Russian Art

The Poetry and Power of Russian Portraiture

By Christian House

F or a while in the early 19th-century, the Russian poet, author and historian, Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin was Emperor Alexander’s personal reader. In his monumental History of the Russian State Karamzin had cast a sentimental eye over his nation’s past. The emperor was intrigued but less keen on the time it would take time to read the 12 volumes. Therefore, the author was promptly summoned to read it to him.

Pimen Nikitich Orlov, Portrait of Alexander Nikolaevich Karamzin. Estimate £25,000–35,000.

A number of family portraits, offered in our Russian Pictures sale, underline the Karamzins’ place in the upper echelons of Imperial Russia. They were fixtures in Moscow’s cultural and intellectual arenas: the men enjoyed military status; the women hosted fashionable literary gatherings. An air of romance swirls through these paintings, just as it does in Nikolai’s prose. “What is life?” he once wrote. “A novel.”

Jean-Auguste Bard, Portrait of Ekaterina Nikolaevna Karamzina (Meshcherskaya). Estimate £4,000–6,000.

Ieva Mikutaviciute, Sotheby’s Russian pictures specialist, sets the scene: “The first half of the 19th century in Russia was marked by the political turbulence of the Decembrist uprising, the rise of sentimentalism and romantic nationalism, and the rapid development of Russian arts and literature. The Karamzin family played an important role in this cultural and political revival.”

Attributed to Jean-Auguste Bard, Portrait of Vladimir Nikolaevich Karamzin. Estimate £3,000–5,000.

Of the six portraits presented for sale, five are of Nikolai’s children – Sofia, Andrei, Alexander, Vladimir and Ekaterina – and the sixth is of Ekaterina’s husband, and Karamzin’s son-in-law, Prince Petr Meshchersky with their son Nikolai. Three of the works are by the Russian painter Pimen Orlov, painted in the mid- to late-1830s. Three further works were commissioned from the French Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste Bard, a student of Ingres, during the family’s European travels.

Pimen Nikitich Orlov, Portrait of Sofia Nikolaevna Karamzina. Estimate £25,000–35,000.

All the pictures are projections of status, studies of gravitas in repose. Alexander is debonair – cigarillo smouldering, hair swept dramatically to one side, legs crossed languidly, an expression of detachment. Splendid in full military regalia, his brother Andrei nonchalantly leans on a canon as if he were momentarily at rest on a seaside promenade. And their learned sister Sofia is depicted with a finger marking her place in a book. The portraits by Bard, meanwhile, deliver all the signifiers of the Grand Tour: rooms with a view, balconies and travel journals.

Jean-Auguste Bard, Portrait of Petr And Nikolai Meshchersky. Estimate £4,000–6,000.

The Karamzin family home remained a destination for cultural figures even after Nikolai’s death in 1826. Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol and Mikhail Lermontov were all visitors. “To be granted literary fame in high society,” the literary critic Ivan Panaev observed, “it was necessary to be admitted to the salon of Mrs Karamzina – the widow of the historian.”


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