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Franz Krüger (1797-1857)

Nicholas I, Emperor of Russia (1796-1855) Signed and dated 1847

RCIN 406814

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The portrait was commissioned by Nicholas I as a gift for Queen Victoria, following his visit to England in 1844. On 10 November 1847, the Queen recalled in her Journal that ‘Before dinner Baron Brunow presented a fine full length portrait of the Emperor of Russia which is an excellent likeness.’ The sitter was described by the Queen at the time of his stay as very striking [...] he is still very handsome; very tall with a very fine figure [...] & beautiful Grecian profile.’ The monumental scale of the portrait rivals the spectacular equestrian portraits of allies Alexander I (1837) and Frederick William III of Prussia (1831), painted by the German artist for the Military Gallery of 1812 in the Winter Palace. Dressed in the striking red uniform of the Russian Cavalier Guard, with the white enamel badge of the Order of St George, and ribands and stars of the Order of the Garter and St Vladimir, the Emperor stands amidst a rough, stony terrain, a military engagement taking place in the background.

Krüger, who studied with the artist Carl Wilhelm Kolbe the Elder (1759–1835), and later at the Berlin Academy, probably came to the attention of Nicholas through his father-in-law, Frederick William III of Prussia, and he became a favourite court painter. He first travelled to St Petersburg in 1836, and was subsequently there in 1844–5, 1847 and 1850–51. His interest in horses (his nickname was Pferde Krüger, ‘Horsey Krüger’) and his training with Kolbe, who was fascinated by nature, culminates in works that merge history, portrait and genre painting; the vignettes that flank the sitter add interest and a narrative to the portrait; similar scenes are often recycled in other works.

The portrait is said to have been painted in Berlin, but was sent to St Petersburg for corrections, prior to its dispatch to London in October 1847. From June to September that year, Krüger was engaged in painting a three-quarter- length variant for General Vladimir Baryatinsky (1817–75) (Pushkin Museum, Moscow) for his collection. Studies for the portrait are in the Russian Museum, St Petersburg and the Staatliches Museum, Schwerin. William Corden the Younger was instructed to paint a reduced copy to hang in the rooms used by the Emperor during his stay (RCIN 406751).The copy is recorded in a watercolour of the 1844 Room (named to commemorate the visit) by James Roberts, c.1848–50 (RCIN 919919). It appears that in 1863 the Queen wished to send the original portrait to Berlin for copying, which prompted some discussion; having inspected the painting in Buckingham Palace, Richard Redgrave (1804–88), Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, concluded ‘it would be a large case to send flat and I believe it does not fold and therefore on the whole it would be most advisable to roll it.’ It is unknown if the Queen’s request was fulfilled.

Last recorded hanging in the Queen’s Guard Chamber in Windsor Castle in a photograph taken for Country Life magazine (1931, RCIN 2100906), the portrait was taken down prior to the Second World War and rolled up for nearly 80 years. It has been recently conserved and shows little evidence of its chequered history. The painting's magnificent Russian rococo revival frame is decorated with sprays of oak leaves and palm fronds, and flower heads between pierced rocaille centre ornaments; the imperial eagle adorns each corner.

Tsar Nicholas I (1796-1855), third son of Tsar Paul I and Maria Feodorovna, daughter of Frederick, Duke of Württemberg, succeeded to the throne of Russia in 1825 following the death of his eldest brother Alexander I, and the renunciation of the throne by his second brother, Grand Duke Constantine. His aggressive interest in Turkey culminated in the Crimean War, which had not been concluded at the time of his death in 1855. 

Among other subjects Kruger's hunting and stable scenes found favour in Prussian society. The Napoleonic wars inspired him to paint military subjects, and he achieved success with works such as March of the Prussian Cavalry (1820; Doorn, Huis Doorn). His portrait of Prince August of Prussia (c. 1819; Doorn, Huis Doorn) won him access to the patronage of the court. His talent in combining portraiture and genre painting in the representation of historical events is shown in his painting of the Large Parade on the Opernplatz, commissioned by Tsar Nicholas I of Russia (1830; Berlin). In addition to the respect he had gained at the Prussian court, he was esteemed as a portrait painter in the courts of Hannover, Schwerin, and in St Petersburg.

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