This miniature portrait of Empress Catherine of Russia, in Catherine’s favoured neo-classical style, portrays her profile in a porcelain relief, mounted in an oval wooden frame. The maker is unknown, but Catherine’s reign – known as ‘The Golden Age of Catherine’ – was an era of prosperity for porcelain craftsmanship in Russia. Porcelain manufacture had evolved during the Vinogradov Period (1744-1762), and the simple motifs seen at the beginning of this period had, by Catherine’s reign, evolved into fine, detailed miniatures. In 1765, the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory was renamed the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory, as a mark of Catherine’s favour: she obliged the factory to produce fine porcelain to exacting standards for the Imperial Court, with the intent of making Russian porcelain as great as that of Sèvres and Meissen.
Catherine was born in Prussia in 1729, the daughter of a German prince. In 1745 she married Grand Duke Peter, heir to the Russian throne; he became Tsar Peter III in 1762, but she was declared empress when he was overthrown a few months later, remaining in position for more than 30 years. She extended Russia’s borders in the south and west, well into central Europe, elevating Russia to the status of a major European power. A wide reader and proponent of education – during her reign the Smolny Institute was established, providing Europe’s first state-financed higher education institution for women – Catherine corresponded with many of her era’s great thinkers, including Diderot and Voltaire. Catherine was a voracious art collector – her collection now forms the basis of St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum – and patron of the arts, and commissioned self-portraits in sculpture, engraved gems, medallions, cameos and paintings. She is regularly portrayed in portraits as Minerva, the warrior goddess of wisdom and the arts. She died in St Petersburg on 17 November 1796, and was succeeded by her son Paul.