Catherine the Great: A ‘Philosophical’ Queen in her International Context

Jean-Antoine Houdon 
French 1741–1828

Catherine the Great marked the history of her realm like few other rulers in history. She was small in physical stature but towering in her achievements and passions. She seized power violently from her husband Peter III in 1762, aged 33 years, and until her death in 1796 sought to transform Russia in accordance with the principles of ‘enlightened’ autocracy.

Within five years she had established educational institutions for noble girls and for orphans, precursors for a national education system. She had taken initiatives to encourage free trade and manufacturing. She sought out France’s greatest ‘philosophes’, men like Voltaire and Diderot, relishing their correspondence while using their repute to her own benefit.

She was also ambitious and ruthless. She dramatically expanded Russian territory in the Crimea and Ukraine, and three times invaded and partitioned Poland between neighbouring empires. Her reformism froze when the French Revolution erupted in 1789, inspired by many of the principles she had espoused, and she joined a European coalition to crush it.

Her accomplishments included the creation of a vast personal collection of art, books and other creative works, the basis today of the Hermitage Museum, the world’s largest collection. The exhibition gives us an astounding glimpse of the riches she acquired, offering us a way to imagine our own biographies of an extraordinary woman, of enormous ambition and ability.

Learn more about the Empress in her international context from Peter McPhee spoke at the NGV on Sunday 20 September as part of a special four-part lecture series over September and October for Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great.

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The University of Melbourne is the education partner of this exhibition.