State Hermitage Museum restores rare portrait of Nicholas II

PHOTO: “as if in a misty haze, one could discern the face of Emperor Nicholas II”

In 2018, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg in cooperation with the Russian-American Cultural and Educational Society ‘Rodina’, embarked on a joint project headed by Candidate of Cultural Studies Viktor Faibisovich, on the restoration of a little-known portrait of Russia’s last tsar.

In 2004, a Moscow collector brought the portrait from the United States to the State Hermitage Museum, after discovering it in the Russian-American Cultural and Educational Society Museum.

The Rodina Society was founded in 1954 by Russian émigrés in Lakewood, New York. The head of Rodina, O.M. Krumins, noted that the portrait was brought from Paris in the late 1950s among other rarities of the Life Guards of the Semyonovsky, Izmailovsky and Pavlovsky regiments, the Nikolaevsky cavalry and the Konstantinovsky artillery schools.

The portrait was in a terrible state, nearly destroyed after years of neglect. Within the remnants of the layer of paint, covered with numerous craquelures [a network of fine cracks in the paint or varnish of a painting], as if in a misty haze, one could discern the face of Emperor Nicholas II, distorted by a deep vertical fracture. But the portrait was in such a terrible state as the canvas had remained rolled up for almost half a century.

The restoration was entrusted to the masters of the Russian Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in St. Petersburg . It was established that Nicholas II was depicted in the ceremonial uniform of the Semenovsky Life Guards Regiment. The emperor was appointed chief of this regiment in 1894. Scrupulous attribution made it possible to establish that the portrait was made no earlier than 1896.

But how did it end up in Paris in the middle of the 20th century?

The photos show the various stages of restoration of the portrait

Semenovsky order

The portrait was commissioned by the officers of the Semyonovsky Life Guards Regiment, and hung in the dining room of the officers’ Assembly Hall. A certificate to confirm this was left by an officer of the regiment Yu.V. Makarov: “This dining room, the largest room in the Assembly, was so large that it could accommodate 130-150 diners. On the wall opposite from the entrance, right in the middle, hung a large half-length portrait of the sovereign founder of the regiment, Emperor Peter the Great, in dark oak In a quadrangular frame, the emperor was depicted in a green caftan, with a blue Semyonov collar. Two smaller portraits of Emperor Nicholas II in our uniform and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna in oval gold frames were positioned on either side of Peter’s portrait.”

The officers’ Assembly Hall was the center of regimental life. It was from here that in August 1914 the Semyonovsky Life Guards Regiment set out for battle. During the First World War, the regiment lost 48 officer. Then, in March 1917, the regiment lost its sovereign chief Nicholas II. In April, Colonel Alexander Vladimirovich Popov (1880-1963) was appointed the last Commander of the Semenovsky Life Guards Regiment.

It is to him that we owe the preservation of the portrait of Nicholas II.

PHOTO: Colonel Alexander Vladimirovich Popov (1880-1963)
Last Commander of the Semenovsky Life Guards Regiment

In December 1917, the Semyonovsky Life Guards regiment was disbanded. All military ranks, in accordance with the Decree of the Soviets of Workers ‘and Soldiers’ Deputies on the destruction of estates and civilian ranks, were ordered to remove their shoulder straps and hold elections for commanding officers in the new Semyonovsky Guards Regiment. Popov refused to participate in the elections, and transferred the interim duties of commander to Colonel N.K. von Essen (1885-1945). On 10th December 1917 left for Petrograd, taking with him the portrait of Emperor Nicholas II.

The photos show the various stages of restoration of the portrait

Preserved memory

Popov was one of the initiators of the formation of guards units in the White movement. The revived Semyonovsky Life Guards Regiment fought in the South of Russia. Alexander Vladimirovich carried the portrait of the last sovereign chief through the entire Civil War.

In 1919 he emigrated to France and lived in Paris, where he headed the Association of the Semyonovsky Life Guards Regiment in France, was a member of the Union of Zealots in memory of Emperor Nicholas II, the Society of Lovers of Russian Military Antiquity, the Union of Russian Cadet Corps, and an honorary member of the Union of Transfiguration. Popov also served as director of the regimental museum, in which he sacredly kept the portrait of Nicholas II. In the late 1950s, when it became more and more difficult to preserve museum exhibits, they were transferred to the United States.

A few years later, 82-year-old Colonel Popov passed away. In the magazine Sentinel under the heading “Unforgotten graves” was placed a modest mention: “On March 28, 1963, the chairman of the Association of the Semenovsky Life Guards Regiment, the last commander of the regiment, Colonel Alexander Vladimirovich Popov, died in Paris.”

He was buried in the Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois Cemetery in Paris.

PHOTO: the portrait of Nicholas II, after restoration

After the death of the collector who brought the portrait of Nicholas II to Moscow, the portrait was donated to the Museum of the Russian Guard in the General Staff Building [across from the State Hermitage Museum] in St. Petersburg.

PHOTO: the restored portrait of Nicholas II displayed in the Winter Palace in 2018

On 17th July 2018, the day marking the 100th anniversary of the death and martyrdom of Russia’s last emperor and tsar, a Divine Liturgy was performed in the Church of the Savior Not Made by Hands [the home church of the Imperial Family] in the Winter Palace, led by the rector of the Prince Vladimir Cathedral, Archpriest Vladimir Sorokin. The restored portrait of Nicholas II by an unknown artist of the late 19th-early 20th centuries was displayed in the cathedral. Popov would have been pleased.

© Paul Gilbert. 1 September 2021


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