Friday, July 31, 2009

The Russian Style

Photo credit: Romanov Collection, General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

At the advertising agency we have been doing a lot of research on Russia. I was very taken by this photograph above: it is a photo of Grand Duchess Olga and Grand Duchess Anastasia with their mother, Tsarina Alexandra. It looks perhaps like Olga is dressed for volunteer work in World War 1, and they are in a summer setting. I love the rug thrown on the bare floor, the wicker furniture, the masses of flowers and plants, and the light gauzy curtains which reveal the trees beyond lit with sunlight. This room is a dream; a nice way to live, no?

Tsarina Alexandra was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England, and she married Nicholas II, Tsar of Russia. Here is the Tsar:

Good looking guy.

Here is the Tsar with his cousin, King George V of England. They are also both grandchildren of Queen Victoria, as was Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany; back then everyone was descended from Queen Victoria.

The Tsar and Tsarina had five children, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and, at last, a boy, Alexei, who suffered from hemophilia.
A lovely family, but, you know this, they met a sad end. The Tsar was an ineffective leader and the Bolsheviks organized against him and the imperial system. On July 16, 1918, the whole family, all seven, were killed, shot and stabbed, in a basement during the Russian Revolution. Lenin came to power and communist Soviet Union was born, putting an end to the fascinating rule of the tsars.

When we visited my brother Thom and his family in Toronto, we went to an exhibition at the art museum there on Catherine the Great (1762-1796). She was a tiny little thing who expanded the borders of Russia to be the world's largest empire. Do you know how she came to power? She was a lowly German princess who married the Tsar, Peter III. Then she had him killed and she took control. Yikes. Catherine came after Peter the Great (1682-1725), who is credited with modernizing Russia after traveling to Europe, and introducing Western art, culture and architecture. He sponsored education and publishing. But he had his own son tortured and killed. Tough crowd.

Russian style during the tsars was amazingly extravagant. Years ago at the Brooklyn Museum, there was an exhibition on the tsars' jewelry. It was a circular exhibition in one big room featuring diamonds, rubies, emeralds as big as robin's eggs. It was staggeringly beautiful. I could not leave that show; I kept walking around in circles, trying to get out.

French painter Horace Vernet, in a letter from 1843 about a Russian imperial ball, wrote: "It was magnificent; one was literally thrusting one's way through diamonds, one stepped over pearls and rubies; it had to be seen to be believed."

Here is a tsar's cut-velvet coat, cuffed with pearls and gems.

Now those were the days.


Errant Aesthete said...

Indeed, those were the days. The jewel encrusted cuff is a marvel. One can barely imagine being adorned in such incomprehensible finery (conspicuous consumption?), yet I suspect the nobles took it comfortably in stride.

I am always intrigued with Russia and its culture and the story of Niholas II and his family is one of the more haunting tales in its history. The near perfection and physical beauty of the family only added to the tragedy.

The opening photo is breathtaking.

Kalee said...

Very striking images and lovely post.

Mr. Peacock said...

Wonderful post Bart!

I started learning Russian in 7th grade and became completely obsessed with the Romanovs. It took me an entire summer to read Robert K. Massie's book Nicholas and Alexandra!

Nicholas II is a handsome chap!

Andrew B said...

Nicholas was indeed a handsome man but he was not a grandchild of Queen Victoria that was his wife (a great beauty in her youth).Nicholas and George V were firdt cousins through their mothers...the daughters of Christian IX of Denmark.