Demidov Collection, Villa San Donato, Florence
By descent to the sitter's grandnephew H.R.H. Prince Paul of Yugoslavia
Sotheby's London, Icons, Russian Pictures and Works of Art, 15 June 1995, Lot 17
D,Vyazemsky '[She] sparkled with diamonds. As if a sun shone above her head, but it could not outshine the radiant Aurora. Aurora Karlovna Stjernvall (1806-1902) was renowned for her superlative beauty but also her tragic fate. This magnificent portrait is without doubt the finest and most important work by Karl Briullov to be offered on the market in recent years. Aurora arrived in St. Petersbrug from Helsinki aged eighteen and caused a sensation in society circles, becoming a muse for poets, musicians and artists alike. Her first love, Alexander Mukhanov, died on the eve of their wedding and Empress Maria Fedorovna, to whom she was lady-in-waiting, arranged her marriage to Prince Pavel Nikolaevich Demidov in 1836 - the year in which the offered portrait was commissioned. Her wedding gift from her husband was the legendary Sancy diamond, the seventh largest in the world at the time and reflects the extent of the extraordinary fortune he had amassed as the owner of several Siberian mines and arms manufactories. Pavel Demidov's younger brother Anatoly built an opulent villa in San Donato near Florence where he hosted Russia's leading cultural figures and aristocracy. It is possible that here, Anatoly had introduced Pavel to Karl Briullov, one of the most acclaimed portraitists of the day. Briullov had travelled to Italy in 1822 on a scholarship from the Society for the Encouragement and remained there until 1835, during which time he had painted a handsome equestrian portrait of Anatoly Demidov (fig. 1). On 9 December 1836, a month after the Pavel and Aurora's wedding, Ivan Turgenev recorded in his diary "... visited Briullov. Saw portrait of Aurora". It is unknown when exactly the portrait was completed but according to the diary of Briullov's student A. Mokritsky, it was still hanging in Briullov's studio by the end of February 1837, as he constantly re-worked the composition to achieve the desired effect. Briullov had found fame on the cusp of two artistic movements in Russia: neo-classicism and romanticism, and his style of portraiture is a perfect fusion of the two. It combines the simple lines at the basis of the former movement's quest for the physical purity with the prevailing interest in human psychology which characterises the latter. Writing in 1834, Nikolai Gogol tried to define Briullov's unique manner of painting: "His style includes a poetry that, once experienced, is always recognised: we feel it and we even see its distinctive features, but we can never express it in words. His use of colour has a clarity that was almost unknown before him, his colours blaze and dart into your eyes" Mokritsky recorded in great detail the progress of Aurora's portrait, and his diary provides us with a great insight into Briullov's working practice: "At first he began with the head. It was both fascinating and exceptionally informative to observe how he went about it. [...] Amid the blur of brushstrokes, the portrait came to life: a spark lit up her blue eyes, a blush of colour warmed her cheeks with a berry red which transformed her velvety skin - that quality which is so hard to achieve in painting; her luxurious décolleté draped in beautiful, transparent pale fabrics, began to shimmer under Briullov's magical brush. He was bold yet careful in his work" Briullov was meticulous in his treatment of expensive fabrics, furs and silks sparing no details in his finely-modelled, almost tactile representation of his sitter's clothing and background. However, through his use of chiaroscuro to pick out the sinuous contours of his sitter's face, neck and hands, it is Aurora's physical beauty which dominates the canvas. The even facial features, shapely neck and gentle downward curve of the sitter's shoulders recall the sensuous and mannerist portrayal of the female form by the Jean-August-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867, who had been based in Italy and whose improbably long-limbed Grande Odalisque had caused such scandal at the Paris Salon of 1814 (fig.2). Briullov similarly presents his sitter as the ultimate feminine ideal, possessing flawless beauty, the turban here also an indication of the orientalist influence of contemporary fashion. Pavel Demidov died barely a year after his wedding, leaving Aurora widow at the age of twenty-nine. Her fortune did not improve following her second marriage to Andrei Karamzin, son of the famous historian, whom she had wed against the wishes of her family in 1846. A mere ten years later, she was widowed a second time when Karamzin was fatally wounded in the Crimean war. Aurora even outlived her only son, Pavel, who died abroad in Italy at the age of 45. Aurora's portrait has passed through several countries and different lines of the Demidov family. It is believed Aurora and Pavel's only son, Pavel Pavlovich, took the portrait with him to San Donato, when he inherited his uncle Anatoly's estate. By descent, it came to Pavel's daughter Maria, who in turn bequeathed everything to her nephew, Paul Karageorgievich, regent of Yugoslavia. In 1969, Paul Karageorgevich sold part of his art collection at Pratolino, which included two marble busts by Shubin of Demidov, now in the collection of the State Tretyakov Gallery. A copy of the offered work has hung in the Nizhny Tagil museum since 1936 when it was acquired from the treasury of the Demidov Middle-Ural Trust. The Demidov family were eminent philanthropists and ensuring education and housing for the liberated serfs working on their estate. In 1827-33 a number of them were sent to Italy to study under Briullov. M. Fedoseev and S. Khudayarov, two of the most prodigious, returned there circa 1850, to continue their tuition by copying his masterworks, which today form part of the collection at Nizhny Tagil. Lyudmilla Markina argues that it is unlikely they would not have taken the opportunity to study Briullov's notorious portrait of their benefactress. Aurora herself continued to manage the factories at Nizhny Tagil along with her brother-in-law, Anatoly and dedicated much of her time to charitable work, founding schools, hospitals and the Deaconess Institute in Helsinki, which she financed by selling the Demidov Palace in St. Petersburg. At her funeral in 1902, crowds lined the streets to watch her cortege pass and the numerous streets and squares named after her in Helsinki attest to the reverence she commanded.