Princess Zinaida Yusupova in her Moika Palace

Valentin Aleksandrovich Serov • Painting, 1902, 181.5×133 cm
About the artwork
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Portrait
Style of art: Art Nouveau
Technique: Oil
Materials: Canvas
Date of creation: 1902
Size: 181.5×133 cm
Artwork in selections: 86 selections

Description of the artwork «Princess Zinaida Yusupova in her Moika Palace»

Valentin Serov burst into the 20th century with a reputation as the chief court portraitist. Among his regular clients was Nicholas II and his shares got even more expensive after he was awarded the Great Medal of Honour at the World Exhibition in Paris for his portrait of Grand Duke Pavel Alexandrovich. Princess Zinaida Yusupova was one of the most prominent persons in the “queue for Serov”.

Like Princess Orlova she was a socialite. She also visited high-society balls and knew a lot about hats — it was not for nothing that Orlova considered her her main rival in the high fashion territory.

And yet Yusupova was practically the complete opposite of Orlova: her contemporaries noted her outstanding beauty, intelligence, tact, she behaved simple and with great dignity at the same time. The fact that Zinaida Nikolaevna was not a trivial socialite is evidenced by the fact that she succeeded in the impossible: to charm the gloomy and unsociable Serov. “A glorious princess,” he wrote to his wife, “everyone praises her very much, and indeed, there is something subtle and good in her.”

Serov had heard a lot about the luxury of the Yusupov Moika Palace, but what he saw surpassed all his expectations. The princess gave him a tour, at the end of which he felt giddy because of frescoes, marble, statues of Canova, paintings by Rembrandt and Velázquez. For the interior of his painting, Serov chose a small and modest (compared to other rooms in the the Yusupov Palace) living room. Having approved the dress and the spitz, he set to work, which required 80 sessions. “I lost my weight, re-gained and lost it again, while Serov painted my portrait, and he wasn’t enough, he painted more and more!” the princess told later.

The portrait was received without much enthusiasm. Critics blamed Serov for the deliberate pose of the model, for the excessive simplicity of the composition, discordant with the abundance of the “alarmingly curved lines”, for the fact that Yusupova’s pearl face looked like a mask of formal courtesy, for the general feeling of tension. Apparently, the princess partly agreed with this: according to some sources, the Yusupovs were going to cut an oval with her face out of the portrait, but, fortunately, did not dare.

Be that as it may, the ambiguous portrait did not prevent Valentin Serov and Zinaida Yusupova from remaining good friends. When in the autumn of 1903, Serov fell seriously ill and underwent a complex operation, the Yusupovs were among the first to show concern and willingness to help. Later, while in Europe, Serov sent a modest souvenir to Zinaida Nikolaevna — a toy monkey. And Princess Yusupova, one of the richest Russian aristocrats, was touched by this sign of attention.

By the way, Serov himself was pleased with the portrait. He especially liked the princess’s smile on his canvas. This fact was proudly noted in the memoirs of Yusupova’s son, Count Felix Sumarokov-Elston. “Serov was especially happy when he succeeded to paint the smile of my mother, whom he loved very much,” he wrote. “He loved both the mobility of her face and her beauty”.

Written by Andrii Zymogliadov