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Portrait of Emperor Nicholas II (Portrait of Nicholas II in a gray jacket)

Valentin Aleksandrovich Serov • Painting, 1900-th , 70×58 cm
About the artwork
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Portrait
Style of art: Impressionism
Technique: Oil
Materials: Canvas
Date of creation: 1900-th
Size: 70×58 cm
Artwork in selections: 76 selections

Description of the artwork «Portrait of Emperor Nicholas II (Portrait of Nicholas II in a gray jacket)»

In 1902, while working over another portrait of Nicholas II, an incident occurred that put an end to the relationship between Serov and the Romanov dynasty. Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna, who wished to see the work progress, dared to give Serov an advice (she herself painted taking lessons from the German artist von Kaulbach). Serov was an independent person of hard temper, he invited her to finish the portrait in his place. The Empress, covered with crimson spots, ran out of the room. The portrait remained unfinished. All attempts of the imperial house to restore diplomatic relations with Serov were responded with a resolute refusal. When Nicholas tried to get close to Serov through Sergei Diaghilev, Valentin Aleksandrovich snapped: “I no longer work in this house,” and he kept his word.

Thus, the portrait of Nicholas II in the jacket of an officer of the Preobrazhensky regiment became the last finished portrait of the emperor by Serov.

After 1905, Serov’s dislike for the royal family increased manifold: the artist blamed the emperor for the events of Bloody Sunday. He believed that he foresaw the future hardships associated with the reign of Nicholas in his portrait. Once, having seen his own picture at an exhibition, Serov exclaimed: “In the corners of his eyes, there is 1905!” And the artist’s friend Konstantin Korovin wrote about this portrait: “Serov was the first artist to catch and capture the softness, intelligence, and at the same time the weakness of the emperor on the canvas.”

However, in 1900, Valentin Serov definitely had sympathy for his high-ranking model.
During his work on this portrait, Serov asked Nicholas to help Mamontov (Savva Ivanovich was under investigation), and the emperor immediately ordered that he be released under house arrest. Serov dared to ask Nicholas about financial support for the Mir Iskusstva magazine, and he again did not refuse. Serov was captivated by the tsar’s ability to behave simply and at the same time with great dignity, the emperor definitely charmed him.

This is what dictated the composition of the picture. Intended as a gift to the Empress*, it is completely devoid of any bravura or pathos of ceremonial portraits. Nicholas II in his everyday military uniform, his pose (by the way, instantly reviving the famous Serov’s  Girl with Peaches) does not imply neither narcissism, nor arrogance, his mind shines in his eyes. The famous art critic Abram Efros said that Serov “painted a quiet, bright-eyed dreamer in colonel’s shoulder straps with his affectionate brush”.

In the same year Serov made a copy of the Portrait in a Jacket. Once he brought it to the room where the editorial staff of the Mir Iskusstva gathered. Having “seated” the painted emperor at the head of the table, he skilfully illuminated the portrait and almost brought Leon Bakst, Alexandr Benois and his other magazine colleagues to a collective heart attack. It is this author’s copy that is now kept in the Tretyakov Gallery**.

As for the first portrait, which hung in the study of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, it suffered a not so cheerful fate. In 1917, the eyes of the “bright-eyed dreamer” from the original were gouged out with bayonets by the sailors who stormed the Winter Palace.

*1900 is also the year of creation of another Serov’s portrait, Nicholas II, Emperor of Russia, Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Scot Greys (Nicholas II was appointed as Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Scots Greys since 1896 and ordered a portrait to donate it to the military wards — the painting is now kept in the museum of the regiment in Edinburgh). This ceremonial portrait was painted at the same time with the “portrait in a jacket”, which was prepared as a gift to the empress. When she found her husband and the artist painting the “gray” portrait, they explained to her that it was just a sketch needed to paint the Scot ceremonial portrait.

**The Hermitage keeps an etching done in 1913 after Serov's original.

Written by Andrey Zymogliadov