Friday, September 23, 2011

Royal Portrait: The Family of Tsar Paul I

This portrait of the family of Tsar Paul I of Russia was done by Gerhard von Kugelgen in 1800. The imperial family is depicted against the background of the Pavlovsk Park. At the right side of the painting is the facade of the Pavlovsk Palace, overlooking the Slavyanka River.
From left to right: Tsarevich Alexander (wearing the uniform of the Semenovsky Life-Guards Regiment and his arm resting on a pedestal containing the bust statue of Peter the Great), Constantine (in red uniform), Nicholas (wearing a blue ribbon around his waist), Empress Maria FeodorovnaCatherine, Maria (playing with a harp), Olga (depicted as a bust statue); Anna (wearing green clothes), Tsar Paul I, Michael (sitting on the ground), Alexandra, and Elena.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Queen Hortense: Recollections by the Duchess d'Abrantes

From the memoirs of Laure Junot, Duchess d'Abrantes:
"Hortense de Beauharnais was at this time, 17 years old; she was as fresh as a rose, and though her fine complexion was not relieved by much color, she had enough to produce that freshness and bloom which was her chief beauty; a profusion of white hair played in silky locks round her soft and penetrating blue eyes. The delicate roundness of her figure, slender as a palm tree, was set off by the elegant carriage of her head; her feet were small and pretty; her hands very white, with well-rounded nails. But what formed the chief attraction of Hortense was the grace and suavity of her manners which united the Creole nonchalance with the vivacity of France. She was gay, gentle and amiable; she had wit, without the smallest ill temper, is enough to be amusing. A polished and well conducted education has improved her natural talents; she dances excellently, sang harmoniously, and performed admirably in comedy. ...She became one of the most amiable princesses in Europe. I have seen many, both in their own countries and in Paris, but I never knew one who had any pretensions to equal talents. She was beloved by everyone..."

Queen Hortense

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Pearl of Russia: Maria Pavlovna of Russia

Maria Pavlovna, Grand Duchess of Russia,
Grand Duchess of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach
The Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia was the fifith child and third daughter of Paul I of Russia and Empress Maria Feodorovna. She was born in Pavlovsk Palace in St. Petersburg on February 4, 1786, and was named after her mother. Maria was raised along with her four sisters in Pavlovsk and Gatchina under the strict guidance of their mother. As a child, "Masha", as she was called within the family, was distinguished from her sisters as a bit of a tomboy. Her grandmother, the Empress Catherine, wrote that Maria would have been better to have been born a boy and earn a place in the dragoons ("a guardsman in a skirt", her grandmother called her). She was inclined to enjoy boy's games, and swaggered by clenching her hands and putting them on her hips. The Empress Catherine despaired, "...I don't know what will become of her..." The little Maria was also considered not pretty: her features where disfigured as a result of a pioneering application of the smallpox vaccine. "My third granddaughter was unrecognizable", wrote Empress Catherine. The grandmother and the parents were so concerned about Maria that they, especially the Empress, started to pay special attention to her development.

Fortunately, as she grew older, Maria began her transformation from an ugly duckling to a beautiful swan. The pox marks were now barely visible, and by the time she reached adolescence, people at court started admiring her. She was now a very pretty girl, with deep-set brown eyes and an aquiline nose, and was called "the pearl of the family". She was not as beautiful as her sister Elena, who was considered the beauty of the family, but she had grown up to be an attractive girl. "...She looked like an angel," said one courtier. If Maria did not stand out as the beauty among her sisters, she made it up through her remarkable talent in music. This was especially praised by her grandmother, who noted how, at the age of nine, Maria was able to play the piano with such genius. She also became a favorite of her father, who admired her cheerful and lively disposition, strength of character, will power, and candor. A highly precocious child with a serious interest in intellectual pursuit, Maria loved reading so much that courtiers were amazed to see her holding and reading a book for hours.

