Jean-Marc Nattier (1685-1766)
Portrait of Catherine I
Oil on canvas, 1717
142.5 × 110 cm (56.1 × 43.31 in)
Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
Catherine I (In Russian: Åêàòåðèíà I Àëåêñååâíà) (born Martha Elena Scowronska, Latvian: Marta Elena Skavronska, later Marfa Samuilovna Skavronskaya) (15 April 1684 – 17 May 1727) (April 5, 1684–May 6, 1727 O.S.), the second wife of Peter the Great, functioned as co-ruler with her husband from 1724 until his death early in the next year, and reigned as sole Empress of Russia from 1725 until her death.
The life of Catherine I was said by Voltaire to be nearly as extraordinary as Peter the Great himself. There are no documents that confirm the ascent of Catherine. The commonly accepted version is that Catherine was born in Ringen (Rõngu), in present-day Estonia. At the time this area was the Swedish province of Livonia. Originally named 'Martha Skavronska', she was the daughter of Samuil Skowroński, later Samuil Skavronsky, a Latvian peasant of Polish origin, most likely a Catholic, and who was already a widower of one Dorothea Hann. Her mother has been listed on at least one site as Elisabeth Moritz, whom her father married at Jakobstadt in 1680. There is some speculation that her parents were runaway serfs. Some sources state her father was a gravedigger. Samuil and her mother died of plague around 1684/5, leaving five children. She was taken by an aunt who sent her to be raised by Ernst Glück, the Lutheran pastor and educator who first translated the Bible into Latvian, in Marienburg. She was essentially a house servant. No effort was made to teach her to read and she remained illiterate throughout her life.
She was a very beautiful young girl, and there are accounts that Frau Glück became fearful that Martha would become involved with her son. At the age of seventeen, she was married off to a Swedish dragoon, Johan Cruse or Johann Rabbe, with whom she remained for 8 days in 1702, at which point the Swedish troops were withdrawn from Marienburg. When Russian forces captured Marienburg the Pastor Glück offered and was taken to Moscow to work as a translator for Field Marshal Boris Sheremetev. There are unsubstantiated stories that Martha worked briefly in the laundry of the victorious regiment, and also that she was presented in her undergarments to the Brigadier General Adolf Rudolf Bauer to be his mistress. She definitely worked in the household of his superior, the Field Marshal Sheremetev. It is not known whether she was his mistress, or domestic servant.
She then became part of the household of Prince Aleksandr Menshikov, the best friend of Peter the Great. Anecdotal sources suggest that she was purchased by him. Whether the two of them were lovers is highly disputed, for Menshikov was engaged to Darya Arsenyeva, his future well-loved wife. It is clear that Menshikov and Martha formed a lifetime alliance, and it is possible that Menshikov who was quite jealous of Peter's attentions and knew his tastes, wanted to procure a mistress on whom he could rely. In any case, in 1703, while visiting Menshikov at his home, Peter met Martha, and shortly after, he took her as his own mistress. In 1705, she converted to Orthodoxy and d her name to Yekaterina Alexeyevna. She and Darya accompanied Peter and Menshikov on their military excursions.