Catherine II, an enlightened despot in the face of the French Revolution

Catherine II, an enlightened despot in the face of the French Revolution

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Title: Catherine II of Russia with Allegories of History and Time.

Author : LAMPI Charles (-)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 58 - Width 42

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas Circa 1792-1793

Storage location: Museum of the French Revolution, Vizille website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - M. Bellot

Picture reference: 91-001779 / Inv1991-99

Catherine II of Russia with Allegories of History and Time.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - M. Bellot

Publication date: November 2011

Historical context

An autocrat, financier of the Enlightenment and then of the counter-revolution

Since 1762, Catherine II has reigned as an autocrat (the sole holder of a so-called divine right) over a population mainly made up of serfs in the vast Russian Empire. Admirer of the French Enlightenment, nicknamed the "Semiramis of the North" by Voltaire, she finances theEncyclopedia by Diderot and d'Alembert. Reader of The Spirit of Laws (where Montesquieu considers that his predecessor Peter the Great had given "the mores and manners of Europe" to the Russian nation), she strives to promote the values ​​of public order, material progress and education to permanently anchor the country to Western Europe.
It is this image of an enlightened despot that she intends to convey of herself when Johann Baptist Lampi, portrait painter to the Austrian court, painted her in St. Petersburg in 1793.

But France, from the cradle of the Enlightenment, then became the center of revolutionary ferments which stirred all of Europe. By proclaiming equal rights according to the moral principle of natural law, the French Revolution shakes up the power of Catherine II, who then tries to organize a reaction.

Image Analysis

The "Semiramis of the North"

Standing a little sideways under a canopy of crimson velvet, Catherine II has just risen from her throne. She wears the imperial mantle, decorated with cords of Russian orders, over a white and blue costume, and turns her head adorned with a diadem and a small crown towards the viewer. While leaning on the armchair with her right hand which holds the scepter, she seems to indicate with her left hand the two allegorical figures represented at her feet: Time, an old man carrying a scythe and an hourglass, appears as if struck down by her, while that an admiring young woman, History, awaits the opportunity to complete the annals of the Empress. The three figures are united by the chromatic harmony between the blue, red and green of their clothes.

On the left, the imperial crown and globe are placed on a pedestal. The throne is decorated with a lion at its base, with the figure of Justice on the back, and crowned with two angels holding a coiled serpent, a symbol of eternity.
In the colonnade shown in the background are placed the statues of Prudence (with a mirror, a serpent wrapped around an arrow and a deer for attributes) and of Constance (holding a column and carrying a hand to the fire, as a sign of courage according to the ancient example of Mucius Scaevola).


On a crusade against "the Jacobin hydra"

This small painting would be one of the preparatory sketches for a large ceremonial portrait (Hermitage, St. Petersburg). The two allegorical figures are replaced there by an altar decorated with the portrait of Peter the Great and on which are placed two books which symbolize the sovereign's legislative activity.
While Catherine II portrays herself as a sovereign who rules her empire guided by justice, in France, the Constitution of 1793 proclaims a new rule of law based on Declaration of the rights of man and of the citizen.

To fight against "Jacobin hydra", Catherine signed an ukase on February 8, 1793 which put an end to relations between the two countries. French residents in Russia must swear "before Almighty God and on his Holy Gospel, that having never adhered in fact or will to the ungodly and seditious principles now introduced and professed in France, [they look at] the government which s 'is established there as a usurpation and a violation of all laws, and the death of the Most Christian King Louis XVI as an act of abominable villainy and infamous treason ”.
During this same year, while the Terror established itself in France, Catherine II tried to stem revolutionary ideas in Russia as well as in Poland and offered her support to the emigrant princes, welcoming in particular the Count d'Artois, brother of the late Louis XVI .
In 1794, Lampi painted a new portrait of Catherine (Hermitage) where the Empress was standing, scepter in hand, near an armchair and a table decorated with a vase of flowers and a clock: the French Revolution would it have put low pump and allegory?

  • human rights
  • Russia
  • Lights
  • Catherine II of Russia
  • Declaration of the rights of man and of the citizen
  • enlightened despotism
  • Jacobins
  • French Revolution
  • Montesquieu (Charles Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède and)


Philippe BORDES and Alain CHEVALIER, Museum of the French Revolution: catalog of paintings, sculptures and drawings, Vizille-Paris, Museum of the French Revolution-R.M.N., 1996 Isabel de MADARIAGA, Russia in the time of Catherine the Great, trad. from English by Denise Meunier, Paris, Fayard, 1987.

To cite this article

Guillaume NICOUD, "Catherine II, an enlightened despot in the face of the French Revolution"

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