Portrait Exhibition Examines
the Smolny Institute

A portrait of E. I. Nelidova, painted in 1773 by Dmitry Levitsky.

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Seven portraits of young noblewomen who studied at the Smolny Institute painted more than 230 years ago go on display Friday at the State Russian Museum. The exhibition, titled “Smolyanki,” is dedicated to the 275th anniversary of the birth of their creator, the artist Dmitry Levitsky.

All of the portraits were painted at the request of Catherine the Great, who founded the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens in 1764. According to the empress’s decree, the objective was to raise “educated women, good mothers, and useful members of family and society.” Although the stated aim of the institute was to bring girls up “in beauty and happiness,” Russia’s first educational institution for women was famous for its strict discipline. Students had to get up at 6 a.m. and had virtually no free time. They were accompanied everywhere by schoolmistresses, and there was no opportunity for them to escape from Smolny — all the parents signed a document promising that they wouldn’t take their child home for 12 years.

Under Catherine the Great, the girls could only see their parents from the other side of a latticed screen. At the end of their studies, an exam was taken, after which most of the young noblewomen went on to become maids of honor at the imperial court.

Catherine wanted to show off her first students to high society, and with this aim in mind, she arranged for them to go for a walk around the Summer Gardens in 1773. Many people came to see the young women, who reportedly behaved modestly, and won over their audience. The empress was so proud that she ordered the painter Levitsky to create portraits of the institute’s most eminent students.

The artist depicted the girls in stage costumes, marking the beginning of a new genre in art — the “role portrait.” Levitsky didn’t want to simply copy the subjects’ faces; his portraits tell the story of heroines who exist both in theatrical appearances and in their own secluded reality.

All of the models are portrayed in action: playing the harp, dancing or moving in some other way. Some critics say the portraits can be considered to be allegorical, but according to Grigory Goldovsky, head of Russian painting from the 18th to 19th centuries at the Russian Museum, the portraits are “evidence of the epoch.”

When viewed as a collection, the portraits complement each other. Levitsky lowered the horizon line, because he wanted spectators to see the figures from that viewpoint — just as the audience in the stalls sees actors on the stage. All the models are drawn close to the edge of the canvas to intensify the effect.

The portraits were created with the help of Ivan Betskoy, Catherine’s personal secretary and advisor, who was also instrumental in the founding of the Smolny Institute. He was passionately in love with one of the students, Glafira Alymova, who is luxuriously depicted on her portrait. Although she is shown wearing regular parade dress, she has multiple accessories, including large pearls in her hair.

Another interesting portrait shows Yekaterina Khrushchova and Yekaterina Khovanskaya, who are depicted performing a scene from the pastoral opera “Le caprice amoureux, ou Ninette a la cour.” Khrushchova, dressed as a man, plays the role of shepherd.

In another painting, Yekaterina Nelidova, the future favorite of Tsar Paul I, dances a minuet. The poet and dramatist Ivan Dolgorukov wrote: “The girl is clever, but her face is rather ugly, with noble bearing, but short, and black as a bug. But she is so clever and kind that everybody who talks to her forgets that she is ugly.”

The completed portraits were moved to Peterhof Palace, where they were hung in the Empress’s bedroom. During the process of assembling the original collection of the Russian Museum in the late 19th century, the museum’s committee repeatedly asked the imperial family to donate the portraits, but the answer was always no. Only after the February Revolution were the portraits added to the museum’s other exhibits.

During their long history, the “Smolyanki” have undergone considerable change. Additions have been made to some of the portraits at various times. In the 19th century, for example, the paintings were considered too bright. The colors didn’t correspond to prevailing fashion, so the portraits were covered with yellow lacquer.

“Restoration started about five years ago,” said Goldovsky. “Of course, the paintings had a lot of signs of previous restorations, which had not always been done professionally. As well as various invasions, the portraits have also suffered some losses.”

The main task of the restorers was to remove all the layers that had been added to the originals. The portrait of Glafira Alymova, for example, revealed a lot of additional touches that didn’t match the artist’s tones. After restoring the portrait to its original appearance, the composition elements became visible.

Visitors can trace the whole story of the restoration of the “Smolyanki” at the exhibition.

“A lot of photos and videos showing the [restoration] process are exhibited, as well as historical documents,” said Goldovsky.

“Smolyanki. Dmitry Levitsky” opens Friday in the Benois Wing of the Russian Museum.

Source: St. Petersburg Times
20 August, 2010