The present work was commissioned directly from the artist by the German aristocrat and diplomat, Count Guido Henckel von Donnersmarck, as part of a series of decorations for his new hôtel particulier on the Champs Elysées. The painting was one of a series of four commissioned by the Count from leading artists of the day, portraying his mistress, the notorious society courtesan Theresa Lachmann (better known as "La Païva") as famous women from history. In addition to the present work, Emil Lévy depicted her as Cleopatra, Pierre Comte as Madame de Maintenon and Jules-Elie Delaunay as Diane of Poitiers.
Born in Moscow in 1819, Lachmann was a woman of extraordinary ambition and venality. She married a young French tailor, whom she quickly abandoned once she reached Paris. There she took on a string of famous lovers, including the pianist Henri Herz, the Duc de Gramont and Lord Stanley. She remarried in 1851, quickly abandoning her hapless and penniless husband, the Portuguese Marquess of Païva. She became famous for hosting grand literary and artistis soirées, where she judiciously selected her subsquent lovers. Of these, Bismarck's advisor, Henckel Donnersmarck, whom La Païva eventually married, was the last and the most important.
Despite her reputation for ruining numerous men to fund her ostentatious lifestyle, La Païva fell genuinely in love with the German aristocrat, who was eleven years her junior. He was equally besotted, nicknaming her Blanche and showering her with gifts and the limitless funds that would allow her to turn their new home on the Champs Elysées into a virtual temple built in her honour. No expense was spared in its construction:
"The plans for the house, originally conceived as a luxurious pavilion, kept mushrooming at Guido's insistence.
Mme de Paiva knew what she wanted and Manguin [the architect] had clearly got the message.
He gathered around him the most expert artisans in their fields and organized, at Blanche's insistence, proper on-site studios where everything was executed under his supervision and from his drawings... These artisans and artists, abandoning all their other clients, had to devote themselves solely to Mme de Païva and make everything on a made-to-measure basis. It was a real return to the methods of the middle-ages. She took a daily interest in the project: she was even to be found climbing the scaffolding and ladders on site. It's therefore hardly surprising that the works took ten years!
The first decorator hired was Legrain, then Jacquemart and Cussat. Lefrance, Deleplanque, Brisset, Barrias and Cugnet were also taken on. Jacquemart sculpted a huge heraldic book to be transported to Henckel in Silesia. And let us not forget in this list such famous names as Carrier-Belleuse, Picault, Chapat, Cain, and the painters Boulanger,
Levy, Gérôme and Paul Baudry.
(J. Alexandre-Debray, La Païva - Ses amants, ses maris, Paris, 1986, pp. 123-124)
That La Païva was indeed the inspiration for the present work was not an easy admission for a regular Salon artist to make. To avoid any scandal, Boulanger therefore presented the canvas as a history painting, a genre in which he had classically trained under Paul Delaroche. The great critic Emile Zola, while unable to guess its exact genesis, came close to deciphering the contemporary source of its inspiration when he wrote:
"He has abandoned history painting for genre and, even though today he is exhibiting Catherine I negotiating the Treaty of Pruth. This is vaudeville dressed up as history. To see Catherine with her head thrown back, her fingers clenched, I can almost hear her parodying some fashionable song and railing against the god of diplomacy for ruining her negotiation. On the other hand, there are two figures of Turkish ambassadors that are most excellently rendered." (E. Zola, op. cit)
The narrative of the present work is drawn from the events following Peter the Great's defeat at the hand of the Ottoman general and Vizier Baltaci Mehmet Pasha at Pruth in July 1711. Historians remain baffled as to why the Turks did not press home their victory with a more onerous peace treaty. Instead of taking Peter captive, they contented themselves with a truce. According to legend, Mehmet surrounded Peter's army but saved him further humiliation because he was persuaded by a secret nocturnal visit to his tent by the czar's mistress (later empress) Catherine. The metaphor with La Païva -- missed by the critis -- is now clear: as the mistress of an important man, she too was able to use her feminine wiles to powerful advantage.
For Boulanger, the combination of Orientalist and history painting was a perfect commission, allowing him to bring together his formal training in the latter and his natural inclination for the former. After studying with Delaroche, Boulanger made his first trip to the Middle East as early as 1845, sketching the figures and the places he saw. His skills as a talented observer are particularly apparent in the strong characterisation of his figures, and the carefully rendered details of the imagined setting.