A tale of three portraits of Russia’s last tsar

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History has preserved thousands of photographs and dozens of portraits of Nicholas II. The most titled artists of their time were honoured to paint the tsar’s portrait. Among them were both Russian and foreign artists, such as Ilya Repin, Valentin Serov, Boris Kustodiev, Lauritz Tuxen – and many others. Each master captured his own vision of the emperor on canvas. This article explores three of the most famous portraits of Russia’s last emperor and tsar by two of Russia’s most famous portrait artists: Ilya Repin and Valentin Serov.

Portrait of Emperor Nicholas II by Ilya Repin (1895)

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The above portrait of His Majesty the Sovereign Emperor Nicholas II was painted in 1895 by Ilya Yefimovich Repin (1844-1930) by order of the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, mother of Nicholas. Up until 1917, the portrait hung in the Mariinsky Palace in St. Petersburg, in the very hall where meetings of the State Duma took place.

After the revolution, the painting was considered lost. It “surfaced” in the early 1980s in the collection of the famous St. Petersburg collector Nikolai Kozhevnikov. He claimed that he had found it during the Great Patriotic War (1941-45) in a garbage dump.

It is believed that many other works of art from the Tsarist period believed to be “lost” have in fact been squirreled away by private Russian collectors, all of whom are well aware of their historic value. This offers a ray of hope that other Romanov treasures may have survived the ravages of revolution and war, including the missing Faberge Imperial Eggs. 

In his letters, Repin recalled: “Last week, three sessions took place, that is, on Monday, the 28th, – the first session, one and a half hours; Tuesday, – an hour and half; and an hour yesterday. I arrived at the palace an hour earlier. The emperor comes at two o’clock, the empress accompanies him every time and stays here all the time during work.” Later he added: “I finished the Sovereign’s portrait; there were a total of seven sessions. The sovereign posed poorly, however, everyone likes my portrait and do not criticize.” This portrait was painted shortly after Nicholas II ascended the Russian throne following the death of his father Alexander III.

This portrait of Nicholas II is now in the Collection of the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.

Portrait of Emperor Nicholas II by Valentin Serov (1902)

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This portrait by Valentin Alexandrovich Serov (1865-1911), depicts the Emperor in the full uniform of Colonel-in-Chief (honourary head of the regiment) of the Royal Scots Greys. In 1902, Nicholas II ordered the artist Valentin Serov to paint the portrait as a gift to the regiment – one of the most famous in the United Kingdom.

Nicholas II was awarded this honour by Queen Victoria on the occasion of the wedding of her granddaughter Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine to the future Emperor of Russia. The portrait hangs in the Royal Scots Guards Regiment Museum in Edinburgh, Scotland. The ceremonial uniform is now in the Collection of the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum-Reserve.

Portrait of Emperor Nicholas II by Valentin Serov (1900)

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The artist Valentin Alexandrovich Serov (1865-1911) created the home portrait of Nicholas II, as a gift to Empress Alexandra Fedorovna in just two sittings with the emperor.

The original version of this portrait did not survive: the revolutionaries who stormed the Winter Palace destroyed the canvas with bayonets.

Thankfully, Serov, having just barely finished the portrait in 1900, immediately made a copy of it. He was worried about the fate of the painting, because the Empress did not like it very much. During his sessions with the Emperor, Alexandra Feodorovna closely watched the artist and generously distributed advice on how to “correct” the face of Nicholas II in the portrait. In the end, Valentin Serov could not stand it, handed the empress the palette with brushes and invited her to finish the work herself!

Some art historians believe that this portrait of Nicholas II looks incomplete: noting that it was painted with wide free strokes without subtle light transitions, the details of the canvas were not worked out. But the execution of the portrait itself reflects Serov’s vision, who (again) according to art historians wanted to depict a man who was tired in his service to Russia – although this remains highly unlikely. The canvas does not have the usual attributes of other royal portraits, which often include solemn interiors, ceremonial clothing, etc. Nicholas II is depicted in the jacket of the Preobrazhensky Life Guards Regiment, which he proudly wore every day.

The copy of the portrait is now part of the Collection of the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

* * *

Nicholas II. Portraits by Paul Gilbert

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Published in 2019, this is the first book of its kind ever published! Nicholas II. Portraits by independent researcher Paul Gilbert explores a century of portraits of Russia’s last emperor and tsar.

It features beautiful colour covers, 140 pages, and richly illustrated with 175 black and white photographs, (many full-page), with detailed and informative captions.

This unique title features an introduction, as well as numerous short articles, including: Serov’s Unfinished 1900 Portrait of Nicholas II; A Nun’s Gift to Russia’s New Tsar. The Fate of a Portrait; Galkin’s Ceremonial Portrait of Nicholas II Discovered; and more!

Famous portraits and their respective artists are all represented, including Serov, Repin, Lipgart, Tuxen, Bakmanson, Becker, Bogdanov-Belsky, Kustodiev, among others.

The last section (28 pages) of the book is dedicated to the works of contemporary Russian artists, who have painted outstanding portraits of Nicholas II since the fall of the Soviet Union.

It is interesting to note that my research for this book was primarily from Russian sources, and I discovered portraits which were new, even to me!

Price: $25 + postage. Click HERE to order your copy of Nicholas II. Portraits

© Paul Gilbert. 5 July 2020

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