The prototype by Nattier (formerly in the Winter Palace but today in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg), along with its pendant of the Empress Catherine I, was commissioned in 1717, when the artist was briefly in Holland. The tsar offered Nattier work at the Russian court, but the artist declined the offer and returned to Paris, where he remained for the rest of his life. There he built up a reputation as one of the dominant court painters of his day.
Peter the Great earned his sobriquet for his ruthlessly successful efforts to transform Russia from an isolated backwater into an European power in the space of a single generation. His natural ability at engineering and the sciences, fostered by his exposure to western Europeans in the 'German town' of Moscow in his youth, became rapidly apparent after the death of his brother and co-tsar in 1696 as sole monarch. His greatest campaigns were both military and domestic. From 1700 Peter fought a long and desperate struggle for control of the north. Through the peace of Nystad, Russia gained from Sweden the pick of her Baltic provinces, and confirmed the conquests upon which St. Petersburg had been founded. Russia now had access to an unfrozen sea, and Sweden had surrendered not only the hegemony of the north, but all her pretensions to be considered a great power.
Throughout the 'Great Northern War' Peter had fought an equally bitter struggle at home, where modern institutions on western models were gradually arising among the cumbrous, antiquated and worn-out machinery of old Muscovy. New men, capable, audacious and full of new ideas were being trained under the eye of the tsar to help him carry out his herculean task. By his early death in 1725, Peter had laid the foundations of the Russian Empire, and has set in place the men and machinery to ensure that this would be continued beyond his demise.