Controversy over portrait of Empress Alexandra Fedorovna in Pavlovsk

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Portrait of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. Artist: A. Muller-Norden. Canvas, oil. 1896

This lovely portrait of the Empress Alexandra Fedorovna is among my favourites. It reflects the Empress’s youth and beauty, years before the burdens of Court life and her son’s illness took their toll on her health.

Before the 1917 Revolution, the portrait hung in the Tsar’s Reception Room in the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo. It is currently in the collection of the Pavlovsk State Museum.

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Muller-Norden originally hung in the tsar’s Reception Room in the Alexander Palace

Given that neither Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna lived at Pavlovsk, how did this portrait end up the palace-museum collection?

‘In 1951 a government decision handed the Alexander Palace to the Ministry of Defense. The Naval Department used the building as a top-secret, submarine tracking research institute of the Baltic Fleet. As a result, the former palace would be strictly off-limits to visitors for the next 45 years.

‘The palace’s stocks that were among the evacuated items in the Central Repository of Museum Stocks from the Suburban Palace-Museums passed to the Pavlovsk Palace Museum. A total of 5,615 items were moved from the palace to Pavlovsk. Of these, nearly 200 pieces were originally from the Alexander Palaces’ three ceremonial halls: the Portrait, Semi-Circular and Marble Halls. These include 39 pieces of porcelain, 41 paintings, 73 decorative bronze pieces, and 28 pieces of furniture.’

Source: ‘My Russia. The Rebirth of the Alexander Palace’ by Paul Gilbert. Published in ‘Royal Russia No. 3 (2013), pgs. 1-11

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and in particular since the restoration of the Alexander Palace, the return of these objects has been a bone of contention between the two palace-museums. During a visit to Pavlovsk several years ago, I raised the subject with one of the Directors at Pavlovsk. “If we return these exhibits to the Alexander Palace, then we [Pavlovsk] will have nothing,” he declared.

Personally, I believe that Pavlovsk have a moral responsibility to return all of the items transferred there in 1951. Their history belongs to the Alexander Palace. It seems that the Minister of Culture of the Russian Federation Vladimir Medinsky will have the final say. Let us hope that he does the right thing, and order the return of these items to the Alexander Palace, where they can be put on display in the rooms from which they originated.

© Paul Gilbert. 20 August 2019

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