The Empress Elizabeth of Russia (1709–1762) on Horseback, Attended by a Page

Artist: Attributed to Georg Christoph Grooth (German, 1716–1749)

Date: after 1743–49

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 31 3/8 x 24 1/2 in. (79.7 x 62.2 cm)

Classification: Paintings

Credit Line: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Nathaniel Spear Jr., 1978

Accession Number: 1978.554.2


The Artist: Georg Christoph Grooth, who is known mainly for his work in imperial Russia, was born in Stuttgart in 1716 to the Württemberg court painter and composer Johann Christoph Grooth. Like his brothers, who were also artists (see MMA 22.174), Georg Christoph received initial training from his father and studied the old masters directly in the electoral gallery in Ludwigsburg. About 1738 Grooth was in Dresden, where he trained further under the portraitist Adám Mányoki (1673–1757). In 1741, after a stay in Gdańsk, he made his way to Saint Petersburg and soon became court painter to Empress Elizabeth of Russia (r. 1741–62). The new imperial capital had attracted artists and architects from France, Italy, and central Europe since its foundation by Elizabeth’s father, Peter the Great, in 1703. Grooth was in high demand as a portraitist, but he also contributed to the ephemeral decoration of state ceremonies and painted icons for the court. As the first official "gallery inspector" (curator) in Saint Petersburg, he procured and restored paintings for the imperial collections. Grooth’s successful career in Russia was cut short by his death in 1749.

The Picture: The painting belonging to the Metropolitan Museum is one of several replicas of Grooth’s best known work, the 1743 Empress Elizabeth of Russia on Horseback, Attended by a Page in the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow (see Ljudmila A. Markina, Portretist Georg Khristof Groot i nemetskie zhivopistsy v Rossii serediny XVIII veka, Moscow, 1999, pp. 155–57, 230–31, no. 14, colorpl. 3; the Museum’s version is not listed). The empress is depicted in the green uniform of a colonel of the Preobrazhensky Regiment, the imperial guard that assisted her overthrow of the infant Emperor Ivan VI and his regency in 1741. She wears the insignia of the Order of Saint Andrew, founded by her father, consisting of the star on her chest and the blue sash adorned with a badge. Mounted on a horse and wielding a baton before a backdrop of ships which refer to the Russian navy, Elizabeth is shown in command of land and sea. The pose is similar to that of the Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne’s Equestrian Monument of Louis XV in Bordeaux (destroyed), which Grooth and the empress may have known from an engraving by Nicolas-Gabriel Dupuis that was published in 1743 (see Liedtke 1989, p. 307, ill.), the same year as the painting.

The Attribution: Compared to the signed and dated, slightly larger canvas in the Tretyakov Gallery (33 7/16 x 27 in. [85 x 68.5 cm]), the Museum’s painting, which has long been considered an autograph replica (Liedtke 1989, p. 308, no. 191), is less confident in execution. Throughout, forms have been simplified and made more schematic relative to the model, as is apparent, for example, in the folds on the empress’s proper left sleeve, the ruffles of her shirt, and the surface glints of her sash. The contours of the formerly weathered plinth have been largely smoothed out. A fattening and rounding off of originally sharp forms can be observed in the costume and face of the page, whose features have been rendered more doll-like here, and in the muzzle of the horse, where the edges of the nostrils have been made plump and tubular. On Elizabeth’s face, the proper left eye and eyebrow sit slightly too high, so that the eyes are tilted unnaturally on two separate axes. Such deficiencies might be expected of any copy, autograph or otherwise, yet they raise the question, which requires further scrutiny, whether the Museum’s picture is the work of a talented contemporary in Saint Petersburg instead of by Grooth himself.

The popularity of Grooth’s 1743 equestrian portrait is demonstrated not only by numerous painted copies but also by its reproduction as a porcelain figure by Johann Joachim Kändler (1706–1775), the chief modeler at the Meissen manufactory in Saxony, who probably worked from a replica such as the one now at the Metropolitan (see Ulrich Pietsch, "Die Porzellanplastik der Zarin Elisabeth zu Pferde: Ein Beitrag zur Arbeitsweise des Meißner Modelleurs Johann Joachim Kaendler (1706–1775)," Dresdener Kunstblätter 49, no. 1 [2005], pp. 5–12).

[Joshua P. Waterman 2013]