Emperor Paul I, often referred to as the ‘Russian Hamlet’, is perhaps one of the most mysterious and controversial figures in Russian history. The son of Peter III (born Charles Peter Ulrich of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorp, 1728-1762), Emperor of Russia for several months after the death of his aunt, Empress Elizaveta Petrovna (1709-1762), and Catherine II (born Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, 1729-1796), known as Catherine the Great, who overthrew her husband to reign for almost 35 years; Paul spent his life in the shadow of his father’s rumoured assassination and his cold and distant, but supremely powerful mother, who intended to remove him from the line of succession. Yet despite his mother’s wishes, Grand Prince Paul Petrovich succeeded to the throne after her death in 1796, only to be brutally assassinated in his newly-built Mikhailovsky Castle in St Petersburg five years later. Often branded an eccentric tyrant, recalling Alexander Pushkin’s line referring to the castle as ‘the empty monument of the tyrant’ in his poem Ode to Liberty, Paul I has been rehabilitated, to a certain extent, by recent scholarship which has sought to recognise his achievements in foreign and domestic policy. In popular culture, theatre, film, and even museum exhibitions, a more nuanced reading of this complex and fascinating figure prevails. It is in this context that Christie’s is delighted to present one of the finest portraits by Dmitry Levitsky ever to appear at auction.
Portrait of Emperor Paul I caused a sensation when it was revealed to the public at the opening of the Levitsky exhibition at the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg in 2010. A recent discovery, the painting was splashed across the news channels; a hitherto unknown masterwork discovered in a private collection in Vienna. Although the portrait was unrecorded in the incomplete list of works by Levitsky, scholars agreed that the quality and execution were unmistakeable. Prominent Russian art historian and Director of the Department of the Painting of the XVIII – early XIX centuries at the State Russian Museum, Grigorii Goldovsky names this work as one of Paul’s most prophetic portraits, full of life and at the same time, emotional tension, as if foreseeing the tragic fate of the Emperor (Dmitrii Levitskii. 'Smolianki'. Novye otkrytiia ['Smolny Girls'. New Discoveries], St Petersburg, 2010, p. 82).
Hailed as a gifted portraitist early in his career, Levitsky painted many of the most significant public figures of his time, including members of the Russian and European royal families (his Portrait of Catherine II the Legislatress in the Temple of the Goddess of Justice, 1783, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, was deeply admired by contemporaries), Russian nobility and prominent figures from political and cultural circles. As future Emperor Paul I, Grand Prince Paul Petrovich was painted by leading European portraitists, including Louis Caravaque (1684-1754), Pietro Rotari (1707-1762), Alexander Roslin (1718-1793), Vigilius Eriksen (1722-1782) and Jean-Louis Voille (1744-1829). However, perhaps his two most recognisable full-length portraits were painted by Russian artists and former students of Levitsky: Vladimir Borovikovsky (1757-1825) and Stepan Shchukin (1762-1828). Borovikovsky’s portrait (1800, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg) presents the Emperor standing in his coronation robe. Shchukin’s canvas (1797, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow) bears more compositional similarities to the present work; however, strikingly, both Borovikovsky and Shchukin present psychological portraits rather than ceremonial depictions of the monarch favoured by their European counterparts.
On a smaller scale, Levitsky’s three-quarter-length portrait allows for a much closer, more intense study of the Emperor’s facial features. In his dictionary of Russian engraved portraits, Dmitry Rovinsky lists two main types of three-quarter portraits of Paul I from the late 18th century: the 1789 type by Voille and the 1797 by Lampi. Both types, in similarity with the present work, enclose the portrait in an oval trompe l'oeil frame. However, that is where the similarities end.
Unlike Voille and Lampi, Levitsky painted his sitter in the ‘Prussian’ uniform of the Russian Imperial Guard, with the noticeable absence of the Order of Malta. It has been suggested that this would date the portrait to 1796-1797 which is corroborated by the fact that Levitsky is known to have worked for the sitter since the 1790s, while he was still Grand Prince Paul Petrovich, painting him, his wife Maria Feodorovna and his daughters. The relative lack of detail in the garb and orders, typical of Levitsky’s work in the late 1780s and 1790s, and evident in his portraits of the recipients of the Order of St Vladimir (see Portrait of A.P. Mel’gunov and Portrait of I.G. Chernyshev, Pavlovsk State Museum), only serves to emphasise the phenomenal attention to every muscle of his subject’s face. Distinguishing him from other portraitists of the period, Levitsky was known for his ability to skilfully convey the psychological state of his sitter with his brush. His painterly techniques; for example, the multi-directional brushstrokes employed in the flesh tones; lend an expressiveness to his portraits, unparalleled by his peers. It is this ineffable quality of Levitsky’s portraits that is often his signature, for the artist did not always sign his works in script, as demonstrated here and by other recognised works, including his portrait of the French philosopher and writer Denis Diderot (1713-1784) (1773, Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Geneva).
According to the exhibition catalogue, Dmitry Levitsky. 'Smolny Girls'. New Discoveries, the present portrait was formerly in the collection of the Golitsyn family. Indeed, this portrait of Emperor Paul I, unattributed, adorned the walls of Princess Irene Galitzine’s (1918-2006) Rome apartment. A celebrated fashion designer, her clothes gracing the forms of some of the most glamorous women of the early 20th century, including Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy, Princess Irene Galitzine was born in Tiflis to Prince Boris Golitsyn (1878–1958) and Princess Nina Golitsyna (née Kovaldgi, 1888-1957). Fleeing the country after the Russian revolution, Princess Nina Golitsyna eventually settled in Rome with her daughter, Irene, at the villa of their relatives – Colonel Andrei Kvitka [-Osnovianenko] and his wife Vera. Besides building a successful military career, Kvitka was a man of many talents and interests, including art: the colonel attended the Académie Julian in Paris and was an accomplished artist himself. The Kvitkas were also known to have a rich collection of porcelain and paintings, even lending works to Serge Diaghilev’s exhibition of Russian historical portraits in St Petersburg in 1905. The family estate was in Osnova, near Kharkiv, but they also had properties in the south of Russia (in Tuapse and Khosta, near Sochi) as well as in France and Italy. After the revolution, their villa in the heart of Rome near Porta Pia hosted the Kvitka and the Golitsyn families, providing temporary refuge for other Russian noble families in emigration. Although the main contents of Villa Kvitka were eventually sold in 1921, Princesses Nina and Irene inherited some of the Kvitkas’ most cherished possessions, including Portrait of Emperor Paul I, after their deaths. In 1972, Princess Irene Galitzine moved into a new apartment very close to Villa Kvitka, where she had grown up, with her husband Silvio de Menezes Medici (1903-1989) and their exquisite collection of art and antiquities. From the recollections of friends, Portrait of Emperor Paul I remained in the collection of Irene Galitzine until the late 1980s.