Catherine the Great Celebrated at New D.C. Exhibit

Photograph by Stephanie Green/Bloomberg

An 18th century bust of Catherine the Great at Hillwood Estate and Gardens as part of the “Passions of the Empress” exhibit until June 2014.

A Russian ruler who embraced rather than disdained the West? Vladimir Putin may be loath to admit it, but such was the case with Catherine the Great, as a new exhibition devoted to her in Washington makes clear.

In addition to being a collector of beautiful objects and her fair share of lovers, the Russian icon was also a shrewd political animal open to new ideas, according to the exhibit at Hillwood, the estate of Russophile Marjorie Merriweather Post.

Catherine, inspired by the Enlightenment movement, lobbied against social inequalities, was a pen pal of Voltaire, and cozied up to Americans.

“She had a far-reaching vision,” said the show’s curator, Scott Ruby. “She looked to the West and Europe.” Putin, on the other hand, “seems to be more inward.”

The exhibition comes at a time when the Russian government, miffed at the President Barack Obama’s administration, is imposing an art embargo, refusing to loan works to U.S. institutions.

Jewels, porcelain, vases, and chalices curated from American collectors form “Passion of the Empress,” which runs through June.

Most of the show’s arsenal of luxury consists of priceless trinkets Catherine gave to her paramours who helped her bump her feeble husband, Peter III, off the throne and assume it for herself. She ruled from 1762 until her death in 1796 at age 67.

A tea service for Count Gregory Grigoryevich Orlov, with whom she had two illegitimate children, was commissioned by the Imperial Porcelain Factory, and glistens behind a case in white and gold.

Hillwood is lucky to have two plates from one of Catherine’s flatware services. The remaining pieces are in Russia.

You can also see a rare copy of a book of government reforms penned by Catherine and a newspaper clip from a Boston newspaper in 1792 in which she writes of her affection for the U.S.


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