Andrei Matveev: Portrait of Princess Anastasiia P. Golitsyna (1728)

Oil on canvas. Private collection, Moscow.


Matveev: Portrait of Princess A. P. GolitsynaDuring the reign of Peter the Great, Russia entered a period of rapid modernization and westernization. To accomplish this, St. Petersburg was founded in 1703 (to become a new, modern capital in 1712) and Russian artists were sent to study abroad. Among the first painters sent to Europe was Andrey Matveev. In 1716 Matveev went to Holland and Flanders, where he spent eleven years. He became the first Russian painter to be educated exclusively in the West. After his return in 1727, Matveev became one of the leading artists in Russia.

In 1728 Matveev painted this Baroque portrait of princess Anastasiia Golitsyna, the wife of I. A. Golitsyn and a lady-in-waiting of the Empress Catherine I, the wife of Peter the Great. It is interesting to note that Princess Golitsyna was accused of being a participant in the Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich's plot against his father. Exiled in 1718, she was allowed to return to the court four years later.

Baroque painting is characterized by complex compositions, dramatic effects of light and shadow, lavish use of highlights, ornamentation, curved rather than straight lines, and the use of deep, rich colors and expressive gestures. All these characteristics are evident in Matveev's portrait of the princess. Although this painting is not complex in terms of the number of things represented on the canvas, it is complex in its technique and in the message that it conveys to the viewer.

The subject is painted in a less formal style; the princess is not portrayed standing but rather from the waist up, perhaps sitting. This might be an indication of her subservient position at the court, especially after her return in 1722. Although she is not portrayed standing, her clothing clearly shows that she is a woman of some importance and stature.

Golitsyna is dressed in a richly colored red dress lined with lace around the sleeves and the neck. The lace is depicted using white paint with darker shading on top, which gives an impression of light and intricacy of the lace. On the bodice of the dress, the lace is painted with white paint over the red. Shading, rather than outline, is used to make the creases and pleats in the dress and on Golitsyna's arms.

In the center of the dress, on the chest, Golitsyna is wearing a pendant, which from a distance seems to have diamonds on the outer edges. Upon closer examination, it appears that a grouping of diamond-like white dots frames the pendant. To the left of the pendant there is a large bow painted in a rich hunter green. Attached to the bottom of this bow there is another large pendant. This pendant is a large oval with a cross on its top. Again, Matveev uses white dots and shading to create a diamond-like effect. Inside the oval there is a picture of Peter the Great. This pendant is significant, given the history of the princess and the fact that this painting was done only six years after her return to the court. It is possible that the pendant is meant to proclaim her innocence and represent her dedication to Peter the Great. It is also interesting that this pendant is placed on the left side, close to the heart, furthering the emotional appeal of the subject in her allegiance to the Czar.

The bow is crossed over by a green ribbon band that holds the princess' shawl. The shawl is draped over the top of her left shoulder, around her back, up over her right arm and lap, and tied to the other end of the strap on the left side of her bodice just below the bow and pendant. The painting of this shawl is an excellent example of the dramatic effects of light and shade characteristic of Baroque painting as well as Matveev's technical abilities. The shawl is a good illustration of not only the use of curves rather than sharp angles and straight lines, but also of highlight and shading. The creases and curves are shown through dramatic and lavish highlights. A bright white is used against the dark maroon in order to create a distinct and eye-catching contrast. Soft and delicate brush strokes are used to create the smooth surface of the shawl. Shadowing, used in contrast to the bright highlights, creates the depth of the shawl. This use of highlighting can also be seen on the strap of the shawl. Here the highlighting is used to show the twisting of the strap.

One main source of bright light coming from the left side of the portrait contributes to the dramatic lighting effects. All highlights and shadows correspond with this light source. The most significant evidence of this light source are the bright highlights on the princess' chest, neckline, and face. In contrast, the left side of the princess' head and shoulders is shaded.

Light and highlights are also used in shaping the curls and adding volume to the princess' hair. The white paint is applied on the top of dark color of the hair. Matveev uses the white highlights on the hair framing Golitsyna's face to create the illusion of the curls and show the direction of the light source.

The three-dimensionality created by the light source, highlighting, and shading, makes the face of the princess realistic and natural. The face shows depth of emotion rarely seen in earlier Russian painting. The face is painted without outlines, giving it a soft and natural look. Matveev uses shading once again to create the features of the face, including the nose and eyes. He is so meticulous in his efforts to create a realistic and natural portrait that upon closer inspection one can even detect Golitsyna's eyelashes. However, unlike the sitters on many other portraits of this time, the princess is not smiling. Not only is she not smiling, but she seems to be unhappy, gloomy, and somber. This may be a conscious artistic decision on the part of Matveev or perhaps a reflection of Golitsyna's general unhappy nature. Since the princess is not young, the facial expression could be a sign of her age, an indicator of having been through much in her years. It could relate back to her unfortunate episode at the court and be a sign of humility. At any rate, her expression is serious and it contrasts with the rest of the purposeful softness of the painting.

In keeping with baroque's predilection for rich colors, the background is rendered with cloud-like spreads of maroon, green, and brown, similar to the colors of the dress, the bow, and the shawl. The cloud-like shapes in the background help to soften and balance the picture and agree stylistically with the softness of the rest of the painting.

Although the portrait of princess Golitsyna may not look very complex at first glance, closer examination proves otherwise. Not only does this painting tell much about the princess, but it is an excellent example of the advanced technique and considerable talent of Andrey Matveev [L.O.].



© Alexander Boguslawski 1998-2005