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The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the Transformation of Russia

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An art-oriented biography of the mighty Catherine the Great, who rose from seemingly innocuous beginnings to become one of the most powerful people in the world. A German princess who married a decadent and lazy Russian prince, Catherine mobilized support amongst the Russian nobles, playing off of her husband's increasing corruption and abuse of power. She then staged a co An art-oriented biography of the mighty Catherine the Great, who rose from seemingly innocuous beginnings to become one of the most powerful people in the world. A German princess who married a decadent and lazy Russian prince, Catherine mobilized support amongst the Russian nobles, playing off of her husband's increasing corruption and abuse of power. She then staged a coup that ended with him being strangled with his own scarf in the halls of the palace, and she being crowned the Empress of Russia. Intelligent and determined, Catherine modeled herself off of her grandfather in-law, Peter the Great, and sought to further modernize and westernize Russia. She believed that the best way to do this was through a ravenous acquisition of art, which Catherine often used as a form of diplomacy with other powers throughout Europe. She was a self-proclaimed "glutton for art" and she would be responsible for the creation of the Hermitage, one of the largest museums in the world, second only to the Louvre. Catherine also spearheaded the further expansion of St. Petersburg, and the magnificent architectural wonder the city became is largely her doing. There are few women in history more fascinating than Catherine the Great, and for the first time, Susan Jaques brings her to life through the prism of art.


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An art-oriented biography of the mighty Catherine the Great, who rose from seemingly innocuous beginnings to become one of the most powerful people in the world. A German princess who married a decadent and lazy Russian prince, Catherine mobilized support amongst the Russian nobles, playing off of her husband's increasing corruption and abuse of power. She then staged a co An art-oriented biography of the mighty Catherine the Great, who rose from seemingly innocuous beginnings to become one of the most powerful people in the world. A German princess who married a decadent and lazy Russian prince, Catherine mobilized support amongst the Russian nobles, playing off of her husband's increasing corruption and abuse of power. She then staged a coup that ended with him being strangled with his own scarf in the halls of the palace, and she being crowned the Empress of Russia. Intelligent and determined, Catherine modeled herself off of her grandfather in-law, Peter the Great, and sought to further modernize and westernize Russia. She believed that the best way to do this was through a ravenous acquisition of art, which Catherine often used as a form of diplomacy with other powers throughout Europe. She was a self-proclaimed "glutton for art" and she would be responsible for the creation of the Hermitage, one of the largest museums in the world, second only to the Louvre. Catherine also spearheaded the further expansion of St. Petersburg, and the magnificent architectural wonder the city became is largely her doing. There are few women in history more fascinating than Catherine the Great, and for the first time, Susan Jaques brings her to life through the prism of art.

30 review for The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the Transformation of Russia

