This unlined canvas is an exciting rediscovery from amongst the dispersed collections of the Saint Petersburg Drawing School, one of the Imperial Russian capital’s most distinguished artistic institutions during the creative heyday of the nineteenth century. It would appear to be the work of an as yet unidentified Russian artist, whose name may however emerge through further archival research. The Drawing School was founded in 1839 to nourish high artistic standards in Russia, a role it continued to provide until the end of the Russian Empire in 1917. Students were encouraged to copy works from the Imperial Hermitage and the Academy of Fine Arts, and one such student must have created the present work on the basis of Jean-Laurent Mosnier’s magisterial, large-scale self-portrait (230 x 175 cm.), which was then in the collections of the Academy, having been presented by Tsar Nicholas I in 1832. In 1922 it was allocated to the State Hermitage Museum, where it is still prized as a treasure of the French School, inv. no. GE3699.
The French painter Jean-Laurent Mosnier was appointed Peintre de la Reine to Marie-Antoinette in 1776 and a full member of the Académie Royale in 1788. He fled Paris for London in 1790 after the outbreak of the French Revolution, living in England and Germany for a decade before before settling, in 1801, in Saint Petersburg, where he became Court Painter to the Tsarina. Accepted into the Academy in 1802, he was professor from 1806. The autograph version of this composition is dated 1786, and an energetically painted preparatory study (The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Bruce B. Dayton Fund) must be of the same date. It has been suggested that the portrait in the background of both the present work and the prototype is one of Tsar Peter the Great, which may indicate that Mosnier was already courting Russian Imperial patronage as early as five years before his arrival in Russia.