In 1799, Maria's two elder sisters, Alexandra and Elena, were married in St. Petersburg, and soon departed  with their respective husbands for their new home. Fourteen-year-old Maria was left as the eldest daughter of the family. But after a year, there were already talks about a possible marriage between her and the heir to the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, Prince Charles Frederick, a nephew of Paul I's first wife, Natalia Alexeievna. Negotiations were conducted, and in the summer of 1803, Charles Frederick arrived in Russia. He was warmly greeted by the imperial family and the court, was made Lieutenant-General, and was given his own suites in the palace. He was to spend a year in Russia with his future bride. This was a great opportunity for the couple to know each other thoroughly, and to better understand each other's personality, habits and tastes.

The young grand duchess Maria in
Charles Frederick was said to be handsome, kind, and with a good sense of humor, but he was considered too "simple-minded" and obtuse for the intelligent Maria. Nevertheless, he and Maria were finally married in St. Petersburg after nine months of "getting to know each other". They spent their honeymoon in Pavlovsk.

Maria's future adoptive homeland, Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, was nothing like Russia when it comes to wealth, power, and prestige. The duchy was small and impoverished, but it was well-known throughout Europe to be a center of culture and science. Its capital, Weimar, was the home of great poets like Goethe and Schiller, dramatists, philosophers, writers and other eminent scholars. Curiously, the cultural glory of this duchy was not created by its ruling dukes, but by the Dowager Duchess Anna Amalia, who was a Princess of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel before her marriage to the Duke of Saxe-Weimar. It seemed that Maria's talent and love of music and the arts had found their rightful place in this duchy.

Meanwhile in Weimar, the people were already excited for the arrival of their prince and their new princess. They were very eager to meet her. The poet Friedrich Schiller wrote to his friend: "We are all waiting anxiously for the appearance of the new star from the East." In the autumn of 1804, Charles Frederick and Maria left Russia for Weimar, where they were greeted with much festivities. Her arrival caused great enthusiasm to the people of Weimar. Cristoph Martin Wieland, a German poet and writer, described the happy event: "The most festive part of all the magnificence of balls, fireworks, promenades, comedies, illuminations was the widespread and genuine joy at the arrival of our new princess". She was not only warmly welcomed by the two duchesses - Dowager Duchess Anna Amalia and the reigning Duchess Louise - but they also "fell in love with her". Anna Amalia wrote to a friend: "It is indeed with great joy and genuine love to speak to you about my new granddaughter - who was a real treasure. I love and respect her endlessly. She was blessed with the ability to charm us all." Maria charmed not only her new relatives, but also those people who had the opportunity to converse with her. Wieland wrote to his friend about his impression of the Russian grand duchess: "She was inexplicably charming, and knows how to connect innate majesty with extraordinary politeness, delicacy and tact. She was perfect when she speaks. It is impossible not to wonder how, in the first hours of her arrival, when she has not been to court before, she was able to addressed each person with such tact and politeness. She will probably begin a new era for Weimar... It will go on and bring to perfection what Amalia has begun forty years ago." Schiller seconded Wieland's impression: "She has a talent for music and painting, is very well-read, and shows strength of mind which aimed at serious things... Her face is attractive, but not pretty. She seems a very determined character, and as she strives for truth and goodness, we can hope that she will reach her goals. In other words, if we had a choice and we could choose any princess, then we would still choose her... If she feels at home here, there is a promise of a great Weimar era."

As a Russian grand duchess, Maria's marriage to Charles Frederick was considered by the people of Weimar to be politically advantageous. Through her marriage, the duchy gained the friendship and protection of powerful and wealthy Russia. The couple's arrival in Weimar in 1804 coincided with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte in France, and in the succeeding years, the defenseless duchy found itself in constant threat by Napoleon's aggressive political ambition. 

The French Army then started attacking Prussia, which was an ally of Saxe-Weimar, and successfully defeated it in the Battle of Jena and Battle of Auerstadt. With the advancement of the French Army in Weimar, Maria, her husband, and her children were forced to flee to Schleswig. They returned in Weimar after a year. Although the terms of peace for the duchy were hard, it was allowed to retain its independence, thanks to Maria's position as the sister of the Russian emperor. 

