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Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-73)

Grand Duchess Alexandra Iosifovna of Russia (1830-1911) 1859

Oil on canvas | 147.5 x 109.0 cm (support, with tray/wood strips) | RCIN 408615

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  • Considered a great beauty in her youth, with a tall, graceful figure, the Grand Duchess Alexandra, or ‘Sanny’, was the fifth daughter of Joseph, Duke of Saxe-Altenburg and Amalie Therese Louise, Duchess of Württemberg. In September 1848 she married Grand Duke Constantine Nikolaevich, second son of Nicholas I, and younger brother to Alexander II; they had six children, including Olga Constantinovna, grandmother to HRH The Duke of Edinburgh. Their early years of marriage were happy and the couple shared a love of music; however, they gradually drifted apart.

    Winterhalter never travelled to Russia, so the portrait was presumably painted in Germany (together with a lost portrait of her husband), possibly in Brückenau, a German spa town favoured by Russian aristocracy. It was here, in 1857, that the artist painted Maria Alexandrovna, Sanny’s sister-in-law (Hermitage, St Petersburg). Clearly painted to adorn a grand reception room, the sitter’s face and shoulders are meticulously described, in contrast to the tulle and blue ribbon of her fashionable dress, which are thinly painted in a loose manner to skilfully imitate the textures and transparency of the fabrics. The artist returned to the painting once the underlayers were quite dry, to add highlights to the hair and floral corsage.

    In the early twentieth century, the portrait hung in the Marble Palace, St Petersburg, one of the couple’s residences, and in 1905 it was included in an exhibition of Historic Russian Portraits organised by the ballet impresario, Sergei Diaghilev (1872–1929), at the Tauride Palace. Its fate during the turbulent years of the Revolution is a little uncertain: on Sanny’s death, it may have passed to the family of the sitter’s brother-in-law, Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevich. The reverse is clearly inscribed with the abbreviation A.I.M.K., possibly for the Academy for the History of Material Culture, which was located in the New Michael Palace, St Petersburg, during the post-revolution years. It was later sold by the Bolsheviks, and in the mid-1930s is recorded in the collection of Sir Robert Abdy (1896–1976).

    Text adapted from Russia: Art, Royalty & the Romanovs, London, 2018

    Provenance

    Collection of the sitter, Marble Palace, St Petersburg; by descent; exhibited at the Winter Palace during the Romanov tercentenary celebrations, 1912/13; presumably in the collection of Sir Robert Abdy by 1930s; later in a private collection; bequeathed to Queen Elizabeth II for the Royal Collection by Jane, Lady Abdy, 2016

  • Medium and techniques

    Oil on canvas

    Measurements

    147.5 x 109.0 cm (support, with tray/wood strips)

    146.5 x 108.0 (support, canvas/panel/str external)

    144.5 x 106.7 cm (sight) (sight)

    189.8 x 152 cm (frame, external)

  • Other number(s)