The year 2019 saw the 280th anniversary of the birth of one of the most significant statemen in 18th-century Russian history – the Serene Prince Grigory Alexandrovich Potemkin of Taurida. To mark this occasion, the State Hermitage has prepared a large-scale exhibition to be held in the state rooms of the Winter Palace.
Since December 14 until December 28, 2019 and since January 2 until 29 March, 2020 on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays you can visit temporary exhibition in the evenings (18:15–21:00). Tickets are available in the ticket office of the Small Hermitage (18:00–20:00) on the day of the visit. Admission price is 300 RUB (no benefits).
The title of the exhibition references a passage in Nikolai Gogol’s short story The Night Before Christmas that very neatly captures the significance of Potemkin as a personality, his special place in the history of Catherine the Great’s reign: “ ‘Is that the Tsar?’ the smith asked one of the Cossacks. ‘Tsar be blowed! ’Tis Potemkin himself!’ the man replied.”
More than a thousand museum items are presented in the exhibition – works of fine and applied art, books and documents. They paint a vivid, multifaceted picture of Potemkin, telling about his personal life and his main accomplishments in domestic and foreign policy and in the realm of warfare. A considerable number of the exhibits, many of which are on public show for the first time, are memorial items that come from the personal collections of Potemkin and Catherine II.
Over a period of almost 20 years, Potemkin remained the most energetic associate of the great Empress, her loyal comrade in her undertakings. He played a leading role in the Empress’s elaboration of her geopolitical schemes, the most ambitious of which was the “Greek project” that envisaged the revival of the Byzantine Empire. It was specifically thanks to Potemkin’s efforts that it proved possible to peacefully join the Crimea to the Russian state in 1783.
The Serene Prince has gone down in Russian history as the founder of the Black Sea fleet. As head of the Collegium of War, he carried out reforms in the army, the best known of which was the introduction of new uniforms. Drawings and authentic examples of the “Potemkin uniforms” make up an important part of the display.
Potemkin’s vigorous character enabled him to engage in a whole range of activities – to devise ambitious plans for innovations, to oversee the operation of a variety of branches of government, factories and works. The Hermitage stocks include some splendid objects created in industrial facilities that either belonged to Potemkin or were under his patronage. Many of these come from the personal collection of Catherine II. The exhibition features the creations of craftsmen from Potemkin’s glassworks and the Dubrovno clock factory, and of the goldsmiths of Tula. The display also includes the works of artists who received major commissions from the Serene Prince or were in his service: Francesco Giuseppe Casanova, Andrea Caspar Hüne, Mikhail Shibanov, Mikhail Matveyevich Ivanov, Gavriil Kozlov, Feodor Danilov, Fedot Shubin, Jean-Dominique Rachette and Georg Heinrich König.
Boundless opportunities opened up for Potemkin in caring for the southern regions of the empire that were entrusted to him, the construction and improvement of towns and cities. The Serene Prince brilliantly presented to the Empress the transformations that had taken place in the south of Russia during her famous “Taurida Voyage” in 1787. Items in the exhibition allow visitors to immerse themselves in the atmosphere of that legendary journey to the Crimea, presenting views of the cities, the celebratory events that Potemkin organized and objects that accompanied Catherine on her travels.
The Hermitage possesses a large collection of artefacts connected with victories in the Russo-Turkish Wars, in which Potemkin was one of the chief protagonists. The display includes works of applied and fine art, numismatic items, captured Turkish weapons and banners that tell of some very important battles and the heroes of those encounters. Among the military trophies, a Turkish tent that belonged to Potemkin stands out. Close by is the tremendous painting of Russian Troops Storming the Fortress Ochakov by Francesco Casanova. These items have been specially restored for the exhibition and are on public show for the first time.
An important role was played in Potemkin’s life by his relationship with the Empress, for whom he became not just another in a whole series of lovers, but a cherished husband and a devoted friend. Catherine II’s collections included a large number of works of art that she had commissioned in honour of the Serene Prince or received as gifts from him. Visitors will see cameos and intaglios, jewellery and the creations of Eastern craftsmen.
Particular emphasis in the display is placed on tables laid with pieces from the celebrated Cameos Service that Catherine II presented to Potemkin and also the never previously exhibited Potemkin Service that was made at the Royal Porcelain Manufactory in Berlin to an order from Frederick the Great of Prussia.
After acquainting themselves with Potemkin’s activities as a statesman in the state rooms of the Neva Enfilade, visitors are invited into the Rotunda and adjoining rooms which contain exhibits that tell about the Serene Prince’s private life and his collection, and also about how Potemkin’s image was reflected in art. For the first time paintings, sculpture and silverware from Potemkin’s collection are being presented as an ensemble. A real revelation is the books, manuscripts and prints from Potemkin’s library that are now kept in the Kazan Federal University and have never before been exhibited in such quantity. Potemkin had a great fondness for curiosities that he liked to show his guests. He was the person who bought the celebrated Peacock Clock. The display includes a longcase clock and a crystal chandelier that belonged to the Serene Prince, both of which incorporate musical mechanisms.
The exhibition has been organized by the State Hermitage with the participation of the museum of the Saint Petersburg Mining University, the State Memorial Museum of Alexander Suvorov, the Pavlovsk and Tsarskoye Selo State Museum Preserves, the State Russian Museum, the State Russian Museum and private collectors.
The author of the concept and curator of the exhibition is Natalia Yuryevna Bakhareva, senior researcher in the Hermitage’s Department of the History of Russian Culture.
The exhibition is accompanied by a scholarly illustrated catalogue in two volumes (State Hermitage Publishing House). The catalogue contains a foreword by Mikhail Piotrovsky, General Director of the State Hermitage, articles, and catalogue descriptions of all items in the exhibition.
Based on the material of the exhibition, an educational publication in Russian has also been created – “Eto sam Potemkin!” K 280-letiiu Svetleishego kniazia G. A. Potemkina-Tavricheskogo (State Hermitage Publishing House). The text is by Natalia Bakhareva.