Romanovs – Outstanding Figures of the Epochs
31.10.2012 - 30.11.2012
Tallinn, Roseni 8, Rotermann’s square.
A vast exhibition of portraits of the Russian tsars and their family members from Estonian art collections was exhibited in the Kadriorg Art Museum in 2006/7. The exhibit surprised by the large amount of well-preserved artworks despite the storms of history. The multitude is due to the law-abidingness and honesty of the local municipalities: they kept account of all the property, including the portraits of the rulers, which were not written off but were deposited in the best thinkable storage space – the museum. Mostly in the Art Museum, but in the predecessor of today’s Estonian History Museum – the Provincial Museum founded in 1864 as well. Honouring the history and traditions was also important to other organisations such as the Brotherhood of Blackheads, who started their collection already in the 17th century. Its glory is the portrait of Tsar Mikhail Fyodorovich – the founder of the Romanov dynasty. It was donated by Tallinn citizens Lorenz von Aken and Evert Cahl. Its appearance in Tallinn is connected to the second voyage to Muscovy and the Persian Empire in 1635-1639 supported by the Duke of Holstein-Gottorp Frederick III and lead by Adam Olearius. The voyage is also connected to the concurrent portraits of Shah Safi of Persia and the Duke Frederick III in the Brotherhood of Blackheads’ art collection, which has grown more and more since that time and now belongs to the Tallinn City Museum.
Another important collection of ruler portraits belongs to the Narva Museum and is partly being exhibited at the Narva Art Gallery just as the Brotherhood of Blackheads’ collection is being exhibited at the Tallinn City Museum in Vene Street and at its branch Peter I House Museum in Kadriorg. The core of Narva’s collection is in the former Peter I House Museum that was founded by Empress Catherine I in Narva in1725 as a memorial museum for Peter I. This collection is most valued for its 18th century ruler portraits, but for its 17th-19th century citizen-portraits as well. The most important artworks from the point of view of local art in Narva Museum are the "Portrait of Catherine I painted by Johann Heinrich Wedekind, an artist from Tallinn, and the portrait of Empress Anna Ivanovna that is also attributed to him. Wedekind came to Tallinn form Lübeck – the city that has played an important role in the local art life since the Middle Ages, and worked in Saint Petersburg since the middle of the 1720s.
In the 18th century Saint Petersburg – the new capital of Russia, became a popular destination for artists from all over Europe, mainly Germany. One of them was Georg Christoph Grooth from Stuttgart, who visited Tallinn on his way to Saint Petersburg. As the court painter to Empress Yelizaveta Petrovna he painted many elegant and delicate equestrian portraits as it was distinctive for the rococo style. His portrait "Empress Yelizaveta Petrovna with a Negro boy" even became a prototype of the porcelain figurines made at the Meissen porcelain manufactory and his popular equestrian portraits were copied by other artists. Two of these are in the Art Museum of Estonia: the "Empress Catherine I with a Negro Boy" which copyist is unknown and the "Grand Duchess Yekaterina Alexeevna" copied by Kirill Ivanovich Golovachevsky. It may be difficult to recognize the original that the copy is based on as it is the case in the parade-portrait of Peter I wearing an ermine robe with regalia and a sea view in the background. There are five exemplars of this portrait type in Estonia, furthermore, the type is unknown in Russia. This may have a possible connection with the French artist Louis Caravaque who worked in the Russian court since 1715 and who has painted Peter I from nature twice – in 1716 in Saint Petersburg and in Astrakhan in 1722. The 1722nd year painting has gone missing.
