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Portrait of Princess Olga Orlova

Painting, 1911, 237.5×160 cm

Description of the artwork «Portrait of Princess Olga Orlova»

Princess Olga Konstantinovna Orlova, the legendary Petersburg fashionista and professional socialite, knew how to wear hats. It was not easy to suspect other talents in her: according to her eyewitnesses, the princess didn’t have much intelligence, sincerity or beauty. Obviously, punctuality was not among her virtues. Having persuaded Serov to paint her portrait, she continued to flutter from one ball to another, and he (in order to finish the work, which he took up without much eagerness) was forced to chase her everywhere — from St. Petersburg to the Atlantic coast. Of course, Serov did not settle scores by means of the portrait, he was not a petty person. However, the note of irritation he experienced during his work can be seen quite clearly: this is a vivid example of how deftly Serov was able to introduce elements of caricature into a ceremonial portrait.

“She could not stand, walk, sit without her antics, emphasizing that she was not just some ordinary aristocrat, but the first court lady,” Igor Grabar described Orlova. Serov did not sin against the truth, depicting such an “antic” instead of her character or any signs of her personality.

The unnatural posture of the princess gives out her impatience — she is in full dress and ready to conquer the world. Her eyebrows are raised arrogantly, there is barely suppressed irritation on her face: something or someone dares to distract the mistress of life from her urgent affairs. The sleek finger pointing to herself is a further evidence of an overly inflamed ego.

Serov expressed his attitude to the model so unequivocally that art critics rushed to look for hints and metaphors in the portrait, including those of which the artist hardly suspected. For example, some of them seriously believe that Serov deliberately distorted the shadow of the vase so that it repeats the outline of Orlova in her absurd hat, as if emphasizing in this way that his sitter is also empty.

The admirers of the princess (and there were many of them) were very unhappy with the portrait. They especially blamed Serov for the fact that he insisted that Orlova pose in her hat. Serov calmly replied that it would no longer be Orlova without the hat.

Olga Konstantinovna herself did not voice any claims. But she hardly liked this picture — she must have understood Serov’s sarcasm. Soon after the artist’s death, she gave the portrait to the Museum of Alexander III with the condition that it would not be exhibited in the same room with the portrait of Ida Rubinstein. Princess Orlova seemed to not endure competition not only at noisy balls, but also in the silence of the Russian Museum.

Written by Andrey Zymogliadov
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About the artwork

Art form: Painting

Subject and objects: Portrait

Style of art: Impressionism

Materials: Canvas

Date of creation: 1911

Size: 237.5×160 cm

Artwork in selections: 67 selections