Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (Paris 1755-1842)
Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (Paris 1755-1842)

Portrait of Tatyana Borisovna Potemkina (1797–1869), three-quarter-length

Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (Paris 1755-1842)
Portrait of Tatyana Borisovna Potemkina (1797–1869), three-quarter-length
signed 'Le Brun /1820' (center right, on the knoll)
oil on canvas
42 7/8 x 32 ½ in. (108.9 x 82.6 cm.)
Alfred-Carl-Paul-Jacob Honigmann (1880-1948), Heerlen and The Hague.
Private collection.
E.L. Vigée Le Brun, Souvenirs, Paris, 1835-37, III, p. 351, as "The young Princess Potemski, to the knees".
C. Colvin, ed., Maria Edgeworth in France and Switzerland: Selections from the Edgeworth Family Letters, Oxford, 1979, p. 181 ("Madame Lebrun is painting a beautiful portrait of the Princess Potemkin").
Paris, Grand Palais, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 23 September 2015-11 January 2016, no. 148.
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada, Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France, 9 February-11 September 2016, no. 85.

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Lot Essay

The present three-quarter-length portrait, which was painted in Paris during the reign of Louis XVIII, only recently resurfaced. The subject is a Russian aristocrat, Tatyana Borisovna Potemkina, born Princess Golitsyna during the year 1797 to parents with prestigious aristocratic lineages. Her father was Lieutenant General Prince Boris Andreyevich Golitsyn, while her mother was Anna Alexandrovna Gruzinskaya, the daughter of the exiled Czarevich of Georgia, Alexander Bakarovich Gruzinsky, Prince of Kartli (1726-1791), and his wife Princess Daria Alexandrovna Menchikova (1747-1818). Anna Alexandrovna had previously been married to Alexander Alexandrovich de Litzyne (1760-1789), an illegitimate son of Russia’s Vice Chancellor, Prince Alexander Mikhaïlovich Golitsyn (1723-1807). Around 1797 Madame Vigée Le Brun had executed in St. Petersburg a beautiful three-quarter-length portrait of her that she designates in her sitters’ list as depicting La princesse Bauris Galitzin (fig. 1).

On 7 February 1815 the seventeen-year-old girl married Lieutenant General Alexander Mikhailovich Potemkin (1787-1872), the son of Count Mikhaïl Sergueyevich Potemkin (1744-1791) and his wife Tatyana Vasilievna Engelhardt. With the substantial inheritance the latter had received from her late uncle, Field Marshal Grigori Alexandrovich Potemkin, Prince of Tauride (1739-1791), the most famous and politically powerful of the many lovers of Catherine the Great, Alexander Mikhaïlovich’s widowed mother had married in 1793 the even wealthier Prince Nikolaï Borisovich Yusupov (1750-1831), a courtier of Tatar ancestry who at one point served the Romanovs as a diplomat, a Senator, a Minister of State Properties and as Director of Russia’s Imperial Theaters. He also and perhaps especially, in purely historical terms, achieved a reputation as an art collector and builder of luxurious mansions, including a country residence outside Moscow, the Palace of Arkhangelskoye. In 1797 Vigée Le Brun painted a handsome three-quarter-length portrait of Tatyana Borisovna’s mother-in-law (fig. 2).

Afflicted with a lung disease, the young Tatyana Borisovna left her homeland with her husband to seek treatment abroad on orders from her physicians. They were accompanied by her governess, a French émigrée, Marie Hyacinthe Albertine de Noiseville, née Fierval (1766-1842), a woman rumored to be the illegitimate daughter of Vigée Le Brun’s most important private patron prior to the outbreak of the French Revolution, Joseph Hyacinthe François de Paul de Rigaud, Comte de Vaudreuil (1740-1817), and a member of the Polignac entourage. Having arrived in Russia in 1795, i.e. at approximately the same time as Madame Le Brun, this very well-educated woman was engaged to tutor Tatyana Borisovna and her three older sisters Elizaveta, Alexandra and Sofia Borisovna.

In the course of this seven-year trip, the little group made stops in Switzerland, Italy, England and France. It is certain that she was in Paris by 1819, and there she leased or rented a residence in which her cousin Prince Sergei Petrovich Trubetskoy met his soon-to-be wife, Catherine Loubrevie de Laval, both of whom were to be exiled to Siberia for the role Sergei played in the Decembrist Rebellion against the despotic Grand Duke Nicolas Pavlovich’s assumption to the Czarist throne in 1825.

