An Imperial Collection: Women Artists from the State Hermitage Museum

Article excerpt

Jordana Pomeroy, et al., eds. An Imperial Collection: Women Artists from the State Hermitage Museum. London: National Museum of Women in the Arts in association with Merrell Publishers, 2003. 224 pp. Endnotes. Selected Bibliography. Index. $50.00, cloth.

A contribution to the international celebrations surrounding St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary, this lavishly illustrated collection explores the role women artists and patrons played in shaping Russian cultural history. The book consists of two parts. The first section provides an insightful historical narrative that blends accounts of individual women's lives with the artistic environment of imperial St. Petersburg. Following these essays is an exhibition catalogue of works by fifteen women artists, accompanied by descriptions of their careers as well as a comprehensive scholarly interpretation of each painting.

The authors of the opening essays are noted art historians, including Mikhail Piotrovski, Director of the State Hermitage Museum, as well as Lindsey Hughes, Irina Etoeva, Elizaveta Renne, and Rosalind Blakesley. Arranged in an essentially chronological order, their essays provide a sweeping overview of historical events largely through the lens of women's involvement in the Russian art world. The book's discussion spans the period from the era ofterem seclusion through the revolutionary reforms of Peter the Great to the reign of Catherine II. The authors argue that, even when confined to the domestic sphere, Russian women made significant contributions to the visual arts as patrons (among the most prominent being female members of the Russian nobility, such as tsarevna Sofia Alekseevna, Peter I's sister Natalia, and his sister-in-law Praskovia).

Catherine the Great, a recognized patron of the arts and the founder of the Hermitage, is, quite naturally, one of the focal characters of the collection's historical narrative. The discussion of Catherine's role in Russian cultural history begins with Mikhail Piotrovski's general overview of her rule. The articles following Piotrovkski's introductory essay argue that Catherine's reign "marked a turning point for women with artistic ambitions in Russia" (p. 51). The authors note that during Catherine's reign Russian women began to find recognition within the male-dominated art world. …