  1. 4 out of 5

    Kerry

    Biographies about Catherine the Great are fraught with problems. Catherine the Great: Life and Legend by John T. Alexander includes judgmental fixation on Catherine’s sexuality and demonstrates the male writer’s inability to view his subject through her own, female, perspective—a failure in a biographical writing if there ever was one. On the other hand, female biographers such as Virginia Rounding in her Catherine the Great: Love, Sex, and Power capitalize on readers’ prurient interest Biographies about Catherine the Great are fraught with problems. Catherine the Great: Life and Legend by John T. Alexander includes judgmental fixation on Catherine’s sexuality and demonstrates the male writer’s inability to view his subject through her own, female, perspective—a failure in a biographical writing if there ever was one. On the other hand, female biographers such as Virginia Rounding in her Catherine the Great: Love, Sex, and Power capitalize on readers’ prurient interest about the empress’s carnal prowess; it’s difficult to imagine a biography about a man bearing a subtitle preoccupied with eroticism. In The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the Transformation of Russia, Susan Jaques reveals eighteenth-century Russia’s most powerful woman through her passion for art and architecture, rather than for men. Of the many physical and literary portraits that exist of Catherine, Jaques’s stands out for creating a modern and complex view of the empress that celebrates her as an emotionally intelligent statesperson and a brilliant, sensual woman who critically indulged in an image-advancing hobby. Catherine, as Jaques shows, made art a collaborator in many of her operations. She used the tools of art buying and art creation to heighten her reputation, increase her cultural capital, spread her notoriety, and compete with (and send a message to) the elite in nations abroad. She contracted the best artists, craftsmen, and architects for work that is even today emblematic of her reign. She also strategically bought up literal boatloads of art that is central to St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum and continues to remind us of the age over which she presided. Did Catherine know that her art obsession would immortalize her? Indeed, that seems to be one of her goals. Catherine developed an elaborate publicity and foreign relations campaign based on art. In what today would be called brand building, her likeness graced personal gifts such as snuffboxes and miniatures, dinnerware designs incorporated her monogram, and her portrait was painted in various moods and styles (including one of her in Russian traditional costume, reinforcing her devotion to her adopted nation). Catherine also used her wealth to make her mark in territories she would never set foot in, snapping up nationally cherished art troves from indebted heirs in art-buying coups, publicly demonstrating her long arm and the loyalty of those who made backroom deals on her behalf. Refreshingly, Jaques does not confine her subject matter to fine art, that is, paintings or sculpture. She also uses Catherine’s accumulation of decorative art, fine luxury personal items, and jewelry to support her thesis. Artists took dinnerware, vanity sets, walking sticks, and other everyday necessities to a higher level by using precious materials, difficult-to-master techniques, and fanciful designs. The court sparkled with jewels: from Catherine’s new crown, capped with a large red spinel and drenched in pearls and diamonds, to the glittering badges of status servants wore. The many observers who came to court could not fail to be impressed by the amount of wealth on display, information they would take back with them to their home countries and superiors, further strengthening Catherine’s international image. Architecture, too, plays a role in Catherine’s influence on shaping the style and appearance of her era. Under her auspices, palaces were built, renovated, and expanded; the banks of the Neva were attractively and sensibly shored up with granite; the royal residences in Moscow, long neglected, were given attention; and neoclassicism became the fashion in order to relate her empire to that of Rome. Jaques’s love for her subject matter comes through the writing of this biography. Clearly, she both admires Catherine and shares her fascination with art. Such a combination makes for rich reading, which is best complemented by Google’s image search function. While Jaques’s descriptions make each piece come alive, being able to view the works discussed makes tangible this surreally opulent world. Unfortunately, sometimes the chapters read like an auction catalog, the provenance of specific works and collections delved into with arguably excessive care. Catherine is such a fascinating character that reading about the woes of bankrupt foreign aristocrats and the works they accumulated feels like a distraction from the main story. And does Jaques give in to the urge to regale the reader about Catherine’s love life? Perhaps she achieves what neither Alexander nor Rounding does and depicts it as a natural, rather than sensational, aspect of her personality that gave Catherine the pleasure of exercising largesse. Upon dissolution of a relationship, Catherine quickly gathered a gift basket full of paintings, estates, serfs, and jewels to ease the pain of hurt pride. She also indulged the current lover’s passion by bestowing him with gifts commissioned with his particular interests in mind, such as miniatures for a fellow art fanatic, Alexander Lanskoy. The Empress of Art may feel like a niche biography to those who have no background in art history, but Jaques does not neglect major aspects of Catherine’s rule, including the Pugachev Rebellion and the partitions of Poland. However, these events are integrated subtly into the main narrative, which does not stray from Catherine’s focus on art for long. Therefore, this book is, perhaps, best for someone who is already familiar with Catherine’s life and seeks to enrich their knowledge with a conscientious, well-organized, and in-depth treatment of her relationship with art.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Penmouse

    The Empress of Art by Susan Jaques is a well-written book that accounts the life of Catherine the Great. In particular, Jaques details Catherine's passion for collecting fine art while building an empire. Her book is a wonderful, easy to read book about a woman who was ahead of her time. You will find a bibliography and end notes providing sources used to write her book. Recommend. Review written after downloading a galley from Edelweiss.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Azabu

