest-ranking nobles in Russia. While there from 1795 to 1801, she painted more than 48 life-size portraits. Eight are in the exhibit.
A member of the Imperial Academy of Arts, she painted the well-known "Self Portrait" she considered it her best as a thank-you for the academy. It showcases her ability to catch a likeness quickly and ably, especially the character and beauty that drew male clients interested in more than sitting for portraits. In France, she never worked without her mother present.
Her father, portraitist and pastel painter Louis Vigee, was her first teacher. Subsequent instructors turned her attention to Italian and Flemish masters and works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck and Greuze in Paris museums. In 1776, she married Pierre Lebrun, a painter and art dealer, by whom she had a daughter and whom she divorced in 1794.

Catherine II, better known as Catherine the Great, created an ambience in the new capital city of St. Petersburg that fostered female patrons and artists such as Vigee-Lebrun.
Another feminist avant la lettre, Catherine was both art- and power-hungry. (It was rumored she had had her estranged husband, Peter III Romanov, grandson of Peter the Great, strangled so that she could rise to the throne unimpeded.)
Catherine realized Peter the Great's dream of Russia as a major power, ended Turkish dominance over the Black and Mediterranean seas and conquered the Crimea. She also made St. Petersburg one of the most exciting cities in Europe, admired for its beautiful buildings, first-rate libraries and breathtaking art collections.
With its "Myths of St. Petersburg" show, the Hillwood Museum aims to survey the city's symbolism and importance through 55 stellar objects drawn from its important Russian art holdings, including the 18th-century "Gold Box" decorated with Catherine the Great's profile portrait as Minerva and Iver Windfeldt Buch's "Chalice" for a St. Petersburg cathedral. Catherine contributed cut stones for the "Chalice" from her personal gem collection.
The German-born Catherine thought big. She knew an impressive state art collection could be as valuable in its way as a good army. The opportunity to buy arose in 1764, when she purchased the Johann Ernest Gotzkowski Collection with its three Rembrandts.
Besides adding great art to the state's collection, the purchase incidentally enabled her to lord it over her uppity German relatives, including Frederick the Great of Prussia. The German merchant and agent Johann Gotzkowski had assembled the art for Frederick. When the German ruler, crippled by the cost of his wars, couldn't afford to buy it, Catherine stepped in to acquire it and made sure everyone knew it.
The purchase signaled the founding of the Hermitage and initiated Catherine's serial acquisitions of many of Europe's most magnificent collections. Among them was that of French banker Pierre Crozat, who had put together France's best art cache. At his death, it contained 500 paintings, almost 19,000 drawings and 1,500 cameos and engraved gems. Parts of it would become the core of the Hermitage's collection of paintings. Another was that of Sir Robert Walpole, England's first prime minister. (Walpole's grandson sold the collection to Catherine.)
It was this kind of appetite for art treasures that greeted Vigee-Lebrun, as well as the French sculptor Marie-Anne Collot and the Scottish portraitist Christina Robertson when they arrived in St. Petersburg. Collot (1748-1821) was one of the first women to create a career in fine art in Russia, and Robertson after a successful career in London plied a flourishing portrait trade for Nicholas I and his court.
The young Collot followed her mentor, Etienne-Maurice Falconet, to St. Petersburg in 1766. Catherine commissioned him to make a sculpture of Peter the Great that is still one of St. Petersburg's outstanding landmarks. Collot, already famous in France for her portraits, helped Falconet sculpt the face of Peter for the statue. She went on to create many fine busts of St. Petersburg's wealthy and well-born, and she also delighted Catherine with marble portraits of the czarina unusual in their non-idealization, simplicity and expression of Catherine's energy.
Robertson, a fashionable English portraitist, painted full-length state portraits in oils on large canvases for Czar Nicholas I and members of the imperial household. Although she had to leave her husband and children behind, she painted there first from 1839 to 1841 and then again later in the late 1840s. She painted Nicholas' wife, the Empress Alexandra Fedorovna, in a shimmering ivory silk gown and ropes of pearls, against a background of cascading velvet curtains.
While Catherine had art sleuths curating for her outside of Russia, aristocratic families such as the Yusupovs and Sheremetevs also formed important collections while traveling abroad. Marguerite Gerard, a sister-in-law of the rococco painter Jean-Honore Fragonard, was a favorite with Nikolai Petrovich Sheremetev, and the exhibit includes "First Steps (L'Elan de la nature)," one of her amusing family scenes.
Catherine's scouts found the Swiss Angelica Kauffman, who lived in Rome, and Berliner Anna Dorothea Therbusch-Lisiewska, who worked in Paris.
Kauffman, with an important studio-salon in Paris, counted Prince Nikolai Yusupov among her good friends. Famous for mythological and historical paintings as well as portraits, she placed many works in Yusupov's palace in St. Petersburg.
Catherine so admired Therbusch-Lisiewska's talent for rendering different cloths and sparkling jewels that she commissioned portraits of the Prussian royal family.
So you see, we women don't need all those woman-power networking retreats and the National Organization for Women to realize our talents and fulfill ourselves.
All we need is one good female emperor.
(Please, Mrs. Clinton, don't get any ideas. It was just a small jest, nothing more.)

WHAT: "An Imperial Collection: Women Artists From the State Hermitage Museum"
WHERE: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, through June 18
TICKETS: $8 adults, $6 students and seniors 60 and older, free for youths 18 and younger.
PHONE: 202/783-5000

WHAT: "Myths of St. Petersburg: Impression of the City From the Hillwood Collection"
WHERE: Hillwood Museum and Gardens, 4155 Linnean Ave. NW
WHEN: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday except national holidays, through Dec. 31.
TICKETS: Reservations required. $10 adults, $8 seniors 65 or older, $5 full-time students with ID and children ages 6 to 18.
PHONE: 202/686-5807 or 877-HILLWOOD

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