Born in London in 1781, George Dawe came from an artistic family: his father Philip Dawe was a well-known mezzotint engraver and his siblings, Henry Edward Dawe, James Philip Dawe and Mary Margaret Dawe were professional artists. Having received a Gold Medal from London's Royal Academy in 1803, George Dawe was elected Royal Academician in 1814.
From the mid-1810s, Dawe concentrated on portraiture. His full-length portrait of the actress Eliza O'Neil in character as Shakespeare's Juliet was a great public success. Over the summer of 1815 Dawe had employed a young John Constable to render the background and this theatrical scene, full of romantic atmosphere created by the effect of glittering lamplight, stirred public opinion when exhibited in London (1816) and later in St Petersburg (1827), where it was exhibited by Dawe alongside other impressive examples of his talent.
With the completion of portraits of members of the Imperial family - that of Princess Charlotte (1796-1817) and Prince Leopold, King of Belgium (1790-1865), who married in 1816 - Dawe achieved the status of a court painter. Under the patronage of the Duke of Kent, Dawe travelled as part of his retinue on the Continent and visited Paris, Cambrai, Brussels and Aix-la-Chapelle, the location of the congress held by the member states of the Holy Alliance.
In the autumn of 1818, Dawe caught the attention of Emperor Alexander I who subsequently invited the artist to come to St Petersburg, on very profitable terms, to paint the Military Gallery of 1812 in the Winter Palace. This commission took ten years to complete and comprised over 300 portraits of Russian generals who had distinguished themselves in the Patriotic War of 1812 against Napoleon and in the campaigns abroad of 1813-14. The artist had unparalleled success in Russia. He received an atelier in the Winter Palace and in 1820 was elected an Honorary Member of the Academy of Fine Arts in St Petersburg where in 1827 he exhibited an unprecedented number of works - some 150 in total. Amongst his admirers was the greatest poet of Russia's so-called 'Golden Age', Alexander Pushkin, who wrote a poem entitled 'To Dawe Esq.'. Dawe's work was widely discussed by the Russian press and public; he was praised 'for the effectiveness of his pictorial approach' and ability to 'seize a likeness'.
Upon his return to England, Dawe exhibited several of his Russian portraits at Windsor Castle in November 1828. Following the exhibition, Dawe made his way back to Russia and was warmly received at the German and French courts en route. In August 1829 the artist returned prematurely to London and died, unmarried, a few months later. He was buried with honours at St Paul's Cathedral, London. Today, the works of Dawe can be found in many of the most prestigious public and private collections worldwide including those in Russia, New Zealand and the US.
As an artist officially invited to Russia by the Emperor, Dawe was expected to paint the Imperial family for posterity. Dawe found a great patron in Grand Duke Nicholas who, after his visit to Britain in 1816, became an admirer of British habits and customs. During this trip Grand Duke Nicholas had gained experience of dealing with British artists. In Edinburgh he attended the studio of history painter William Allan and purchased three pictures for his personal collection. It is probable that during this time the Grand Duke heard of, or may have even seen, the portraits by Dawe at the residence of Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold. Not surprisingly, amongst the first society commissions received by Dawe in St Petersburg were those requested by Grand Duke Nicholas of his family.
In his large full-length portrait of Grand Duke Nicholas executed in 1821 (oil on canvas, 227 x 187 cm., The State Hermitage, inv. 5851, St Petersburg), Dawe caught the likeness of the future Emperor, and revealed 'the most pleasing features of a young man', whose manners, according to Lord Malmsbury, were 'noble and polite and resembled the manners of George IV, but with greater dignity and less dandyism'. Thanks to its obvious merits, this image became the main iconographical sample for many representative and intimate portraits of Nicholas as Grand Duke and later as Emperor Nicholas I of Russia. This canonical portrait was replicated in different sizes, even in miniature, with variations of posture, gesture, costume, decorations, background and various other details by the artist. After the establishment of Dawe's studio in 1822, the replicas were produced by his apprentices and, in some instances, anonymous painters.
The present portrait is one of the finest and most magnificent portraits painted in its entirety by Dawe. The form and shape of the artist's signature is typical of his works from the 1810s-early 1820s. This impressive canvas was exhibited as the property of Lidiia Sukhanova at the grand portrait exhibition organised by Sergei Diaghilev at Tavrichesky Palace (also known as Tauride Palace) in St Petersburg in 1905. The inscription on the reverse is presumably related to the original owner - Alexander Benkendorf (1781-1844), who was in contact with the artist around that time and whose portrait Dawe painted from nature for the Military Gallery in the same year (The State Hermitage, inv. 7968). Dawe became the favourite portraitist of the Imperial family. When Grand Duke Nicholas became Emperor, it was Dawe who was chosen as official court artist for the suite that followed the monarch and participated in the coronation ceremony in 1826, Moscow. The coronation portraits of Nicholas I and his spouse Alexandra Feodorovna by Dawe are now kept in the collection of the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth. In 1828 Nicholas I honoured Dawe by bestowing upon him the title of the First Portraitist of the Russian Court.
We are grateful to Dr Galina Andreeva for providing this note.