Painting Russian Royals in the Eighteenth Century

EscapeIntoLife_RussianRoyaltyPortraits1Catherine I of Russia, 1717, Jean-Marc Natiier, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

Two portraits come to mind when we think of the French (with Flemish origins) artist Louis-Michel van Loo. They are the portrait of the French philosophe and writer, Denis Diderot (1713-1784),  and the portrait of a Russian aristocrat, Catherina Golitsyna, painted in 1759. It is the latter which interests me more.

She was born Smaragda (Catherina) Cantemir, in 1720, daughter of Dimitrie Cantemir, who was Romanian by birth, a Prince of Moldavia, later awarded the title Prince of the Russian Empire by Peter I the Great and also given a title by Charles VI.  She married Dmitry Mikhaylovich Golitsyna (1721–1793), a prominent member of one of the Golitsyna, a Russian noble family of Lithuanian descent who had risen through the court of Tsar Peter to become powerful in Russia. Princess Catherina Dmitrievna Golitsyna, quite a mouthful.

However we must remember the eighteenth century aristocrats especially under Tsarina Elizabeth (1709-1762), were very fond of their genealogy and titles. There was an epidemic of snobbery coupled by an unfathomable distance between the lower classes and higher classes. The royals throughout Europe acted as demigods, especially in their appetites, and this benefitted many craftsmen and artists. Prince M. M. Shcerbatov was scathing of Elizabeth’s court and its lavishsness.

Luxury in dress exceeded all bounds: there was brocade, velvet with gold, silver and silk (for guleen was paltry stuff) and these in such quantities that the wardrobe of some coutier or fop was sometimes equal to the rest of rest fortune, and even people of modest means had large wardrobes.  (On the Corruption of Morals in Russia)

She rewarded everyone involved in the coup d’etat which saw her take the throne  after the death her cousin Anna in 1740, particularly the soldiers to whom she gave an extra rank and high salaries. With ennoblement went huge amounts of gifts, including property and jewelry. This she perhaps learnt from her parents. Her mother, born from lowly origins  had the most expensive crown in Russian history made for her crowning; it was designed in the Byzantine style in Paris and Peter the Great even took jewels from his own crown, with 2,564, jewels for it.  (Talbot Rice)

The Tsarina was a godsend for anyone connected with art, music and architecture. A woman of tremendous vanity she insisted that in her change of dress – she had thousands of clothes – all others in the court did the same. This meant an incredible expenditure and of course the burden for these luxuries fell upon the peasant class and smaller landowners. They were to pay for the privileges of the nobility who now no longer needed to fight.

EscapeIntoLife_RussianRoyaltyPortraits2Portrait of Tsarina Elizabeth Petrovna, 1760, Carle van Loo, Peterhof  State Museum

While she expected everyone to wear different clothes and jewels at balls and court, none were to copy her dresses or her hairstyle. She punished those who did so. It made life quite difficult for those in the court and required strategies to succeed. In this she was like the Queen in Snow White. We must bear this in mind when we look at the portraits.

The portrait of Catherina is very interesting in this respect. Firstly the painting is by Louis-Michel van Loo (1707-1771) and not by his uncle Carle van Loo (1705-1765) who painted the Tsarina. Was Carle more successful? Did one refer to the painting as a van Loo rather than a Louis-Michel van Loo? Perhaps this was the case.  Secondly, Catherina is wearing an order bow, the blue moiré or watered silk bow (is the blue emblematic of  St.  Andrew?) which had been was bestowed upon her by Elizabeth, seen in a miniature portrait on ivory or enamel.

Louis-Michel van Loo, the artist of Catherina’s portrait, was in turn a member of a Flemish artist dynasty that began probably in the fifteenth century, but became noticeable with the work of Jan van Loo (b.1585) whose work like his son Jacob’s (1624 -1670) is in the Dutch realist tradition. The style starts with the earthy and bolder palette then moves towards a precise almost monochrome tightness of line and contour. As we follow the timeline from the early van Loos to our artist, we notice stylistic similarities here and there which can be accounted for by three factors: firstly the genetic one, i.e. the inheritance of coordination and perception; secondly by common education; thirdly by the constraints of the prevailing market and taste – mostly the court values. Certainly the latter and the success of the van Loos led to many commissions.

