Of German, French and Italian ancestry, Benois was born in 1870 in St Petersburg and enjoyed a notably rich cultural upbringing, drawing upon his family's library, the educated minds of his brothers and father and frequent journeys abroad. Indeed, as he later recalled, the seeds of The promenade of Empress Elizaveta Petrovna were sown in his childhood: 'for my entire life I retained the childhood memory of three engravings from the Makhaev Album with views of Tsarskoe Selo. I was particularly drawn to an extensive fold-out page depicting the façade of the palace with the Empress on promenade with a team of 20 horses'. A renaissance man, Benois's talents were extensive: painting, theatrical design and production, academia and art criticism to name a few. A founding member of the World of Art, the artist's involvement was largely motivated by the esteem with which he regarded Russia's cultural and imperial history, even if, as he himself professed, he did not 'possess one drop of Russian blood'. Frustrated by the lack of international exposure to the culture of his homeland, the World of Art intended to restore contact with French, German and English artistic movements and to create a base from which Russian artists could contribute to the cultural mainstream of the West. At the heart of this intention was Benois's fundamental conviction that Russia had much of significance to contribute, particularly if an interest in the country's national heritage could be stimulated. Artists such Konstantin Somov, Walter Nuvel, Dmitri Filosofov and Léon Bakst shared his views, as numerous early works by these artists, which depict the period of Empress Elizabeth, Rastrelli's Tsarskoe Selo and the ceremony of court life, confirm.
By the time Benois had completed The promenade of Empress Elizaveta Petrovna, the World of Art magazine (edited and published by Sergei Diaghilev) had ceased production. Its influence however continued to be far reaching, most immediately on the world of stage production and design. Benois was appointed stage director of the Mariinsky Theatre in 1901, which extended his influence further. His sense of the theatrical is gloriously present in The promenade of Empress Elizaveta Petrovna. Consider the manner in which the lowered viewpoint envelops the viewer into the scene, the perspective offering a sense of immediacy and intimacy. From the spectators on the side, to the kneeling subjects with their derrieres to the sky and the curious observer who is almost a silhouette in the upper left window, the composition simultaneously conveys the splendor of 18th century court
life while retaining an underlying tone of humour, reminiscent of a
There are three known variations on this subject, one of which, on cream paper, was completed three years earlier in 1903 and resides in the Museum of Private collections, Moscow. The two later versions were executed in Paris in 1906 when Benois was also working on The King's Promenade. The present lot evidently returned to Russia, where it was acquired by Oluf Razmusen, a man from Copenhagen who worked in Russia from 1919-1924 as an electrical engineer for the construction firm Grandes Nordiques. As per the Soviet export stamp on the reverse, he took the painting with him when he left. From then on it was passed down in the family before being acquired directly from Razmusen's descendants by the present owner. The second version executed in 1906 was formerly in the collection of Ambassador Charles R. Crane and was sold Christie's, New York, April 2006 for $441,600.