Biographies Russian Architects 18th Century Jean-Baptiste-Michel Vallin de la Mothe

Jean-Baptiste-Michel Vallin de la Mothe

Born: 1729, Angoulême (France)
Died: 1800, Angoulême (France)

Jean-Baptiste-Michel Vallin de la Mothe was born in Angoulême in south-west France in 1729. After studying in Paris and Rome, he went to St Petersburg in 1759 to teach architecture at the Academy of Arts.

The arrival of Vallin de la Mothe ushered in a new age of Neoclassicism in Russia, supplanting the splendour of Baroque, which had fallen into disfavour under the new ruler, Catherine the Great. The exact moment when this occurred is hard to pinpoint, but it was probably in May 1761.

This was when there was a competition to design the new Gostiny Dvor shopping arcade on the corner of Nevsky Prospekt and Sadovaya Street. Vallin de la Mothe’s much simpler and cheaper project was chosen over Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli’s submission. Although Empress Elizabeth Petrovna was still on the throne, the age of Baroque was clearly coming to an end.

Vallin de la Mothe built the Imperial Academy of Arts and St Catherine’s Church on Nevsky Prospekt. He redesigned the interiors of the Winter Palace, created the South and North Pavilions of the Little Hermitage and won personal glory with his project for the majestic arch of New Holland.

A bitter battle raged around the construction of New Holland in the 1760s. The engineer, Johann Conrad Gerhard, was jealous of Vallin de la Mothe and, at one point, even “lost” the original blueprints. Luckily, a copy was found at the Admiralty, which owned the island.

Over a period of sixteen years, Vallin de la Mothe created a string of masterpieces as court architect of Catherine the Great, introducing Russia to the symmetric forms and elegant proportions of French Neoclassicism. But he did not live to see his greatest creation. Construction of New Holland dragged on long after Vallin de la Mothe’s decision to return home in 1775.

Vallin de la Mothe’s final years in France were spent in poverty and loneliness. He was struck by paralysis in 1779. His only means of subsistence was his pension from the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg, which was stopped in 1799, when Russia joined the Second Coalition against Napoleon.

Vallin de la Mothe went blind in one eye and died penniless in 1800. His blueprints fell into the hands of a dealer, and only by chance were some of his designs saved for posterity.

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