    The ambitious, German-born empress remains a rich vein for biographers due to her legendary love life as well as her determination to ‘put her picture gallery on the map’. Here Catherine emerges as a voracious reader, a supporter of ‘enlightened despotism’ who maneuvered her way out of a sexless marriage and carried out the expansionist mandate of Peter the Great. Her relentless pursuit of Old Masters and European artwork turned St Petersburg into a cultural center. Gave me a real desire to go t The ambitious, German-born empress remains a rich vein for biographers due to her legendary love life as well as her determination to ‘put her picture gallery on the map’. Here Catherine emerges as a voracious reader, a supporter of ‘enlightened despotism’ who maneuvered her way out of a sexless marriage and carried out the expansionist mandate of Peter the Great. Her relentless pursuit of Old Masters and European artwork turned St Petersburg into a cultural center. Gave me a real desire to go to Russia and check out this amazing collection. Thank you, Catherine the Great!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Diane C.

    First of all, this book is about ART and not a typical biography story arc. That said, it's fascinating. Dense with detail, but still approachable, and not a vacation read, I'd say. But, recommend! *Catherine the Great was a woman ahead of her time, sexually liberated, an economic powerhouse *You probably won't like her, as she replaced her husband in a coup (and had him spirited away and strangled), to continue the work of modernizing Russia that her grandfather-in-law Peter the Great, had starte First of all, this book is about ART and not a typical biography story arc. That said, it's fascinating. Dense with detail, but still approachable, and not a vacation read, I'd say. But, recommend! *Catherine the Great was a woman ahead of her time, sexually liberated, an economic powerhouse *You probably won't like her, as she replaced her husband in a coup (and had him spirited away and strangled), to continue the work of modernizing Russia that her grandfather-in-law Peter the Great, had started earlier in the 18th century, and gave birth to children who were passed off to wet nurses and nannies to raise, some of them didn't survive. (Her son Paul followed her as Emperor, and tried to erase much that she did, without much success). *She loved art, and as Russia became richer and richer after joining the industrial age, spent profligate sums on paintings, sculptures, drawings, jewelry, watches, medals, books, etc. *She was responsible for generating the creation of many, many of the famous historic buildings that still stand in Russia today, and even participated in the design of a number of them.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Carolyn Harris

    The Empress of Art provides a good overview of Catherine the Great's art patronage and the development of the Hermitage Museum. Jaques writes in an engaging, accessible style and places the acquisition of key art collections such as the Walpole paintings within the context of the wider events of Catherine the Great's reign. The author has visited Saint Petersburg and demonstrates a familiarity with the historic buildings of the city and Catherine the Great's influence on architecture and her rol The Empress of Art provides a good overview of Catherine the Great's art patronage and the development of the Hermitage Museum. Jaques writes in an engaging, accessible style and places the acquisition of key art collections such as the Walpole paintings within the context of the wider events of Catherine the Great's reign. The author has visited Saint Petersburg and demonstrates a familiarity with the historic buildings of the city and Catherine the Great's influence on architecture and her role in setting wider cultural trends. In addition to detailing Catherine's cultural activities, Jaques explains the ultimate fate of the paintings acquired by the Empress. While some of Catherine's purchases remain on display at the Hermitage museum, her grandson Nicholas I sold some of the pieces that he judges to be inferior while other acquisitions were destroyed by fire or sold to the National Gallery in Washington D.C. during the Soviet period. Unfortunately, there are some historical errors sprinkled throughout the book, especially toward the beginning and end. The errors concern names, dates, and, most often, the family relationships between royal personages. (For example, Maria Josepha was Maria Theresa's daughter, not her daughter-in-law. A daughter of the last Byzantine Emperor did not marry a czar. Instead, a niece of the last Byzantine Emperor married a Grand Duke of Muscovy, Ivan III. The title of czar was not in use until their grandson's reign.) While these errors do not undermine Jaques's overall argument that Catherine was a key cultural patron with a lasting legacy in a number of different spheres, they are distracting for the reader. The Empress of Art is an engaging biography of Catherine the Great as a cultural patron that is especially useful for visitors to Saint Petersburg and the city's Hermitage Museum. Includes illustrations of key paintings and architecture from Catherine's reign.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Ashley Hasty

