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Portraits of Russian imperial women: Alix and Ella

The artworks by the fashionable German portrait painter and historical artist Friedrich August von Kaulbach (1860-1920) of Princess Alix of Hesse, later Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna and her elder sister, Elisabeth Feodorovna, ‘Ella’ Grand Duchess Sergei of Russia, provide, I think, a rare insight into these two princesses who would both marry into the Russian Imperial House of Romanov. Not least because Kaulbach’s method of painting, usually involving making preliminary sketches, allowed him to capture something of the personality of his sitters. This makes the results fascinatingly three-dimensional character studies as well as exquisitely charming to behold; like handwriting, they are able to convey something of the person behind the portrait.

We can see known characteristics such as shyness, grace and reserve. The aim was not merely to be representational in his depictions but rather to capture the individual beneath the clothes they wore, giving his works amazing visual depth and a richly sensitive quality. Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse recalled in his memoirs about Kaulbach’s painting his sisters, commenting on how he made various attempts at studies of Ella, but that until the picture really succeeded, ‘something always was missing, the soul’. The painter from Munich did not always find his task an easy one, as will be seen.

Kaulbach continued to paint both sisters after they had gone to Russia; his sketch on cardboard of the young Tsarina Alexandra was dated 1896 – the year of her coronation – and is kept at the State Museum, Pavlovsk. It was shown for the first time outside of Russia in a travelling exhibition in America in Sante Fe, Newark and Cincinnati supported by The American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation, Washington D.C. (2004-05). A portrait by Kaulbach of the young Tsarina, which is undated but is probably from 1896, because the result dramatically resembles the aforementioned preliminary sketch, is a delightful image, showing Alexandra in profile, in a black blouse with a pearl necklace, leaning over the portrait frame in a trompe l’oeil effect. It is not unlike the portrait by Joszi Koppay made of Archduchess Marie Valerie – daughter of Empress Elisabeth of Austria – with her firstborn child, Ella, bunches of yellow roses growing out of the frame. The portrait of the young Alexandra is kept – like several other examples of paintings by Kaulbach of Alexandra and ‘Ella’, at the National Art Museum of Azerbaijan in Baku. Despite various attempts to establish contact with the museum about their collections, I have yet to manage to do so.

Another of the portraits kept at the National Art Museum is the famous full-length portrait by Kaulbach of ‘Ella’ which has often been misidentified as being of Tsarina Alexandra; another – seemingly misidentified at the museum, of ‘Ella’, is by the French painter Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant.

In Alexandra’s resplendent Jugendstil Maple Room at the Alexander Palace, the imperial couple’s private residence at Tsarskoe Selo outside St. Petersburg, she hung pastel portraits of her daughters, the four Grand Duchesses made by Kaulbach on 30 October 1903, either side of the maple wood cabinet and couch, which can be seen in historic photographs made in the 1920s of the Tsarina’s rooms. The pastels are delightful studies and had great sentimental value for Alexandra, because it was her favourite pictures that she hung in this area, together with a fine early portrait of the young Tsar Nicholas II in military uniform, by Georges Becker. It was also in the Maple Room, for example, that Alexandra kept many of the priceless eggs she owned, crafted by Faberge.

Kaulbach managed to capture something of the legendary beauty of Alexandra’s elder sister, Elisabeth Feodorovna, ‘Ella’ Grand Duchess Sergei of Russia. He painted a picture of her, for which he made no less than seven life-size sketches of her head. Her brother, Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse, later recalled in his memoirs that despite this, none of the sketches resembled her: ‘He [Kaulbach] said in despair “She is the most difficult that I have ever yet painted, because an artist simply cannot reproduce that which perfect”. His large picture wasn’t good either. Despite that he head-sketches were much better, because at least these were fine. His best picture is a small head, which he painted from memory. This hangs in our bedchamber.’ His exquisite pastel portrait of Ella, made in 1893, is a remarkably beautiful painting. Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig remembered that Kaulbach also made heads of his elder sister, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg, Prince Louis of Battenberg, Princess Alice of Battenberg [their daughter] and of Princess Alix of Hesse: ‘Later he painted the heads of Alix’s children in Wolfsgarten and then a great representational portrait of her, which was very successful’.

The ‘heads of Alix’s children‘ refers to the four pastel pictures of the Grand Duchesses in 1903, during the visit of the Russian Imperial Family to Darmstadt for the wedding celebrations of Princess Alice of Battenberg and Prince Andreas of Greece (the parents of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh), which Alexandra later hung in her Maple Room at the Alexander Palace. The full-length representational portrait of Alexandra which Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig describes, is featured in a ‘Gesamtwerk’ or complete catalogue of works of Friedrich August von Kaulbach published by F. Hanfstaengl in Munich in 1911, in which 550 examples are included. Amongst the many works illustrated is the full-length portrait of Alexandra, a head of Tsar Nicholas II, a portrait of ‘Ella’ in profile and a head of the little Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolevna, the fourth daughter, but also an extremely rare study for the full length-portrait of Alexandra, showing just her head.

Kaulbach’s biographer, Adolf Rosenberg, wrote in his monograph on the artist in 1900: ‘Grand Duchess Sergei of Russia had herself painted, once in a relaxed pose, leant against a chair, the finely hewn profile of her beautiful head with the dark, dreamy, blinking eyes, turned to the left, the other time in whole figure [sic] in a white, long lace dress with a train, with a sparkling tiara on her head. There was the picture of an independent woman, who despite being subject to the fetters of court ceremonial, still yet lived according to her own spirit, here the Princess who through her aristocratic upbringing had learned to veil her feelings beneath a mask of conventional friendliness…’ The first painting is the ‘Ella’ picture in profile which I cannot trace and the second almost certainly the sizeable full-length portrait in Baku.

Most poignantly perhaps, is the painting that Kaulbach made of Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig’s only daughter from his first marriage, Princess Elisabeth of Hesse, still known popularly as Darmstadt’s beloved ‘Prinzesschen’ [Little Princess]; she died at Skierniewice, the Russian imperial hunting lodge in Poland in 1903. Kaulbach’s portrait of her was made at Wolfsgarten on 6 November 1903, the day before her fateful departure from which she never returned.

The Royal Collection possesses a pastel portrait of Tsarina Alexandra by Kaulbach ‘ca 1892’, showing her in a wide-brimmed hat and wearing a row of pearls. I wonder if it is another version of the portrait made of Princess Alix of Hesse, today kept in the Schlossmuseum Darmstadt. Indeed, the description is similar and from about the same time, two years before her marriage to Tsar Nicholas II.

Outside of Baku, the best place to observe examples of Kaulbach’s work of Alexandra and ‘Ella’ is undoubtedly the Schlossmuseum Darmstadt, which possesses two exquisite pastel portraits of them by Kaulbach. The one of ‘Ella’ was that made by him in 1893 and the above portrait of Princess Alix. It is as if the paintbrush of Kaulbach followed both of them to Russia and the beautiful results that he created provide a fascinating insight into the imperial women behind his portraits. It is somehow poignant too, that what are arguably his most charming and skilful paintings of these two princesses who married into Imperial Russia, are today in Darmstadt, where both spent their youth.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018
About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.