Olga's Gallery

Olga's Gallery

February 01, 2002
Dear Friends of Art,

During the last fortnight we have published the works of Victor Borisov-Musatov, Russian Impressionist and Symbolist painter, Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, a Russian artist and illustrator, member of the World of Art society, Louis Caravaque, a French artist, and Johann Gottfried Tannauer, a German artist. The last two artists were both the court painters of Peter the Great and executed portraits of the tsar and his family, which we offer to your attention.

Peter the Great

Peter I, the Great (1672-1725) is the fourth son of the tsar Alexey I Mikhailovitch by his second wife, Nataly Naryshkina. He was made co-tsar of Russia in 1682 jointly with his sickly half-brother Ivan V (1666-96) after the death of their elder brother, Fedor III, under the regency of their sister, tsarevna Sophia Alexeevna.
In his teens, Peter became notorious for his limitless energy, his capacity for drink, his absorption in military affairs and his coarse contempt for political and religious ceremony. In 1689, he had Sophia arrested for conspiracy against himself and immured in a convent (she died in 1704). He ruled with his weak-willed half-brother as a figurehead. In 1689 he married Evdokia Lopukhina (1669-1731), the daughter of a boyar, by whom he had a son in 1690, tsarevich Alexey (1690-1718), father of the future tsar Peter II.

In 1695, Peter I moved his army against the Turks. The tsar did not command the army, he served as a humble bombardier. In 1696 the Russians captured the vital sea-port of Azov.

In 1697, Peter I set off on a tour of Europe, traveling incognito in a ‘Grand Embassy’ whose main official purpose was to secure allies against the Turks. He spent 16 months traveling through Germany, Holland, England, and Austria, and worked as a shipwright in Holland and in England. In the course of the journey he amassed knowledge of western technology and hired thousands of craftsmen, engineers, military personnel, architects, and painters to take back to Russia.
In the summer of 1698, Peter had to return hurriedly to Russia to deal with a revolt of the streltsy (regiments of musketeers), which was savagely repressed in the weeks that followed with the help of the Scottish general Patrick Gordon. The tsarina Evdokia, accused of conspiracy, was divorced and sent to a convent.

Peter proceeded to offend many sensibilities by the vigorous adoption of western customs, insisting that beards be shaven at court and that ‘German’ dress be worn. Houses were to be built in a western style; and boyars’ children were to be put in the charge of foreign tutors.

In 1700, in alliance with Denmark and Augustus II the Strong (1670-1733) king of Poland and elector of Saxony, he launched the Great Northern War against Sweden (1700-21), but Karl XII of Sweden force-marched his troops in a pre-emptive strike and routed the Russian forces at Narva in Estonia (1700). Undaunted, Peter ordered the church bells in Moscow to be melted down to make cannons, and confiscated ecclesiastical revenues to fuel the war effort.

In 1703, Peter set about the construction of the new sea-port of St. Petersburg, which was designated as the capital of the empire. In 1709, at the battle of Poltava in the Ukraine, the Swedish army was decisively defeated. By the Peace Treaty of Nystadt in 1721, Sweden ceded to Russia parts of Finland and the provinces of Ingria, Estonia and Latvia.

In 1712, Peter married his Lithuanian mistress, Martha Skavronsky (the future Catherine I), who gave birth to his four children: Anna (1708-1728); Elizabeth (1709-1761), future Empress Elizabeth I; Peter (1715-1719); and Nataly (1718-1725).

In 1718, Peter's son Alexey, who had wanted to renounce the succession, was imprisoned for suspected treason and died after torture. In 1722, the Act of Succession gave the ruling sovereign liberty to choose his successor, and in the following year Peter had Catherine crowned empress. The move was unpopular, but at his death Prince Alexander Menshikov (c.1660-1729), the tzar's principal minister, secured the succession of Catherine I.

Peter had achieved during his reign a kind of cultural revolution that made Russia part of the general European state system for the first time in its history, and established it as a major power. Still his role in the Russian history is ambiguous. He strengthened the serfs' slavery, which impaired the industrial progress in Russia in the following years.

Some Historical Anecdotes about Peter I

Peter I in England

While in England, Peter I spent most of his time on studying shipbuilding and navigation. King William III of Orange was very much surprised at such “un-royal” interests, but nevertheless presented Peter with a yacht and ordered naval maneuvers in his honor. Peter was so delighted that he said, “If I were not the Russian tsar, I would have wished to be an English admiral!” While in Portsmouth, England, Peter wished to see scaffolding, a punishment for sailors in the English navy. However there was nobody who deserved such a punishment at the moment. Peter offered any of his own men. The Brits objected, “Your Majesty! Your people are in England, hence under protection of the Law.”

After the Battle of Poltava

After the victory over Sweden in the Battle of Poltava Peter I invited the captured senior Swedish officers to his feast. Peter proposed a toast to “my military teachers’ health!” Swedish marshal Reinshield asked, who was meant by teachers. Peter answered that Swedish officers, of course. Than Reinshield said, “Your Majesty! You are very ungrateful if you treat your teachers so badly.” Peter I liked Reinshield's answer so much that he returned the marshal his sword immediately.

Peter I and Catherine I

A servant girl, Martha Scavronsky, made a great career in the Russian court. In her native Lithuania during the war she was taken by the Russian soldier. Then she caught the eye of Prince Boris Sheremetyev, who purchased her for one ruble and made her one of his many mistresses. Prince Alexander Menshikov, tsar's favorite ‘borrowed’ her for himself. Peter I saw Martha in Menshikov's house and ordered, “When I go to bed, you, beauty, take a candle and light the way.” According to the “etiquette” that meant she was obliged to sleep with the tsar. In the morning Peter paid her with a copper coin. Peter had granted himself this modest sum for love expenses when still a young man and all his life he strictly followed the tariff. Later, though, the tsar married Martha and she became Catherine I.

The Damage is not Great.

The Frenchman Vilbois was Peter's favorite and aide-de-camp. He was a drunkard, brawler and womanizer. Once Peter sent this officer with an errand to Catherine from St. Petersburg to Kronstadt, where the tsarina lived in winter. While traveling, Vilbois drank a bottle of vodka and came to the place absolutely drunk. The ladies-in-waiting refused to admit him to tsarina, saying that Her Majesty was sleeping. “Wake her up immediately!” roared the officer. The frightened ladies brought him to the tsarina’s bedroom and left him before her bed for him to wake her up himself. The drunk officer was so excited by the sleeping woman that he completely forgot she was the tsarina. Catherine cried for help, but unfortunately it came too late.
The most interesting part in the story is the reaction of Peter. The tsar grinned and said, ‘Vilbois, the brute, was drunk and did not understand what he was doing. I bet, when he is sober he'll not remember anything.” Peter sentenced the Frenchman for exile for 2 years. However he returned him in a couple of months with the following excuse: “benefits from his knowledge and experience considerably exceed the damage he had caused.”

Peter could excuse “accidents”, but never deliberate unfaithfulness. William Mons, the younger brother of Peter's first official mistress Anna Mons, became Catherine's lover. When Peter found that out he had the man beheaded. Then he ordered the head of the unfortunate lover to be put in a jar with alcohol. The jar stood in Catherine's bedroom till Peter's death.

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