    The Empress of Art by Susan Jaques is a book the academic and historian side of me absolutely loved. This book is not for people with a casual interest in art or history, you have to really love the subject and want in-depth knowledge about the subject to stick with it. With that being said, I thought it was written in a very approachable way and I thought the author did a great job hooking her reading from the very beginning by teasing us with little snippets of fascinating information about th The Empress of Art by Susan Jaques is a book the academic and historian side of me absolutely loved. This book is not for people with a casual interest in art or history, you have to really love the subject and want in-depth knowledge about the subject to stick with it. With that being said, I thought it was written in a very approachable way and I thought the author did a great job hooking her reading from the very beginning by teasing us with little snippets of fascinating information about the Empress. But this book in DENSE with historic information and at times I was a big bogged down with the sheer number of facts that can be placed in one sentence. I enjoyed reading this book, but it took me some time to get through the 400+ pages. For more about this book, visit: https://www.hastybooklist.com/home/bo...

  7. 5 out of 5

    John

    Quick synopsis: "The Empress bought a lot of cool stuff." I've been to the Hermitage, State Archives and the Tretyakov, so I read this with the museum catalogs and memories at hand. Interesting to see that a bit of her collection ended up in our National Gallery when the Soviets were cash-strapped. Reading this alongside "Former People" was an interesting juxtaposition.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Josh Griffiths

    The Empress of Art takes a marvelous idea and makes it just okay, a tolerable read that should have been so much more. Reading this book, you get the sense that it was written by someone who is very knowledgeable on the subject matter in question (art and architecture, in this case) but knows little in the way of writing and narrative structure. Namely, there is no narrative through-line that holds everything together, instead each section, each chapter, and even whole paragraphs feel randomly t The Empress of Art takes a marvelous idea and makes it just okay, a tolerable read that should have been so much more. Reading this book, you get the sense that it was written by someone who is very knowledgeable on the subject matter in question (art and architecture, in this case) but knows little in the way of writing and narrative structure. Namely, there is no narrative through-line that holds everything together, instead each section, each chapter, and even whole paragraphs feel randomly thrown together without rhyme or reason. All the hallmarks of poor planning and a lack of structure are on display. The book jumps around in time far too often, for example, looking at 1767 in one paragraph, jumping to 1788 in the next, then back to 1781 right after. It repeats itself on occasion, less to remind the reader of key events or figures, but seemingly repeating itself verbatim as if the writer simply forgot their already mentioned it. Worst of all is the presentation of the information, or more specifically, the bombardment. This is a book about art, so the descriptions need to be rich and tactile. Instead, you're assaulted with paragraph after paragraph strictly defining every single detail of a painting, statue, or brooch. These descriptions don't paint a picture so much as they boil art down to it's component parts and make the pieces in question feel mechanical. The entire book is written in this style, beating you over the head with descriptions of hundreds of pieces that bare little relevance to that point in the story. The same goes for the larger scale narrative. People and places who do little to nothing in the story are given entire pages of biography for little reason; a Count's half-sister's cousin, a nanny's brother, a long-off monarch's half-step brother-in-law's cousin's twice removed dentist. Often times you'll be given all this information about a person, and they'll never be mentioned again. Despite this, the book is somehow missing key information, such as information on Catherine's life before she got to Russia, and even the date of her death are left out. Still, Susan Jaques knows what she's talking about. Even if she isn't a writer, reading a book with this much dense information from someone who clearly enjoys what their doing can provide interest and wonder. I learned a lot about Catherine the Great, how her government functioned, and her taste in the arts from this book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Kathy

