The Tale of Two Deaths
In the early days of this blog I would just write about a single painting, its history, its hidden meaning and just a little about its creator. Later I changed the format and wrote about the artist and included many of his or her works. Today I am reverting back to my former structure.
My blog today features two paintings by two different Russian artists, which I saw at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow that are connected by imprisonment and death in a State institution. Both can be classified as works of Historical Realism. Both are works by a Russian realist painters. One artist was famous for his many works on historical and religious subjects. The other is a painter whose name will always be synonymous for just one of his works of art.
The State institution which connects the two paintings is the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg. The military fortress was established by Peter the Great on May 16th 1703 on the small Zavachy Island by the north bank of the Neva River. Peter the Great commissioned his architect, Domenico Trezzini, to design the fortress as a defence against the Swedish, in case they tried to re-conquer this area. Russia had been involved in the Great Northern War against Sweden, and in 1703 managed to re-conquer the lands along the Neva River. From around 1720, the fortress served as a base for the city garrison and also as a prison for high-ranking or political prisoners and became known as the Russian Bastille. The subjects of both today’s paintings spent the last days of their lives in this prison. There are other connections between the subjects of the two paintings. The perceived threat to the ruling classes can have devastating consequences, even to family members.
Nikolai Nikolayevich Ghe is looked upon as one of the greatest nineteenth century Russian Realist painters and in this 1871 painting he has depicted a meeting between father and son. The father, sitting at the table, is Pyotr Alekseyevich, better known as Peter the Great who became Tsar of Russia, at the age of ten, in 1682. Peter ruled jointly with his brother Ivan V from 1682, until the death of Ivan in 1696, at which time Peter was officially declared Sovereign of all Russia.
Standing forlornly by the table is his son, Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich. Alexi Petrovich was the son of Peter the Great and his first wife, Eudoxia Lopukhina who were married in 1689. The couple had three children of whom Alexi, born in February 1690 was the eldest. His brothers, Alexander and Pavel died before they reached their first birthday. Peter divorced his wife in 1698 and forced her to join a convent. Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich was just eight years old when is mother had been banished. There can be no doubt that losing his mother at such an early age scarred young Alexei. The father-son relationship broke irrevocably in 1715, when Peter, hoping threatened his son that unless he changed, he would be deprived of the succession on his father’s death. Peter, who had believed such a threat would change the mind of his errant son, was astonished when Alexei volunteered to enter a monastery. However, at the last moment, Alexei had a change of heart, and fled to Vienna, where he was granted asylum.
Peter’s main aim was to re-establish his country as a great and powerful nation and to achieve that he had to undertake many reforms which affected great swathes of the population. People are averse to change and so was the case in Russia. He secularized schools, administered greater control over the reactionary Orthodox Church and introduced new administrative and territorial divisions of the country and with all these changes came many enemies who did not like what he was attempting to do. Peter would not tolerate dissent and he ruthlessly implemented his reforms, steamrolling over all opposition. He faced much opposition to these policies at home but brutally suppressed rebellions against his authority, including by the Streltsy, Bashkirs, Astrakhan, and the greatest civil uprising of his reign, the Bulavin Rebellion.
Rebellion was even closer to home in the shape of his son, Alexei, who although out of the country, was suspected of being involved in a plot to overthrow his father. Alexei sought to stake out his individuality by contrasting himself with his father. To that end, he became conservative and religious, and attracted admirers from amongst the traditionalists who wanted the return of the “good old days” – the days before Peter’s reforms. At the news of this perceived treachery, Peter sent agents to track down his son. In 1717, they contacted him and handed him a letter in which the Tsar berated Alexei but promised not to punish him if he returned to Russia. Alexi was advised to ignore the promises of his father and returned to Russia in 1718, where he begged forgiveness.
The 1871 painting at the Tretyakov Gallery by Nikolai Ghe depicts that first meeting of Peter and his son in a room at his father’s residence, the Monplaisir Palace at Peterhof after he returned to St Petersburg. It is entitled Peter the Great Interrogates Tsarevich Alexei. In this psychological painting the drama unfolds purely through the characterisation of father and son. Look at the protagonists. The red-faced father, Peter, angrily sits resolute and stares at his guilty son, who stands before him, meek and guilt-ridden. His head is bent dejectedly. He probably realises that it was a mistake to return home to his father. Mikhail Yevgrafovich Saltykov-Shchedrin, a nineteenth century Russian Satirical-Fiction writer, on seeing the painting, wrote:
“…Anyone who has seen these two simple, ingeniously positioned figures must confess that he was a witness to one of those stunning dramas which can never be erased from the memory…”
In Ghe’s painting, the artist has displayed an understanding of the historical struggle between the reactionary and the progressive. It is a depiction of the drama between father and son which overrides the sphere of personal relations. The artist has brought to us a feel for this turbulent and critical age with the image of Peter with the vital idea of his own time and his readiness to sacrifice his son for the sake of the interests of society.
During a public spectacle in which Alexei was disinherited. The Tsar forced him to name those who had aided his flight, which resulted in the torture and execution of dozens of Alexei associates. That done, Peter ordered his son jailed. On June 19th, 1718, Peter had Alexei flogged for days, until he confessed to conspiring to have his father assassinated. He was convicted and sentenced to be executed. The sentence could be carried out only with Peter’s signed authorization, and Alexei died in prison, as Peter hesitated before making the decision. Alexei died, aged 28, on 6 June 1718.
