Catherine the Great founded the now internationally-renowned drawings collection of the Hermitage Museum with the purchase in 1768 of the cabinet of Count Charles Cobenzl (Brussels). At a time when there were in effect no comparable collections in Russia, no collectors to emulate, and no established tradition, the acquisition of over four thousand drawings was a radical act, far more innovative than the acquisition of paintings. What led Catherine to make the purchase? Did she herself understand the significance of the acquisition?
By acquiring these drawings Catherine was joining an elite club of collectors, at a time when the collecting of drawings was increasingly a mark of ‘distinction’, setting the true connoisseur or amateur apart from the mere curious (curieux). Her purchase was probably made on the advice of two men, Ivan Betskoy and Prince Dmitry Golitsyn, the only other individuals in this period to form collections of drawings themselves. Both of them understood the value – in terms of status and intellectual standing – of a collection of drawings in the second half of the eighteenth century. Their experience was key to Catherine’s understanding of the importance of art as a political and propaganda weapon and her recognition that a collection of drawings was one of those ‘cultural credentials’ that made her a truly European monarch.
But in the nineteenth century, successive Russian monarchs did little to expand the Hermitage’s cabinet of drawings, Nicholas II even turning down the opportunity to buy the collection formed by Dmitry Golitsyn. As with paintings, private collectors now took the lead and it was only with the nationalisation of private collections after the revolutions of 1917 that the Hermitage collection was expanded with works of a level to match those acquired in the reign of Catherine the Great.
Bio: Catherine Phillips is Vladimir Levinson-Lessing Professor of the History of Collecting at the European University in St Petersburg. She has collaborated on academic research and publishing projects with the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg since 1994, many under the auspices of the Hermitage Foundation UK. Specialist areas: the history of collecting, the circulation of Old Master Drawings. Currently working on a catalogue of the founding collection of drawings in the Hermitage Museum, the collection of Count Charles Cobenzl (1712–70), bought by Catherine the Great in 1768. It forms the heart of what is now a world-renowned cabinet of drawings. With research students at the European University in St Petersburg she is working to create a database of information about collecting in Russia up to the revolutions of 1917.