From Rags to Riches


Empress Catherine I of Russia (1717)

Oil on canvas (142 x 110 cm)

The Hermitage, St. Petersburg


This is a painting of no exceptional artistic merit. The fact that is here is due to its value as a historical document and to the extraordinary life of the sitter. Born in 1685 in Livonia (now Estonia), from impoverished parents (her father, Samuel Skavronski was Polish, and her mother Dorothea Hahn, German, ) Marta Elena Skavronski became an orphan at the age of four. She was adopted by an uncouth Lutheran preacher, Johann Ernest Glück, who did not bother to teach her to read and write.

At the age of seventeen, she married a Swedish officer who abandoned her very quickly. In 1702 Glück joined the household of field-marshal Sheremetev as an interpreter and Marta did it as a maid. Her beauty caught the eye of Alexander Menshikov, the influential confidant of Peter the Great, and she became his mistress. In 1703 the tsar visited Menshikov who noticed Peter’s interest in Marta; being an ambitious and practical man, Menshikov introduced his maid to the tsar. By 1704 Marta was living with Peter. In 1705 she converted to the Orthodox faith and took the name Yekaterina Alexseyevna Skavronskaia (Catherine Alexeyevna).

In 1710 Catherine accompanied Peter in his campaign against the Turks in Moldavia. The Russian army was defeated at the battle of Stanilesti (July 1711), and Peter found himself surrounded with no other options than unconditional surrender or death. According to the legend, Catherine suggested her husband to bribe the Turkish commander, Balaji Mehmet Pasha, offering her jewels and those of the other Russian ladies at the court. Although there is no evidence of this, the fact is that Peter, who was in a hopeless position, was allowed to go back to Russia with his whole army. As compensation, the tsar returned the city of Azov to the Sultan and demolished several Russian fortresses. When the news of the treaty reached Constantinople some of the Sultan’s advisors were furious and accused Mehmet Pasha of taking bribes, very suspicious, isn’t it?

Peter showed his appreciation by marrying Catherine officially on 9 February 1712. In 1713 he created the Order of St. Catherine in honour of his wife. The Order was named after Catherine’s patron saint, St. Catherine of Alexandria. Catherine gave birth to twelve children, of which only two survived. In 1724 she was crowned empress. Catherine died in 1727, two years after Peter. She was only 43 years old.

In March 1717 Jean-Marc Nattier was contacted by Jean Lefort, the tsar’s agent in France who was looking for French artists willing to settle in Russia. The artist was interested and agreed to go to Amsterdam, where the Russian sovereign was staying. According to Nattier’s eldest daughter, the tsar commissioned several portraits of members of his court and a painting depicting the battle of Poltava. The tsar was very pleased with the latter and sent Nattier to The Hague to portray his wife, Catherine.

Although she was not crowned until 1724, Catherine was for all intents and purposes the empress and was treated as such. Therefore it was logical that Nattier would represent her in such a manner. She wears the ermine lined mantle decorated with the Russian imperial eagle, and behind her, on a cushion, we can see the crown and sceptre. She wears the red silk sash of the Order of St. Catherine that has embroidered the words “For Love and the Fatherland”. The badge of the order represents St. Catherine, on the obverse is an image of two eagles destroying a vipers’ nest, above is the motto “Aequant Munia Comparis” (By her works she is to her husband compared). Peter the Great was very impressed by the portrait and decided to commission one of himself, but that is another story.


Empress Catherine I (Hermitage)


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