It is during this trip that Tatyana Borisovna had her portrait painted by Vigée Le Brun, who was well acquainted not only with members of her young subject’s family but also with Marie Hyacinthe de Noiseville. At the end of the third volume of the artist’s memoirs, in the list of subjects she painted after her return to Paris from her wanderings throughout Europe, in Russia and in England, Tatyana is named La jeune princesse Potemski [sic], undoubtedly because of the title of Princess Golitsyna she had received at birth. The portrait in an unfinished state is documented by a letter dated July 7, 1820 that the Anglo-Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849), who was then staying in Paris with her sister Fanny, sent to their aunt and cousin, Mary and Charlotte Sneyd:

'To return to the princess Potemkin we went yesterday to see her again. She is Russian but she has all the grace and softness and winning manner of the Polish ladies. [ ] –her face oval pale with the finest softest most expressive chestnut dark eyes I ever beheld. When animated and when looking at a person she likes her eyes and the whose expression of her countenance reminded me of what Honora’s mother [Elizabeth Sneyd] was when I first saw her at Northchurch. The Princess Potemkin has a sort of politeness which pleases peculiarly—mixture of the ease of high rank and early habit with something that is sentimental without affection...

Mme Lebrun is painting a beautiful picture of the Princess Potemkin and she was so good as to come from the country and to stay a day in Paris on purpose to shew [sic] it to us and to shew us her other pictures. Fanny was exceedingly pleased with them especially with one of Lady Hamilton as a bacchante [today in the Lady Lever Museum, Liverpool] and with a portrait of Grassini [today in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen] which might represent, F[anny] observed, Corrine at the Capitol. Mme Lebrun a woman of great vivacity as well as great genius is I think better worth seeing than any of her pictures because though they are speaking she speaks and speaks uncommonly well...

The dame d’honneur or companion of Mme Potemkin Mme la Comtesse de Noisseville educated her and her sisters and followed her to England on her marriage—her health being delicate. The friendship of the pupil and preceptress for each other does honor to both and gives great security for the sincerity and steadiness of the young princess’s character. Mme de Noisseville….is a well bred woman of very decided character and superior understanding who is very entertaining and exceedingly agreeable to those she likes but would I dare say be very disagreeable to those she did not like—for she would not think it worth her while to speak' (quoted in C. Colvin, ed., Maria Edgeworth in France and Switzerland, Oxford, 1979, pp. 181-182; see also A.J.C. Hare, ed., The Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth, Boston and New York, 1895, vol. II, pp. 310-311, 314 and 360-361).

The following 15 November, in a letter to her stepmother Mrs. Honora Edgeworth, née Sneyd, Maria expounded more fully on the subject of Madame Potemkina, and mentioned her aunt by marriage, Princess Golitzyna, née Praskovia Andreievna Chouvalova (1767-1828), who in 1787 had married one of Tatyana Borisovna’s maternal uncles, Prince Mikhaïl Andreivich Golitsyn (1765-1812). This promiscuous woman had purportedly been the last love interest of Field Marshal Prince Grigori Potemkin, had tried in vain to seduce the Grand Duke and future Czar Alexander Pavlovich and in 1803 had had a child by Napoléon’s Grand Écuyer, Armand Augustin Louis de Caulaincourt, Duc de Vicence (1772-1827). According to Maria Edgeworth’s letter:

'I went in the evening to Princess Potemkins, who is only a Princess (take notice all manner of men!)—for she is married to a Potemkins who is not a Prince, and though [by birth] a Princess daughter of Princesse Galitzine she loses her rank by marrying one of inferior rank. The same custom prevails in France and French and Russians are with reason surprised at the superior gallantry of our customs which say once a Lady always a lady. But whether Princess or not Princess our Madame Potemkin is most charming, and you may bless your stars that you are not obliged to read a page of panegyric upon her. She was as much delighted to see us again, as we were to see her. She was alone with Madame de Noisseville—that happy mixture of my Aunt Fox and Mrs. Latuffière. We went from Madame Potemkin’s to Madame d’Haussonville whom I hope you do not forget is one of our fashionable dears. With her we found Madame de Bouillé playing at billiards just in the attitude in which we had left her 3 months ago…

Saturday— (…) We dined at Madame Potemkin’s—met there the violent Juno-eyed Duchesse de la Force—who has no sense and talks on right or wrong about what she would do to the Libéraux if she had but the power. She is Grammonts sister and high as human veneration can look but she exacts no veneration for she has not common sense. But to make amends we met her the Princess Galitzine aunt of our beauty a thin, tall, odd very clever woman who is the daughter of Prince Shuvaloff [sic] to whom Voltaire wrote eternally. She is imbued with anecdotes of that time—very well-bred and quick in conversation. Mme Potemkin declares that this aunt of hers has been for 20 years wishing to see Maria E. If this is a fib it is not my fault—indeed she was most kind to her—very pleasant and superb dinner!—with the following persons Princess Galitzines daughter married to M. de Caumont a very handsome man who was amusing enough…' (C. Colvin, ed., op. cit., pp. 276-279).

