This important portrait of Maria Feodorovna, wife of Tsar Paul I, who reigned from 1796 to his assassination in 1801, is not only a treasure in its own right, but it also has a romantic resonance for anyone with a special interest in the Romanov dynasty and their fabulous collection of jewels, for hundreds of years the most stupendous in the world. Amassed since the time of Peter the Great, it remained unsurpassed until 1918, when the Revolution swept away not only the royal family but also the fabulous treasures which they possessed; palaces, art, sculpture, furniture, and most personal of all, their jewels.
Maria Feodorovna's tiara was made for her around 1800, shortly before she was painted wearing it, and only a year before her husband died. Set with 1386 Brazilian diamonds and ancient Indian briolets, in the centre front, and clearly seen in the miniature, is Paul's historic 13 carat pink diamond which he purchased for his wife and specifically mentioned in the list of his treasures. The tiara was officially part of the Diamond Fund which was founded by Peter the Great in 1719, and kept in the 'Diamond Room' in St. Petersburg's Winter Palace. After the accession of Alexander I in 1801, this tiara was often worn by his wife, Tsarina Elizabeth Alexeievna, and can be seen in many of the portraits painted of her. Since the time of Catherine the Great, it was traditional for all the tsarinas and grand duchesses to wear not only a set of official marriage robes, but also this tiara, a diamond nuptial crown, diamond earrings, a diamond necklace, and an enormous diamond stomacher which fastened the imperial mantle, on their wedding day.
The tiara was an especial favourite of Alexandra, Russia's last tsarina, and she is seen wearing it in an official photograph (pictured above), circa 1912. When the war started in 1914, it was decided to move everything in the Diamond Fund to the Kremlin in Moscow for safe keeping. Nine enormous strong boxes were packed up in such haste that no official record of what they contained was made, and it was not until 1921 that the collection finally began to be catalogued. It took eighteen months to complete, and the catalogue, which was entitled Russia's Treasure of Diamonds and Precious Stones was published in 1925, and also translated for publication into French, English and German. Originally, the Soviet Government intended to sell the 406 items in the catalogue in order to raise desperately needed foreign currency, but over the next five years, although some things were sold and dispersed around the world, it was finally decided that those pieces which were of historic national importance should be kept for the nation, which was why this tiara, a ravishing example of early 19th century craftmanship, worn by five generations of royal brides, can still be seen by the public, and compared to the miniature of its very first owner, where it appears as a romantic gift from a loving husband.
We are extremely grateful to Leslie Field for this catalogue entry.