Art of the Romanov Dynasty
Part 3: 1796 - 1881


This is a four-part lecture on the art of the Romanov Dynasty. To tell this story I am using artwork created during the time of each Romanov tsar and artwork painted years after their deaths. Starting in 1862 Russian artists began drawing on the rich folklore and historical events of their country’s past. By placing these historical paintings into this story their artwork now has context and brings to life the Romanov Dynasty.

The first 100 years of the Romanov Dynasty was a period of barbarianism as Russia struggled through the Middle Ages for hundreds of years longer than Europe. The next hundred years is a time of westernization for Russia as the foundation is put in place for the future of Russian art. In Part 3 we see how Russian artists are able to flourish and for the first time compete amongst their European contemporaries. 

Portrait of Paul I and Maria Feodorovna by Alexander Roslin, 1777
Portrait of Paul I and Maria Feodorovna by Alexander Roslin, 1777

Paul I 

The life story of Paul I (1754-1801) reads much the same as Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The only son of Peter III (1728-1762) and Catherine II (1729-1796), Paul was taken from his mother at birth to be raised by his aunt Empress Elizabeth (1709-1762). Never having had children of her own, Elizabeth often left Paul unsupervised as a baby allowing him to roll out of his crib and spend the night on the floor. When Paul was seven years old, on January 5, 1762, Elizabeth died of a stroke. Six months later Paul’s father, Peter III, was overthrown by his mother Catherine II and subsequently killed by one of her guards Alexei Orlov (1737–1808). From this moment on every move that Paul made had to be approved by his mother. When Paul was nineteen, in 1773, Catherine arranged for his marriage to a German princess who took the Russian name of Natalia Alexeievna (1755-1776). Natalia died in childbirth three years later. It soon became clear to Catherine that Paul wanted power, including a separate court. There was talk of having both Paul and his mother co-rule Russia. Catherine narrowly avoided this by arranging for Paul to marry his second wife, Maria Feodorovna (1759-1828), less than six months after the death of his first wife. This was a happy marriage and Maria gave birth to ten children who carried on the Romanov dynasty for the next one-hundred-and-fifty-years. Swedish artist Alexander Roslin (1718-1793) came to Russia and painted a charming diptych of Paul and his new bride in 1777; creating one of the few portraits ever painted of Paul. Roslin also painted a portrait of Catherine II and other notable Russian aristocrats between 1775 and 1777. Catherine tried to persuade him to stay in her service, but Roslin declined and returned to France.

“Holy Family with St. Elizabeth and John-the-Baptist” by Pompeo Batoni (1777),  State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
“Holy Family with St. Elizabeth and John-the-Baptist” by Pompeo Batoni (1777), State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

After the birth of their first child, Alexander (1777-1825), Catherine subsequently granted Paul and his new wife leave to travel through western Europe. In 1782, the couple purchased Holy Family with St. Elizabeth and John the Baptist (1777) directly from artist Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787) as a gift for Catherine II. Batoni had kept this work in his studio in Rome for nearly five years and it is characteristic of his painting style with its smooth application of paint, use of color and skill in rendering. The central figures depict the Madonna passing the Child to St. Elizabeth with John the Baptist playing a distant role. This is a very different approach than seen in similar works, it is much more down to earth and softer in coloring, almost like a scene from a genre painting. The table at which Joseph sits is covered with a carpet and decorated with a bouquet of roses and lilies. Both flowers are symbols of the Madonna, but the bouquet also gives a sense of intimacy to the room in which this family scene is set. Today this painting, part of the collection at the State Hermitage Museum, represents the greatest contribution to art that Paul made in his lifetime.  

“Military Parade of Emperor Paul in Front of Mikhailovsky Castle” by Alexandre Benois, 1907
“Military Parade of Emperor Paul in Front of Mikhailovsky Castle” by Alexandre Benois, 1907

In 1783, upon the couple’s return from Europe Catherine II granted Paul another estate at Gatchina, where he was allowed to maintain a brigade of soldiers whom he drilled on the unpopular Prussian model. Equally unpopular were his attempts to reform the Russian army. Paul decided to fulfil his father’s intention by introducing Prussian uniforms, which were impractical for active duty and required great effort to maintain. Soldiers had to keep their hair at a certain length and their jackets had to fit perfectly, otherwise they would be punished. Soldiers actually had to dress in wet uniforms so that they would dry on their bodies with no wrinkles. He ordered Wachtparad (Watch parades) to take place early every morning, regardless of the weather conditions. He would personally sentence soldiers to be flogged if they made a mistake, and on one occasion ordered guards of a regiment to march literally to Siberia after they became disordered during maneuvers. He attempted to reform the organization of the army in 1796 by introducing The Infantry Codes, a series of guidelines for the army based largely upon show and glamour. But his greatest commander, Alexander Suvorov (1729-1800), completely ignored these guidelines, believing them to be worthless. Years later Russian artist Alexandre Benois (1870-1960) created the painting above, Military Parade of Emperor Paul in Front of Mikhailovsky Castle (1907), as a mockery of Paul’s pageantry. 

“Russian troops under Generalissimo Suvorov crossing the Alps in 1799”  by Vasily Surikov (1899)
“Russian troops under Generalissimo Suvorov crossing the Alps in 1799” by Vasily Surikov (1899)

On November 17, 1796 Catherine died of a stroke. One of Paul’s first act as emperor was to create the Pauline Laws, which established a strict principle of primogeniture in the House of Romanov, leaving the throne to the next male heir. Paul’s early foreign policy can largely be seen as reactions against his mother’s desire for expansion, except when it came to the French. Paul hated the French and knew French expansion would hurt Russian interests. In 1799, he declared war on the French and sent troops to meet them in the Italian and Swiss campaigns of the French Revolutionary Wars. For this campaign Paul put Suvorov in charge because of his record of never losing a single battle. Years later Russian artist Vasily Surikov (1848-1916) created an epic painting, Russian Troops under Generalissimo Suvorov crossing the Alps in 1799 (1899), that measures 16’ tall and 12’ wide. As a viewer standing in front of this painting, over twice your height, you are forced to look up to see the men of the Russian army falling towards you as they run for their lives to escape destruction of the larger and stronger French forces. Despite the heroic feats of Suvorov, overall the campaigns remained fruitless for Russia and the scene was set for further confrontation between Russia and France.

Portrait of Paul I by Vladimir Borovikovsky, 1796
Portrait of Paul I by Vladimir Borovikovsky, 1796

Paul lived in the shadow of his mother, Catherine the Great, his entire life. Upon her death in 1796 he ruled Russia for a little less than five years, until he was murdered on March 23, 1801. Paul had premonitions of his assassination. Vasily Vasilyev (b.1757), a monk who took the name of Abel, predicted Paul’s reign would be short and the actual day of his death. Knowing he didn’t have much time Paul was manic in his behavior, producing over seven-thousand acts of legislation, more than any other tsar in the history of Russia. He was the most liberal of all the tsars to date in his rule. He directed reforms that resulted in greater rights for the peasantry and provided for better treatment for serfs on agricultural estates, most of his policies were viewed as a great annoyance to the noble class and induced his enemies to work out a plan of action. Over three-hundred nobles conspired to kill him. First compelling him to sign a document of abdication, but when Paul refused, he was killed. The twenty-three-year-old Alexander I, Paul’s son and successor, was in the palace along with French artist Élizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), who actually witnessed Paul’s death. The evening of his death the people of St. Petersburg went wild with joy, dancing and singing in the streets.