When the artist painted the present likeness of the twenty-three-year-old Potemkina, whom she refers to in her list of sitters as the young Russian woman, Vigée Le Brun revived the neoclassical pose and the natural setting she had used with success in certain portraits she had painted between 1791 and 1800 in Italy, Austria and Russia. The work to which it is most closely related is her beautiful portrait of Countess Anna Ivanovna Tolstaya (fig. 3). Tatyana Potemkina, dressed in a loose-fitting Empire-style gown of blue silk with a low gold-bordered neckline over a chemise of a filmy cotton fabric like gauze or muslin, is depicted near a waterfall falling from some unknown height into a grotto. She is seated on a grassy knoll and leans her left arm on a stone arch that is also covered in grass. With her head slightly inclined, a smile on her lips, she seems to gaze into the eyes of the spectator. A number of the tresses, curls and ringlets of her thick chestnut-brown hair are artfully held in place at the top of her head with an ornamental back comb.

Tatyana Borisovna Potemkina’s life is genuinely fascinating. There are eye-witness reports of her activities and those of the numerous members of her large family and entourage, including Hyacinthe Albertine de Noiseville, in a number of the many letters sent between 1813 and 1819 by Czar Alexander I’s paramour, Princess Varvara Ilynichna Turkestanova (1775-1819), a member of the Turkistanishvili and Bagration dynasties from the region of Kartli in Georgia who was living at the Russian court as a lady-in-waiting to Empress Maria Feodorovna, to the Swiss diplomat in the service of Russia and France, Ferdinand Christin (1740-1837). The Georgian woman, who may have been related to Tatyana by blood, speaks at length about Tatyana’s marriage to Potemkin and to the illness that required her to go abroad.

Once she had recovered her health, 'Princess' Potemkina returned to St. Petersburg, where until the end of her life she devoted herself to charitable works, not only in the house she owned on Millionnaya Ulitsa (street) in the city on the Neva, but also on her estate of Gostilitzy near the imperial Palace of Peterhof and on the Potemkins’ property of Artek near the Crimean coast. She and her husband also owned the Sviatohirsk Uspensky, or 'Holy Mountain' Monastery, in the Ukrainian mountains along the Seversky Donets River.

The only offspring of Tatyana Borisovna and Alexander Mikhailovich, a son, died at the age of ten months. Alexander had been appointed marshal of the Russian nobility in the district of St. Petersburg, and for a time he served as the director of the city’s Philharmonic Society. Tatyana founded and financially sponsored an orphanage, and for a time she was president of the women’s committee overseeing prisons in or near St. Petersburg. A devout member of the Russian Orthodox community, she used part of her immense fortune to welcome members of the clergy and pilgrims in her various residences, and she gave unstintingly to those in need who were brought to her attention. She would even periodically solicit money for humanitarian causes from the Romanov Czars, Nikolas I Pavlovich and Alexander II Nikolayevich, with whom she was on familiar terms.

There exist a number of other depictions of Tatyana Borisovna, among them bust-length portraits in watercolor on paper by the architect and painter Alexander Pavlovich Brullov, an oil painting executed circa 1840 by Carl Timoleon von Neff, a number of miniatures and at least two photographs, one showing Emperor Alexander II and his family surrounding her and her husband in their residence near the Holy Mountains Lavra (fig. 4) and another of her in old age (fig. 5).

Tatyana and her husband appear side-by-side in a rather rustic print that must have been published in a newspaper or magazine. She died at the age of seventy-two in Berlin, where she had gone for medical treatment two years after being severely injured in the collapse of one of Russia’s first elevators. Her remains were returned to Russia and were placed in a well-attended ceremony in a crypt reserved for members of the Golitsyn family, including her mother, in the church of the Monastery of St. Sergius at Streina near the Gulf of Finland.

At some point in the 19th century, this painting found its way to the Netherlands and entered the collection of Alfred Honigman, the owner of the Oranje Nassau Mijnen near the town of Heerlen in the south-eastern province of Limburg.

Joseph Baillio

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