    This is a well written and interesting book. Any biography you read on Catherine the Great will mention her art collecting and building. This is the first book to look at that collecting in conjunction with other events of her reign. Its also not only Catherine's story of how she put together one of the best art collections in Europe but also about the rise and fall of other major European collectors in the 18th century. You will learn a lot about the overreach of aristocrats and noble families This is a well written and interesting book. Any biography you read on Catherine the Great will mention her art collecting and building. This is the first book to look at that collecting in conjunction with other events of her reign. Its also not only Catherine's story of how she put together one of the best art collections in Europe but also about the rise and fall of other major European collectors in the 18th century. You will learn a lot about the overreach of aristocrats and noble families and the sale of amazing treasures as Catherine went from sitting precariously on her throne to a collector to be feared. A lot of research has gone into this book and it will be valuable for anyone who wants to know the context of Russian art acquisitions during Catherine's reign. It also gives an overview of how those same artworks were treated in subsequent reigns and the dispersal of key art works during the Russian revolution.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Zosi

    This book was extremely dense and highly descriptive, which made it hard to read at times-however, it was fascinating as a collection of Russia’s art treasures not only in paintings but also in jewelry, pottery, architecture, and fashion. I would have liked to learn a little more about what happened to the paintings after the downfall of the tsars, as I felt those chapters tried to cover too much history in a small amount of pages. This book does provide an interesting look at Catherine and Impe This book was extremely dense and highly descriptive, which made it hard to read at times-however, it was fascinating as a collection of Russia’s art treasures not only in paintings but also in jewelry, pottery, architecture, and fashion. I would have liked to learn a little more about what happened to the paintings after the downfall of the tsars, as I felt those chapters tried to cover too much history in a small amount of pages. This book does provide an interesting look at Catherine and Imperial Russia through the prism of art-the Hermitage is a universally recognized museum, but I thought it was very interesting to learn about just how many fields her influence has affected, both in and out of the art world, past and present.

  11. 4 out of 5

    John Ruggiero

    Could not finish this. Too much details on trivial matters that detracted from the overall story.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Shayna Grissom

    DNF. When they say it's the Empress of Art, they literally mean the entire book is about art.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Diana

    Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from a GoodReads giveaway. Catherine the Great is one of the iconic figures of Russian history, but, in our day and age, many know her primarily for being an empress with an over-active libido. "The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the Transformation of Russia" is a refreshing look at a less salacious facet of the woman who made sweeping changes in the way that Russia was perceived by its own people as well as by the world at large. The book is pre Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from a GoodReads giveaway. Catherine the Great is one of the iconic figures of Russian history, but, in our day and age, many know her primarily for being an empress with an over-active libido. "The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the Transformation of Russia" is a refreshing look at a less salacious facet of the woman who made sweeping changes in the way that Russia was perceived by its own people as well as by the world at large. The book is pretty hefty (405 pages), and the print is by no means large, but Susan Jaques' conversational tone and knowledge of her subject make it a pleasure to read. (You may note that I took quite a while to read this, but that is on me, not on the book.) Although the focus is on Catherine's mania for art of all varieties, Jaques provides sufficient political, economic, and personal material to prevent "Empress" from becoming just a remarkable catalog of pieces acquired. Despite her initial lack of training or inclination toward the arts, Catherine taught herself through books, private agents, and artists themselves what made paintings, sculpture, architecture, ceramics, jewels, etc., "art," then used what she learned to build up a collection that was the envy of other European rulers and collectors. The book is filled with excerpts of letters that help the reader understand why Catherine collected the way she did as well as how she went about it. And there is enough about Catherine's political machinations and love affairs to spice things up a bit. Jaques ends her book by examining what happened to these treasures after Catherine's death. The Romanov heirs continued to add to the collection sporadically, but the Bolshevik Revolution brought destruction and loss to architecture and art alike before the Soviets realized that the collections offered a remarkable opportunity for fund raising. During World War II, the Russian people, under threat of German invasion, made heroic efforts to save what was left. I thoroughly enjoyed reading "The Empress of Art." It is a good fit for those interested in Russian history, biography, and art.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Elda Mengisto