Here lie the differences in the portraiture between the Diderot portrait and the Catherina Golitsyna. In the latter we can detect features that are found in several of the van Loo generations, but mostly in the more immediate family. By way of experiment I took these two portraits of women by the two van Loos, Louis-Michel’s of Catherina and Carle’s of Tsarina Elizabeth and digitally cut out two features from their faces for comparison. Here in this abstracted form it was very easy to see that the arc running from the flare of the nostril to the eye brow and the shape of the two organs were more or less equivalent, suggesting a stylistic shorthand – a van Loo studio style.


Was it, as said of the Hollywood Star system, that

the more cultural products are actually standardized the more they appear to be individualized ? (Dominic Strinati)

Between them the van Loo family painted numerous portraits. On the one hand we could claim this as the artist’s mark of originality, as exemplified in the long sculptural faces of El Greco and Amedeo Modigliani. This is different from say the psychological studies of the Dutch realist school; it implies to a certain extent that the fashionable clothing of the sitter was more important in its effect than the verisimilitude in depiction of the face. Indeed often the subject was not a sitter, but taken from an engraving or another painting. Tamara Talbot Rice in her commendable biography of Elizabeth questions whether van Loo had ever set foot in Russia.! (Talbot Rice, p. 170) This is not surprising given the enormous number of commissions that the van Loos undertook, and the risks going to Russia! This was also often a demand of the sitter. Tsarina Elizabeth for example was very unhappy with a 1756 portrait by the artist Jean Louis Tocqué (1696 – 1772) who was unfortunate enough to be present.

EscapeIntoLife_RussianRoyaltyPortraits4Portrait of Tsarina Elizabeth Petrovna, 1756, Jean Louis Tocqué, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

Tocqué flattered his sitters less than the average Court painter. Elizabeth was

displeased with his too-faithful rendering of her short snub-nose, and commanded that it should be lengthened for all subsequent engravings. (Richard Hare)

I actually can see a startling pictorial continuity in the furniture and the royal personage! Not at all flattering either. This might be due to the overlap of attention to the palette selection and the interest in getting the material and textures to be realistic. The folds of the cords for the sash are also repeated in the folds of the dress which seem too sculptural. In Louis-Michel van Loo’s portrait of Catherina we see less heaviness in the palette and the sensation that the material is lighter and freer. Here beauty is on an assembly line.

However this is not quite true because we notice, as do those who look at those Greek sculptures constrained by ideal geometric rules, that nuances in the lines and shading create the personality, just little fractions of deviance from the template hint at their psychological profile. Again this might also be a confirmation of those many guides on physiognomy and character by influential artists like William Hogarth and Sir Josuah Reynolds among many others, or an example of actually “looking” at the sitter.

EscapeIntoLife_RussianRoyaltyPortraits5Portrait of Catherina Golitsyna, first half of 18th century, Louis-Michel van Loo, Pushkin Museum, Moscow

Let’s now look at the Louis-Michel van Loo portrait first mentioned in the opening of this essay. Where is SHE? That is a very important question as ludicrous as it might seem. In the study of the portrait, all manner of visual patterns appear that distract our attention, some quite disconcerting, with the implication of the fetishistic. The artist in modeling often has to make a decision on matters of balance in the composition from the point of the viewer’s perspective – we never see the painting as a whole, we saccade, we focus, and we are really quite dilatory in our duties as receivers of art. We should remember that portraits were for individuals and their circle – patronage requires a lot from an artist, hence the need to paint portraits that convey both status and beauty or distinction, that flatter the individual and meet the approval of the court. We saw how the order bow conveyed allegiance and loyalty, and also establishes the paragon of beauty, as if to say “Though I am beautiful, the person who gave me this order is more beautiful“. We see this on a popular level in those “you can be a supermodel” programmes.