The second painting I am looking at is by the nineteenth-century Russian artist, Konstantin Flavitsky and it depicts a purported event which happened in 1777 although it is thought that the end of the story deviates slightly with the whole truth. The painting is undoubtedly the most famous of Flavitsky’s works and one he will always be remembered by.
The ruler of Russia at the time of this incident was Catherine II of Russia, known as Catherine the Great. Catherine was the wife of Tsar Peter III, the grandson of Tsar Peter I from my first story. Peter III had become Tsar in January 1762 but only ruled for six months. His downfall came because he had the habit of offending groups of powerful people. He offended the Russian Orthodox Church by trying to force it to adopt Lutheran religious practices and he alienated the imperial guards by making their service requirements more severe and even threatened to dispense with them. If all that was not bad enough, he turned away from his wife, Catherine, and we know that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Catherine suspected that he was planning to divorce her and so, with her lover Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov and the help of other members of the Imperial Guard that Peter had planned to discipline, she managed to have the emperor arrested and forced to abdicate on July 9th 1762. Later, he was transported to Ropsha, a settlement situated about 20 kilometres south of Peterhof and 49 kilometres south-west of central Saint Petersburg. Here, he was allegedly assassinated, although it is unknown how Peter died.
Being a ruler of a great empire, Catherine had to overcome many problems and in 1772 she faced yet another predicament for her to overcome in the shape of a beautiful young and refined woman who laid claim to Catherine’s position as ruler of Russia. It all started in Paris when the woman who had captivated French Society claiming she was illegitimate daughter of Empress Elizabeth, Peter III’s cousin, and thus, she was the legitimate heir to the Russian throne. She called herself, Princess Vladamir. She regaled her story that she was born in St. Petersburg in 1753, and later taken to Persia. There, she grew up in the home of a Persian nobleman. Whilst there she was tutored and one of her tutors made the astounding discovery about her true lineage. According to the tutor’s discovery she was the product of an affair between Elizabeth and her favourite, Count Aleksey G. Razumovsky. Elizabeth had many liaisons as a young woman and Razumovsky was her favourite lover.
Empress Catherine was shocked by the news of this impostor, who claimed to be the late Empress Elizabeth’s daughter and as such would have a greater claim to become Russian ruler than Catherine as before she married Peter III, Catherine was Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst, a German princess, and as such had no direct birthright to the Russian throne. Catherine knew that if her enemies decided to support the “false” princess, the her reign could be at risk and therefore, she knew she had to act fast.
Catherine conjured up a plan to lure this pretender to Russia and once there she would be under Catherine’s absolute authority and her claims to the throne would be immediately quashed. Catherine turned to Count Alexei Orlov, the brother of her companion, Grigory Orlov, for help. Alexei Orlov was a Russian soldier and statesman, who rose to prominence during the reign of Catherine the Great. He had served in the Imperial Russian Army, and through his connections with his brother, became one of the key conspirators in the plot to overthrow Tsar Peter III and replace him on the Russian throne with his wife, Catherine. Alexi Orlov put together a clever plan to seduce the faux princess. He arranged to meet the imposter princess in the Italian port of Livorno. At a meeting he agreed to help overthrow Catherine and she in turn offered Orlov a joint role in governing the country. Orlov took the plan a step further, seducing the princess and proposing marriage which would take place on his ship. On the day of the wedding, the princess, wearing her fine clothes and jewellery, boarded a small skiff and was ferried out to Orlov’s ship. Once on board, she was seized by a squad of soldiers commanded by Orlov himself and was arrested in the name of Catherine II.
The shipset sail for St. Petersburg, where the imposter princess was imprisoned in a dank cell at the Peter and Paul Fortress. She was brutally interrogated, but even under torture, she did not contradict herself, admit to fraud, or deny her royal descent. She died of tuberculosis whilst in a cell at the Peter and Paul Fortress in 1775 and was buried without ceremony in the fortress graveyard. So, this was the true version of the story of the princess, later to be known as Princess Tarakanova but many versions of this story came out in books and films and the magnificent 1864 painting, Princess Tarakanova, in the Peter and Paul Fortress at the Time of the Flood, by the Russian artist Konstantin Flavitsky. His take on the story was a depiction of the death by drowning of the imposter in her cell which was deluged by the flood waters of the great flood. It was a case of artistic licence as the great St Petersburg Flood, with water levels rising over ten feet, occurred in September 1777, two years after the princess’ death. It is a very moving painting and I remember being at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and standing in front of it for a long time taking in all the details. Flavitsky powerfully depicts the tragedy and suffering of this young woman who was facing certain death in a depressingly dark dungeon which is flooding with water coming through her cell window. Look how the rats are desperate to reach the higher ground of her mattress. It is a poignant depiction of her vulnerability and despair. Shafts of light stream through the window of the gaol cell in the Peter and Paul fortress as the water continues to rise. Eventually, the troubled twenty-two-year-old will die. The tragedy is immediate and realistic.
So there you have it. Two paintings connected to two death in the same gaol of two people who had the temerity to threaten the Russian leader of the time.