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New joint project of the State Hermitage and the Petersburg Oil Terminal – restoration of a portrait of Empress Catherine I

Published 28 March 2022

The State Hermitage and the Petersburg Oil Terminal joint-stock company (POT) are continuing their joint programme to conserve portraits of great female members of the Russian imperial family. A painting by the famous French artist Jean-Marc Nattier depicting the first Russian Empress – Catherine I – will undergo restoration in 2022.

“This project has to some degree become an example of how the Hermitage accords with the modern age: it is our response to fashionable topics and also an opportunity to give credit to all the remarkable women about whom our museum is able to tell. Portraits of women and paintings by female artists are receiving additional attention, and that is important for an understanding of our history. We are grateful to the patrons for participating in a long-term project that will, I am certain, only expand further in the future,” Mikhail Piotrovsky, General Director of the State Hermitage, commented.

The portrait of Catherine I was painted in the Netherlands in 1717. The story of its creation is bound up with Peter the Great’s visit to France. While the Tsar was in Paris and Versailles, Catherine, his wife and consort (and later, briefly, his successor), was in The Hague, where the French artist Jean-Marc Nattier. celebrated for his depictions of members of the French royal family and court, painted her portrait from life. The painting was sent off to Peter while he was still in France, and it pleased the imperial couple so much that the Tsar commissioned his own portrait from the artist as a companion piece.

Nattier produced a grand Baroque portrait presenting the Tsarina in a silver brocade dress with a red velvet mantle lined with ermine. A chromatic accent is provided by the sash of the Order of Saint Catherine that Peter instituted in 1713 in honour of his wife, who had accompanied him during the difficult Pruth River Campaign against the Ottoman army. During Peter’s reign, she remained the sole member of the Order, a fact which stressed the special status of that award.

At present, the painting is covered with a thick layer of later varnishes that have yellowed and darkened substantially, distorting the artist’s original palette and altering his handling of colour and tone. The picture requires a range of work to uncover it from later accretions. The Hermitage’s restorers will carry out a study of the work, remove the yellowed and darkened varnish as well as later additions. They will make good losses in the original paintwork and coat the painting with restoration varnish. The process will take until the end of 2022.

The restoration of the portrait of Catherine I is already the fourth joint project between the State Hermitage and the POT. The large-scale programme for the conservation of paintings depicting great female members of the Russian imperial family has already led to the restoration of a portrait of Catherine the Great by Pierre-Etienne Falconet and another of Empress Maria Feodorovna by the French artist Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Additionally, the Russian-language scholarly catalogue of the exhibition “A Dream of Italy. The Marquis Campana Collection” was printed with the financial support of the POT.

The restoration of the portrait of Catherine I is being carried out in the Laboratory for the Scientific Restoration of Easel Paintings, part of the State Hermitage’s Department of Scientific Restoration and Conservation, by the artist-restorer Sergei Bogdanov under the direction of the head of the laboratory, Victor Korobov. The keeper of the painting is Natalia Bakhareva, senior researcher in the State Hermitage’s Department of the History of Russian Culture.