In the case of the Russian court there is a question of lineage. How does the portrait of Princess Catherina fit along the diachronic axis of all previous portraits of the Golitsyna family? And on a synchronic axis how does it compare with portraits of siblings?. Then there is a question of competition and rivalry between the princesses and nobility in the court in their determination to win the affection of Tsarina Elizabeth, and here we see the need for branding and emulation of the latest fashion modes – mostly French. The princess’s clothes, especially the engageantes or false lace sleeves, are signifiers of luxury and good taste. We can see the pattern of the orb – the pearl – becomes emblematic of wealth and beauty. She is surrounded by pearls and we see them nearly everywhere either as pearls proper or as echoes in shape: for example in the pug’s collar, the chair and so forth.

The presence of a harpsichord is important. The Tsarina was very fond of music and in her reign she did everything to promote music. Also Catherina’s family was musical. Her family includes a musicologist, and her husband the prince was a patron of none other than Mozart. Undoubtedly Catherina could play, but it was also intended to show that she had an expensive harpsichord and the leisure to play.

The fetish I mentioned about is to do with the pug. Since the time of Peter the Great pugs in Russia had been a favoured symbol of aristocrats, like the toy breeds of today, and in their proximity to the ladies one could read sometimes an erotic undertone – the hair and nape was an erogenous zone in the eighteenth century, hence those curly locks that fall from her hair, but of course not exactly in the same way as the Tsarina’s! What one feels uncomfortable about is the repetition of those locks into the pug’s tail and the ermine coat. Are we supposed to stroke them! Are we to be aroused by them?  The eighteenth century was obsessed with masses of hair and fur – the century of trichophilia! The ermine (the stoat in its white winter coat) has been hunted for its fur in Russia for centuries. It is a symbol of the royals and hence it is an apt coat for Catherina. It might also signal a Russian or Slavic element in the portrait, because everything else is very European.

EscapeIntoLife_RussianRoyaltyPortraits6Portrait of Princess Ekaterina Dmitrievna Golitsyna, 1757, Jean-Marc Nattier, Puskin Museum, Moscow

In comparison with an earlier portrait by the experienced and elderly court painter Jean-Marc Nattier (1685-1766) we can see that the van Loo portrait differs in many ways. First, the Nattier portrait is plainer, whereas the van Loo is all about being conspicuously wealthy. The only sign of wealth in the Nattier is the necklace draped around her shoulder. This draws the eye to her neck, hidden by pearls in the van Loo. One however can see even in Nattier the studio look. If one had to make a living then one had to find stylistic short cuts – in some ways a style is labour saving! See his portraits here and you can detect the formal similarities and the fashion code.

In the van Loo portrait she is generalized in her features, except for the mouth, which is fascinating. The philtrum or groove between her nose and mouth emphasizes the cupid bow of her upper lip which is larger and a sign of sensuousness. This is less evident in the Nattier portrait, though the general fleshiness of his portrait does connote both healthiness and sexiness. Another important difference is the fact that in the van Loo portrait she looks directly at the viewer, a sure signal of sexuality just short of being a prostitute in art terms (see my essay on the Rococo art on this site)  We could say that van Loo portrait is brash and a show off.

Another look at the plain portrait of the princess reveals that the jewels are subtle, not over the top; they enhance her beauty rather than overwhelm it. Indeed the main focus is on her rather than her clothes.  Despite the hint of her cleavage, it is also conservative. Undoubtedly, the court, which delighted in what we call “bling” today, would prefer the portrait by van Loo, who fulfilled everything required of him. He kowtowed to convention in style and beauty, and painted what a princess should look like. He and his family had being doing that for quite a while.

