The penitent Magdalen Antonio Canova Marble, 92 x 74 x 78 cm. San Petersburgo, State Hermitage Museum

The Hermitage is principally an eighteenth-century construction and in its architecture and decoration it reflects the optimism of Enlightened absolutism, a paradoxical mixture of ancien régime splendour and progressive political policies. The building combines late Baroque and Neoclassical styles, and it is entirely fitting that it should house not only the library of Voltaire, acquired after his death by Catherine the Great, but also a splendid collection of eighteenth-century European painting and sculpture, including two effigies of the philosopher by Houdon. One of these, a bust, is shown here.

Catherine purchased the collection of the Saxon Prime Minister, Count Brühl, in 1769. It comprised about a thousand drawings, nearly six hundred paintings and a large group of prints. The painting of the Kreuzkirche in Dresden by Bernardo Bellotto, who was court painter in the city, had originally been commissioned by Brühl. Mengs's large mythological allegory of Perseus and Andromeda (1778) was painted for an English patron but was acquired by the Empress in 1780. She commissioned, directly from the artist, Chardin's The Attributes of the Arts and their Rewards for the St Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts but could not resist keeping it for her own contemplation.

The Hermitage houses one of the finest collections of Neoclassical sculpture in the world, notably statues and busts by the Italian, Antonio Canova, and the Dane, Thorvaldsen. The Penitent Magdalene is one of Canova's most sensual and moving early sculptures. Alexander I sat to Thorvaldsen for his marble bust in Warsaw in 1820. He was so pleased with the results that a contemporary recalls that the Emperor broke protocol and embraced the artist.

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