    "In 2014, the State Hermitage Museum celebrated its 250th birthday. Catherine launched the feted gallery in 1764 to embarrass her cash-strapped political rival Frederick the Great...With her sensational, often controversial acquisitions, Catherine turned the Hermitage into a showcase for the Russian Enlightenment, rivaling Louis XIV's Versailles and surpassing Frederick's Sanssouci. Along the way, the self-described 'glutton' for art found fulfillment and romance in the competitive art market of "In 2014, the State Hermitage Museum celebrated its 250th birthday. Catherine launched the feted gallery in 1764 to embarrass her cash-strapped political rival Frederick the Great...With her sensational, often controversial acquisitions, Catherine turned the Hermitage into a showcase for the Russian Enlightenment, rivaling Louis XIV's Versailles and surpassing Frederick's Sanssouci. Along the way, the self-described 'glutton' for art found fulfillment and romance in the competitive art market of the late eighteenth century" (404). This is one of the most prominent quotes of the entire book, which is filled with a bunch of references to different artworks, transactions, and intrigue within them. Susan Jacques takes the lens of how Catherine the Great used the art trade not only to satisfy her impulses, but also to influence her relationships, her standing in Russia, and rivalries abroad. I found the concept intriguing, and read the book as a result. While the narrative is very clear, with a bunch of information to substantiate this, I initially found the book a bit dry. Because I got lists of different artworks and transactions, I thought it was going to get a bit boring. However, the lens Jacques puts Catherine the Great through holds the book together, and I've learned a lot about it. (7/10)

  15. 4 out of 5

    Linda Wolfe

    It is fascinating (and incredible) how much money Catherine the Great had to spend on paintings, masterpieces, sculpture, architecture, jewels, and other objects. The descriptions are long and well researched. The photographs that are provided became meaningful after reading about their acquisition and/or construction. I wish there had been more photos, and each would have been printed on or next to the page where described. This was probably not done as the book is already large. This is not a It is fascinating (and incredible) how much money Catherine the Great had to spend on paintings, masterpieces, sculpture, architecture, jewels, and other objects. The descriptions are long and well researched. The photographs that are provided became meaningful after reading about their acquisition and/or construction. I wish there had been more photos, and each would have been printed on or next to the page where described. This was probably not done as the book is already large. This is not a beach read, but if you love historical facts presented in an interesting fashion, this book fits the bill.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Kayla Tornello

    This book was an interesting look at how Catherine the Great became an avid collector of multiple forms of art, such as portraits, statues, and carved gemstones. It also describes the many buildings for which she was responsible. The author did a good job of going into enough detail to inform the reader without providing so much information that the book gets bogged down. The pictures are gorgeous and make me want to visit some of these places, but I wish there had been even more of them. I recei This book was an interesting look at how Catherine the Great became an avid collector of multiple forms of art, such as portraits, statues, and carved gemstones. It also describes the many buildings for which she was responsible. The author did a good job of going into enough detail to inform the reader without providing so much information that the book gets bogged down. The pictures are gorgeous and make me want to visit some of these places, but I wish there had been even more of them. I received this book as a Goodreads Giveaway. Yay!

  17. 5 out of 5

    Lieske Huits

    A great (art) historical view of how Catherine the Great used art and architecture as part of her plan to turn Russia into a European superpower. Fun to read, very factual and inclusive, if at times a bit superficial. Still, a great source for an overview of her collecting practices.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Pcox

    More fact-based than I like.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Kaleigh Campbell

  20. 4 out of 5

    Susan Weinberg

  21. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer Carney

  22. 5 out of 5

    Terri

  23. 5 out of 5

    Meredith

  24. 5 out of 5

    Will

  25. 5 out of 5

    Rivka (TheLitWitch)

  26. 5 out of 5

    Amanda McCabe

  27. 5 out of 5

    Thad Robey

  28. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth Frazier

  29. 5 out of 5

    Brittany

  30. 4 out of 5

    Kelsey

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