EscapeIntoLife_RussianRoyaltyPortraits7Portrait of Denis Diderot, 1767, Louis-Michel van Loo, The Louvre, Paris

Here then we come to the portrait of Denis Diderot. The painting turned the writer into an aristocrat – a prince – actually a Secretary of State, and not a philosopher: and this was precisely, from Diderot’s point of view, van Loo’s failure.  Moreover, even though Diderot and Louis-Michel were friends, Diderot was upset that the artist had made him look much younger and given him a half smile that made him look coquettish. (source) As an art critic who regularly visited and reviewed the salons, Diderot knew what he was talking about. It was one of those nightmare critiques where the sitter felt he could do better than the artist.

Unlike in the princess portrait, the artist has here spent a great deal of time modeling the hands, and of course because of Diderot’s fame the likeness has to be more individualistic. Nevertheless the face is rather featureless, a point Diderot disliked. But what really upset Diderot was the impression of wealth that is amplified by the clothes and the writing equipment – it is all silver. The sleeve of his shirt also connotes a certain luxuriousness. One might also think of Goncharov’s character Oblomov and his idleness, which I did and then remembered a portrait used as a book cover,  the 1849-50 painting by Pavel Fedotov (1815-1852).

EscapeIntoLife_RussianRoyaltyPortraits8Untimely Guest (Aristocrat’s Breakfast), 1849-50, Pavel Fedotov, The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Fedotov’s portrait can be usefully compared to another portrait of Diderot this time by the artist Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725 –1805), the genre artist who Diderot approved of – quite rare as Diderot was very discriminating in his taste as witnessed by his entries in the journals he kept diligently while visiting the salons.

EscapeIntoLife_RussianRoyaltyPortraits9Portrait of Denis Diderot, Jean Baptiste Greuze, Private Collection

The portrait by Greuze has more “realism” than the one by van Loo and is modeled in such as a way to give more prominence to the contours of the face and neck. The neck especially is better executed than the van Loo. One has a sense of the life – and here an analogy would be the difference between a character in a comedy of manners, who is more of a character, a reduction, than an individual as in later plays, in the move toward realism. Both portraits are without the wig thankfully from Diderot’s point of view. Here also the half-smile that was standard in almost all the portraits, especially those of women, is absent.

It is Diderot’s critique that sets the scene for the new schools of realism and social realism, that the Russian artists were already cognizant of in the eighteenth century.  These home-grown artists were rare in the eighteenth century, most of the court artists were brought in from Europe and painted in the studio style. The Russian sensibility was such that they aimed for pictorial honesty. As Richard Hare writes of Aleksey Petrovich Antropov’s portraits:

These are powerful, personally expressive, compact, and often elegant, but free from the more trivial refinements and mannered gallicisms current in Elisabeth’s reign. (Ibid., p. 115)

Yet ironically, this realism was achieved through the study of his tutor Louis Caravaque and his portraits of Elizabeth. Indeed Caravaque (1684-1754), who had painted portraits of her father and her sister from 1715 onwards, had won, after Elizabeth’s accession, the commission to paint fourteen portraits – of which eight were completed – for the embassies. Prints from his paintings were presumably used as models for painters who did not paint her from life.

EscapeIntoLife_RussianRoyaltyPortraits10Portrait of Empress Elizabeth I, 1742, Louis Caravaque, Private Collection

EscapeIntoLife_RussianRoyaltyPortraits11Portrait of  Elizabeth of Russia, (1740s?), Aleksy Antropov,  Russian State Museum, St.Petersburg

EscapeIntoLife_RussianRoyaltyPortraits12Portrait of Empress Elizaveta Petrovna, 1750-1760, Aleksey Antropov, The Tula Regional Art Museum, Tula

His portraits of Tsarina Elizabeth, though stylized, are interesting here because they absolutely do not flatter her at all unlike a van Loo studio production.  Indeed her clothes  – of which she was so inordinately proud – do her no justice either.  One cannot imagine her caring for either of these portraits. Yet this was how the artist Antropov (1716-1795) saw her, and despite the elements of stylization, we see the elements of realism, and perhaps in its roughness an echo of his training in icon painting.