During the French campaign in Russia, Maria and her family left Weimar once again and stayed in Bohemia, where the family received the protection of Austrian troops. After the Battle of Leipzig, they returned to Weimar. During the Congress of Vienna, heads of state and diplomats all over Europe participated and Maria was one of them. Through her efforts, Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach was elevated to a Grand Duchy and added more territories.

Throughout her life, Maria showed great interest in the arts and sciences. Gifted with intelligence, and, in the words of Schiller, "a great talent for painting and music, and a love for reading", she spent the first years of her marriage in constant contact with intellectual people. She wanted to continue the work began by her predecessors by cementing Weimar's place as the cultural capital of Germany. She wanted to further her education by taking up logic, history and philosophy in the University of Jena. She maintained a correspondence with Russian poet Vasily Zhukovsky and Schiller even dedicated his last poem to her.

When Maria and Charles Frederick succeeded to the Grand Duchy, she became the patroness of art, science and social welfare. Through her efforts, a museum was built as a dedication to Goethe, Schiller, Wieland, Herder, and helped establish the Falk Institute in Weimar. "Literary Evenings" were conducted in her home, the Wilhelmsthal Castle, where scholars and professors from Jena University and others from outside the grand duchy were invited to give lectures on various topics. Maria also encouraged the study of history, and expanded the Weimer Library that was founded by the Dowager Grand Duchess Anna Amalia. She was also interested in nature. She facilitated the opening of a horticulture school and donated a substantial amount of money for the planting of trees along roads, and creating new parks, squares, and gardens.

Maria was also involved in charity. She gave loan fund to help assist the poor, and established workhouses and a variety of trade schools. She also set up committees that would donate equipment and medicine for hospitals. Because of her efforts, she was called by the people as "the angel of the poor, the sick and the orphans". And Goethe declared that she was "one of the greatest and most outstanding women of our time".

Although she kept herself busy in her adopted homeland, Maria still remained in contact with her relatives in Russia. After the death of her eldest brother, Alexander, and her eldest sisters, Alexandra and Elena, Maria became the eldest child in her family (Constantine was still alive but he was distant). Her younger brothers and sisters, particularly, Nicholas and Michael, held her in high esteem. They treated her as their second mother figure (their mother was still alive), and her authority over family affairs was never overlooked.

Charles Frederick and Maria's marriage was far from being perfect but the couple seemed to enjoy a harmonious relationship. The couple had different personalities and temperament, but the success of their marriage was largely attributed to Maria's acceptance of her position in Weimar. She never complained about her destiny and learned to make the most out of it.

Grand Duke Charles Frederick died in 1853, and he was succeeded by his son, Charles Alexander as the new Grand Duke. Meanwhile, Maria's youngest daughter, Augusta, made a grand marriage to Prince William of Prussia, who would one day become the first German Emperor as William I.

The now widowed Maria spent most of her time in Schloss Belvedere on the outskirts of Weimar. It was there that she received the sad news that her brother Tsar Nicholas I had died. She was deeply affected by his death that she started suffering from ill health. Nevertheless, she was still strong enough to travel to Russia to attend the coronation of her nephew, Alexander II. While in Russia, she wandered through the parks of Pavlovsk and Gatchina, remembering her happy childhood days. She wrote to Vasily Zhukovsky, "Who among us old people can forget the dreams of our youth?"

She seemed to know that this trip to her homeland was to be her last. On the evening of June 23, 1859, Maria passed away in her bedroom at Schloss Belvedere. She had died of heart attack. She was buried beside her husband in a mausoleum that was constructed in a lot purchased by the Russian government. Next to the mausoleum, a Russian Orthodox church was erected. Her burial was attended by the members of her family, among them was her daughter, the Empress Augusta of Germany, and the empress's daughter, Louise, Grand Duchess of Baden.

Maria Pavlovna's contribution to her adoptive country cannot be underestimated. With her strong character and powerful intellect, she had become a highly-respected and well-loved figure throughout Germany, and with the number of people who greatly mourned her death, it was a proof of that.

Read more about Maria's sisters:

Alexandra | Elena | Catherine

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