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“Journey to 18th Century. Faces of Age” Empress Elizaveta Petrovna

“No, you won’t be forgotten, century the mad and the wise”, - said Aleksandr Radischev about the 18th century. It was a splendid age in the Russian history. It turned the image of Moscovia into a mighty sea power – the Russian Empire. And threads of human destinies showing the age face were always interwoven with the fabric of historic events. As it is known, “worldly fame” passes away, but works of art remain and preserve the face imperishable.

There is exhibited a portrait of Empress Elizaveta Petrovna painted in late 1750-s–early 1760-s by a famous Russian artist Aleksey Antropov in one of the rooms of the National Art Museum.

A stout youthful bright-color face, a look directed to a spectator. There is a diamond crown on the head. On the blue moiré band – a symbol of belonging to the Tsar family – crucified St. Andrew the First-called, patron saint of Russia is depicted. The plump figure is covered with heavy pleats of an ermine mantle. An image of the kingly beauty who ruled over Russia for 20 years appears in glitter of precious adornments, in twinkle of as if hammered from silver dress laces. Elizaveta Petrovna solemnly stands in front of her subjects like embodiment of monarchic power and glory of the Russian Empire.

Such portraits were painted in great numbers – for palaces, state institutions, nobility mansions, triumphal gates. They were usually copied from “the pattern” painted by a foreign master. Aleksey Antropov might have painted Elizaveta Petrovna from the portrait by Louis Caravaque – a French artist who worked in Russia in the middle of the 18th century. But aimed first of all to glorify, to point at the importance of the place in society, the ceremonial portrait did not always show all the depth and peculiarities of the character of the person depicted.

What was the woman covered with “charm of the name” of the great father like?

The contemporaries spoke of a daughter of Peter I with admiration.

“Princess Elizaveta is a rare beauty”, wrote Spanish envoy duke de Liria. “Her face color is amazing; she has wonderful eyes, an excellent neck and an unmatched figure. She is tall, extraordinary lively, rides a horse without any fear. She is smart, graceful and a coquette”.

And here is the opinion of her “daughter-in-law” – future empress Ekaterina II: “She had a special grace in everything she did both in male and female dress. You would wish to go on looking at her and not to take your eyes off her, and you regretted doing that as there was nothing to be compared with her…”

Having received European secular education, Elizaveta was fluent in French, wrote poems, was a wonderful singer, and skillfully danced both minuet and the Russian folk dance. She was a lively, cheerful, and self-willed and at the same time a dreamy person. “…Being a great princess, once, in a fascinating dreaminess, while signing a business paper, she used the word “Flame” instead of her name”. And once she bitterly wept as she liked four admirers at once and did not know whom to choose.

The year her father died, Elizaveta turned 16. The carefree life she lived during the years of the rule of her mother – empress Ekaterina I and then nephew Peter II ended under the rule of imperious and hard aunt Anna Ioannovna: during her 10-year rule the Princess was under constant and strict supervision. “She was removed from all court and political affairs, her means of living were restricted. Her every step and acquaintance were followed”. Ruler Anna Leopoldovna who followed Anna Ioannovna saw a rival in the own daughter of Peter I who had more rights to the Russian throne. And when the convent seclusion threat became real, the light-minded, wayward beauty that seemed to only care for clothes and entertainment appeared to be capable of an action requiring courage: she ventured to head the devoted guardsmen in a state coup endangering her life in case of failure.

At a frosty November night of 1741 fires were burnt and people exulted: the hated Braunschweigs were overthrown; the younger daughter of Peter I Elizaveta came to the throne. It was she who ordered to be crowned emphasizing that she was obliged only to herself in her coming to the throne.

Ascending the throne at the age of 32, “the most beautiful woman of Europe” returned to her youth habits and the court life turned to a never-ending holiday: hunting, balls, masquerades, fireworks, opera and ballet performances changed each other in a breathtaking whirlwind. Pleasing the empress, her inner circle had to lead a luxurious way of life requiring great expenditures. “…The court wore gold-woven clothes…. Gilded carriages required expensive horses. Houses were decorated with gilding, silk wallpaper in all rooms, expensive furniture, mirrors…All this pleased the very owners, the taste whims increased, the most luxurious peoples were imitated more and more, and a person became respectful as far as his life and clothes got splendid”, wrote prince Mikhail Scherbatov in his book “On Corruption of Morals in Russia” (1786). The very empress never put on the same dress twice, changed dresses several times a day, and the courtier had to follow her example (after her death her wardrobe had 15 thousand dresses).

Aware that a male dress greatly suited her, Elizaveta liked to hold masquerade balls which men had to attend in female dress, and women – in male court-dress coats.

But entertaining, Elizaveta did not forget about business. The first step which strengthened her position was dismissal of all foreigners from state service. Burkhard Christoph von Münnich, Andrey Osterman, Karl Gustaw von Loewenwolde were replaced by Aleksey Bestuzhev-Riumin, Mikhail Vorontsov, Piotr Shuvalov, what “was perceived as the start of the national revival by the Russian society”. Empress Elizaveta did another very important thing: death penalty was abolished in the country tormented by cruelties of the preceding rules.

Elizaveta’s age (1741-1761) was a period of prosperity of art and science. Moscow University was opened in 1755; Saint Petersburg Academy of “Three Most Noble Arts” – architecture, sculpture and painting was opened in 1757. The favorite of the Empress, count Ivan Shuvalov became their supervisor. This is the time of work of an eminent Russian researcher Mikhail Lomonosov whom Aleksandr Pushkin called “the first Russian university”. Thanks to successful experiments of Mikhail Lomonosov and Dmitry Vinogradov the Imperial Porcelain Factory started its work (first dinner service – “Sobstvenny” – was made upon the order of Elizaveta in 1756. Its samples are exhibited in the Museum).

One of the most renowned Russian architects Franchesko Rastrelli created architectural complexes of palaces in Peterhof and Tsarskoye Selo, the cathedral of the Smolny Convent, Zimny Palace – “for all-Russian glory”.

Talented Russian artists – Ivan Vishniakov, Aleksey Antropov, Ivan Argunov mastered the image system of Western-European art.

After impossibly-tense period of Peter I and further many-year foreign dominance, twenty-year quiet rule of Elizaveta Petrovna was good for Russia.


The project authors:

Text by research assistant Marina Scherbakova

Illustrations (digitization of works) by Dmitry Kozlov

Translation into the Belarusian language by Svetlana Shukan and Nadezhda Krutalevich

Translation into the English language by Olga Scherbakova


Adding the project to the website by Polina Yanitskaya – head of the sector for multimedia technologies of the department for research and education of the National Art Museum.