Compare these with another work:

EscapeIntoLife_RussianRoyaltyPortraits13 Portrait of Tsarina Elizabeth, Vigilius Eriksen

This could be halfway between a van Loo portrait and Antropov’s work. It is by the Danish artist Vigilius Eriksen (1722-1782) painted between 1757 and 1762, the year of her death. Finally, another Russian artist Ivan Yakovlevich Vishnyakov (1699–1761)  painted this portrait of her in 1743.

EscapeIntoLife_RussianRoyaltyPortraits14Portrait of Empress Elizaveta Petrovna, 1743, Ivan Yakovlevich Vishnyakov, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

That particular painting has an uncanny resemblance to the one by Caravaque which we saw earlier in this essay and which was one of his commissioned fourteen:

EscapeIntoLife_RussianRoyaltyPortraits15Portrait of Empress Elizabeth I, 1742, Louis Caravaque, Private Collection

Though Vishnyakov had French tutoring, his portrait also seems, like Antropov’s, to be both similar to an icon and realistic. The aesthetic statement and credo of social realism was not published until 1855 when N.G. Cheryshevsky published his doctoral dissertation The Aesthetic Relations of Art to Reality. Diderot however, in his reaction to van Loo’s portrait, had already anticipated its main point.

It was Andropov’s pupil Dmitry Grigoryevich Levitsky (1735-1822) who put Russian portraiture on the same level as the visting artists. He had mastered the virtuosity in painting and drawing that had been lacking, yet at the same time his work was quintessentially Russian. If we compare Livitsky’s portrait of Catherine II (Catherine the Great, 1729-1796) with the one which precedes it below by Fyodor Rotokov (1736- 1808), an equally talented artist, we can see the dialectic that runs right through Russian and Western art from the Rococo to the Russian Revolution, that of the academic versus the realistic.

EscapeIntoLife_RussianRoyaltyPortraits16Portrait of Catherine the Great, 1763, Fedor Rokotov, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

As Alpatov says in his book, Levitzky “while paying tribute to the recognized rhetoric of contemporary portraiture” manages to enter into the sitter’s personality or being, and even though his Catherine is in a pose of a Greek statue, her humanity, or rather who she is, shines through. Here the form gives way to expressing the inner self and in this he was similar to the much later schools of realism in Russia.

This gives to the paintings of Levitzky those very qualities which Diderot expected to find in the budding art of Russia – there was no languor or flattery in them.  (Mikhail Alpatov, Russian Impact on Art)

EscapeIntoLife_RussianRoyaltyPortraits17Portrait of Catherine II the Legislatress in the Temple Devoted to the Godess of Justice, early 1780s, Dmitry Levitzky, Tretyaktov

Of the numerous portraits of Elizabeth, one portrait mentioned by Talbot Rice stands out as a particlar favourite of mine; it is by Count Pietro Antonio Rotari (1707  – 1762). Rotari specialized in painting peasant girls and women  – over eight hundred portraits of which three hundred commssioned for the Peterhof by Elizabeth – a theme which was popular among the owners and was to influence the various realist schools later. He painted Elizabeth in a pose that is strikingly intimate and feminine, unlike say, the equestrian portrait of her by Georg Christoph Grooth (1716-1749) which precedes it below.

EscapeIntoLife_RussianRoyaltyPortraits18Elizaveta with Black Servant,1743, Georg Christoph Grooth, Hermitage Musuem, Moscow

EscapeIntoLife_RussianRoyaltyPortraits19Empress Elizabeth, ca. 1756-61, Pietro Rotari

A very useful site for those who wish to see more portraits of Russian Royals and details about the clothes is here and you can find out more  about Tsarina Elizabeth here and here.

Stephen Pain was born in London in 1956. He studied art at Herefordshire College, later went to UEA and studied literature. He worked abroad then came back to do a law degree. He has had poetry published in New Poetry, Snakeskin, Dada and Pif among others. He is currently a researcher in zoosemiotics based in Denmark.

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