The ruler portrait is a genre of representational art. It first arose thousands of years ago together with the formation of states in Mesopotamia and the Nile Valley. Since that the genre has evolved and changed, survived downfalls and prosperity. But there have always been specific requirements to the ruler portrait. It has to emphasize the dignity, majesty and solemnity of the person depicted in the painting, and of course the similarity, but cannot give a profound psychological specification. Only very great artists could do that. For example Titian when he painted Emperor Charles V, or Diego Velázquez when he portrayed Pope Innocent X, or Francisco Goya portraying King Charles IV and his family. Many court painters had to consider the wishes of their clients, mostly good artists, whose portraits were an example to numerous copyists, because the ruler portraits were required in different institutions and in case of different events in all over the country. In the 18th century Italian Giovanni Battista Lampi was in favour as a court portraitist in Austria and Russia. In the beginning of the 19th century Englishman George Dawe and Prussian Franz Krüger were important portraitists in Russia. In the middle of the 19th century painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter of Schwarzwald was famous all over Europe. The demand for ruler portraits also brought about local painters, for example Carl Siegismund Walther, the drawing teacher of Tallinn Cathedral School.
Perhaps, in a modern democratic society, the conventionality of royal portraits can be seen with a certain irony. However, the rulers have made history as the characteristic figures of epochs. When we talk about the era of Peter or Yelizaveta, Catherine or Nicholas, then it is clear that we are talking about the reign of Emperor Peter I, Empresses Yelizaveta Petrovna and Catherine II or Emperor Nicholas I, and each of these periods represent a particular stage in the development of Russia, just as the reign of Elizabeth I in England or Louis XIV in France. An epoch can also be characterized by these “blue bloods”, who never became a crowned head. In the exhibit there is a typical sentimental engraving – a stipple engraving intimate portrait of Russian Grand Duchess and the Archduchess of
Austria Alexandra Pavlovna (1783-1801), which is engraved by Johann Georg Mansfeld after the painting of Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, who had fled revolutionary France to Austria and Russia. The fragile girl depicted on the engraving was the daughter of Paul I, whose engagement to Gustav IV Adolf of Sweden foundered, because the king did not allow his destined bride liberty of worship. Instead she married Joseph the Archduke of Austria and Palatine of Hungary. It was in the interests of the alliance between Russia and Austria against the French Republic – in other words she was sacrificed to politics. The Austrian court did not make young Alexandra welcome and she was homesick. In 1801 the 17-year old Archduchess died in Pest after a difficult childbirth that also took the life of her daughter. The fate was not better to her sister Elena Pavlovna (1784-1803), who almost at the same time was betrothed to Hereditary Prince Friedrich of Mecklenburg-Schwerin and died before her 19th birthday. They shared the fate of many women of that era, whose marriages were decisions of their parents, who were seen only as producers of heirs and whose feelings interested no one despite the “sentimental” epoch.
Just like the historical researches about the rulers, which are based on documentary sources, and the biographical novels dedicated to them, the portraits also have an important value as a document despite their conventionality, and it grows as we know more and more about the rulers. The persons on the throne and near it cannot all be treated the same way. For example the Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich (1847-1909), who as the son of Alexander II and the brother of Alexander III, had no prospect of becoming the heir to the throne. Eventually, Nicholas II appointed his son, the Grand Duke Cyril Vladimirovich, as the third in the line of succession to the Imperial Throne. In 1924 the emigrants and monarchists declared him Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russians. Vladimir Alexandrovich dedicated not only to his military career, but was also a patron, an art collector and the President of Imperial Academy of Arts. The etching (1901) where he is depicted by the outstanding Russian engraver and art teacher Vasily Vasilyevich Maté can be seen in the exhibit. The portrait of the young Grand Duke painted by Johann Köler in 1877 is still on the wall in the conference room of the Academy. Johann Köler – the founder of Estonian national art, was an important portraitist in the Russian court and created about 30 portraits of Alexander II, Alexander III and Nicholas II, their wives and other attendants.
Estonia does not have a National Portrait Gallery like there is in England or Sweden. Some of the ruler portraits are exhibited in several museums, but there are no permanent or historically consistent exhibitions. The temporary exhibits tend to be forgotten, in spite of how extensive they are. That is why it is a pleasant opportunity to refresh one’s memory, look at old portraits and contemplate on the passing time that they represent.