An Unknown Lady

Ivan Nikolayevich Kramskoy • Painting, 1883, 75.5×99 cm
About the artwork
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Portrait
Style of art: Realism
Technique: Oil
Materials: Canvas
Date of creation: 1883
Size: 75.5×99 cm
Artwork in selections: 145 selections
Exhibitions history

Description of the artwork «An Unknown Lady»

“Who is she?” they asked him. “An unknown lady”, Kramskoy answered laconically. A courtesan? A mistress of a high-ranking person? Maybe a beloved of the emperor himself? Or is she a literary heroine? The artist’s daughter? We admit it right away, we don’t know the exact answer. Many diaries and letters remained after Kramskoy. Not a single mention of his working on this picture is found in them.

It was not recommended to bring young men or girls to the 11th exhibition of the Itinerants. The fact is that among the populist, denunciatory pictures, the Kramskoy’s Unknown Lady was like a guest from another world. A beautiful woman dressed elegantly and emphatically richly, in whose gaze were arrogance and something else difficult to verbalize. “Cocotte in a carriage!” art critic Vladimir Stasov did not bother to search for deep meanings. Public opinion basically supported this version, because this picture caused the age limit established at 16+. It was considered indecent!

The painting shows a fashionably dressed lady going in a carriage along Nevsky Prospect on a frosty morning. You can see the Anichkov Palace behind her, she is wearing a black fur and velvet coat, nice Swedish suede-like leather gloves, a stylish Francis hat with an ostrich feather — these have just come into fashion. She has a slender figure and a face from which you cannot take your eyes off. And the eyes of this woman are the main mystery of the picture. It is because of these incredible shiny eyes that she is called the Russian Gioconda. The mystery of the Leonardo’s creation is her smile, and the most amazing thing in Kramskoy’s Unknown Lady is her eyes. Deep, almost black, their look is haughty and at the same time defenceless and arrogant; but insecurity and vulnerability are read behind contempt. Her beautiful face is frankly sensual, it beckons and at the same time creates distance.

They saw Anna Karenina, Nastasya Filippovna and even Blok’s Stranger in her, although the poem was written much later. And what about the real life prototypes? The most common version was voiced by Stasov. A cocotte, a courtesan, a kept woman. In favour of this is the emphatically luxurious outfit. The high society was already introducing “refined simplicity” into fashion: the aristocrats went bankrupt, so it became especially chic not to chase fashion too quickly. At the same time, merchant daughters and courtesans often could afford “all the best at once”. And since they could not enter the high society, they dressed up for walks especially diligently. This version is also supported by a study found fifty years after the painting was made, in which it is easier to mistake the woman for a sporting girl: she is vulgar, puffy, with contempt in her gaze, but the riddles of the final version are not there yet. However, Dmitry Andreev, a specialist in costumes of the Alexander II epoch, claims that the lady in the final version of the picture is dressed not only richly, but also with impeccable taste. The nouveaux riches and their women didn’t dress like that...

In this unknown lady, they saw the ballerina, Catherine Chislova, the mistress of the Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, and the ballerina Anna Kuznetsova, the kept woman of the Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich. But the most fascinating version says that Kramskoy painted Catherine Dolgorukova, who was a lover of Alexander II for many years, and after the death of the empress became his wife. The daring look and the Anichkov Palace, according to this version, are a challenge to the society that did not accept her and to the emperor’s heir, who lived in this palace. Technically, this is possible: the artist taught the emperor’s children to paint. When Alexander II was killed, Catherine was exiled abroad. Kramskoy could not exhibit her portrait, it could bring very serious problems into his relations with Alexander III, who hate Dolgorukova. Therefore, he allegedly changed her facial features, and she quite resembled the artist's daughter Sofia. From time to time, art critics are shaken by information about some letter from Alexander II to his beloved, in which he speaks of a portrait ordered from Kramskoy, but officially this letter never appeared anywhere and there is no confirmation that the Unknown Lady was painted from Catherine Dolgorukova.

There are also many melodramatic versions trying to shed light on the name of the lady in the fashionable Francis hat. The story about the unprecedented beauty of the peasant woman Matryona Savvishna, who became wife of the nobleman Bestuzhev, and died after he left her, generally deserves to become the plot of a film series with a couple of hundred episodes. The traditional minus is the absence of any evidence that Matryona is the lady depicted in the picture.

We don’t know the name, but there is something we can say. Kramskoy told us a story about loneliness, about the confrontation between a loner and crowd, about the contempt returned to the society by the one despised by them. We meet these themes in other works of the artist (1, 2).

Another interesting observation: this painting echoes The Parisian Cafe painted by Repin abroad (Ilya Efimovich was also rebuked by many Itinerants and specifically from Vladimir Stasov then). Repin did not hide the subject, there is no need to guess the confrontation between a woman (fallen? emancipated? we don’t know, but something is wrong with her!) who challenged the society, and the society that had contempt for her. Even outwardly, the subjects are similar, although the impudent woman by Repin in her gaze does not have the suffering hidden in the haughty eyes of the Unknown Lady.

It is also a story about the incredible power of beauty. In the Unknown Lady, the paradoxicality of Ivan Kramskoy’s talent was especially acutely embodied. He had quite definite views both on the tasks of art and on the ideal of a woman — a pure mother, wife, highly moral, spiritual, without a veil of vicious sensuality. The paradox is that his life and his paintings were often at odds with the ideas he proclaimed. The rebel and democrat, at the end of his life, he was looking for ways to improve relations with the Academy and painted portraits of the royal family. An adherent of purity and morality, he married a woman who had cohabited with a married man before him and was abandoned by him. Having painted many family portraits and women, in whose appearance spiritual beauty attracted the first attention, he went down in history as the author of the sensual, luxurious Unknown Lady — whoever she is, she does not look like a symbol of a highly moral person.

Perhaps this discord in his worldview and life was the reason for Kramskoy’s early death? I wonder what he would have painted if he had not introduced himself into the ideology and created a huge number of such successful commissioned portraits he didn’t really like? The subjunctive mood does not imply confident answers at all, but for some reason, it seems that An Unknown Lady is a part of this unfound answer.

Written by Aliona Esaulova