The fate of the Tsar’s portrait in the Duma

PHOTO: Ceremonial portrait of Nicholas II (1905) in the State Duma. Artist: Ilya Repin

NOTE: this article was updated on 20th May 2021 – PG

When in 1905 the Winter Garden in the Tauride Palace in St. Petersburg was converted into the State Duma Hall, it was decided to decorate it with a huge portrait of Nicholas II. The great Russian portrait artist Ilya Yefimovich Repin (1844-1930) was commissioned for the job. The artist quickly coped with the task, and the treasury paid him a fabulous sum of three thousand rubles. The portrait was installed behind the podium and seats for the leadership of the Duma.

Repin’s portrait depicts the Tsar standing on a balcony [possibly the Lower Dacha at Peterhof?]. Information on this portrait is scant, which is surprising, given that the artist was considered the most renowned Russian artist of the 19th century, and had painted a number of ceremonial portraits of the Emperor.

In 1916 Repin worked on his book of reminiscences, Far and Near, in which he acknowledges that he welcomed the Russian Revolution of February 1917. This is very disappointing to learn, given that he did not seem to mind accepting the enormous sums he was paid for the numerous portraits he did of Nicholas II after he ascended the throne in 1894.

So little is known about this wonderful portrait, however, my efforts to learn more about its fate, left me with practically nothing. I could not find any reference to the portrait in any of the online sites dedicated to Repin’s works. The only reference I could find was an article on the State Duma found on the web site of the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Library in St. Petersburg. Only a handful of photographs exist of the portrait.

In 2019, a large-scale exhibition of Repin’s works was presented at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The exhibition, located on 3 floors in the largest exhibition halls, featured more than 180 paintings and more than 130 graphic works. Repin’s ceremonial portrait was absent, nor was there any reference made to it.

In May 1918, the Bolsheviks used the Tauride Palace to hold their 7th Congress, where they first named themselves the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks). It is most likely that Nicholas II’s portrait had been removed by the Provisional Government following the February 1917 Revolution. If not, it would most certainly have been destroyed by the Bolsheviks.

After an appeal to readers for information on the fate of the portrait, Mr. Robert Strom reached out to me, providing me with an eyewitness account of the fate of Repin’s ceremonial portrait which hung in the Duma.

The diarist Nikolai Nikolaevich Sukhanov (1882-1940) a Russian Menshevik Internationalist and chronicler of the Russian Revolution was a witness to the fate of the portrait. Sukhanov, who was napping in the gallery of the White Hall of the Tauride Palace was awaken by an unforgettable scene on the dais below:

“I was aroused by strange noises. I realized at once where I was, but could not explain these sounds to myself. I got up and saw two soldiers, their bayonets hooked into the canvas of Repin’s portrait of Nicholas II, rhythmically tugging it down from both sides. A minute later, over the chairman’s seat in the White Hall of the Duma there was an empty frame, which for many months continued to yawn in this revolutionary hall. …Strange ! It never came into my head to worry about the fate of this portrait –to this day I don’t know what happened to it. I was more interested in other things.

“A number of soldiers were standing on the upper levels of the chamber, at the height of my gallery. Leaning on their rifles they watched what their comrades were doing and quietly made their own comments. I went over to them and listened eagerly. …Twenty-four hours before, these rank-and-file soldiers had been the dumb slaves of the despot who was now thrown down, and at this moment the outcome of the revolution depended on them. What had taken place in their heads during those twenty-four hours ? What would they say to the shameful treatment of the portrait of the ‘adored monarch’ of yesterday ? It evidently made no strong impression –there was neither surprise, nor any sign of intense intellectual activity, nor a shadow of that enthusiasm from which even I myself was ready to catch fire. They were making remarks in a tranquil and matter-of-fact way, so down-to-earth they can’t be repeated. The break had been accomplished with a sort of fabulous ease. No better sign was needed of the definitive rottenness of Tsarism and its irremediable ruin. The hands of the large clock over the entrance doors of the hall pointed to 7.30. It was time to begin the ‘Second Day of the Revolution’.”

PHOTO: the ‘gaping yawn of chaos’

I am indebted to Mr. Robert Strom for his much valued assistance with this piece of Russian history.

© Paul Gilbert. 16 May 2021

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