12 February 2015

Jewel History: The Empress of Russia (1888)

Makovsky's 1885 portrait of Empress Marie Feodorovna of Russia (source)

"The Empress of Russia"
(originally appeared in the Washington Post, 12 Feb 1888)

From the New York Sun -- An American lady now in St. Petersburg thus describes a court reception at the Winter Palace [1]:

"We women folk are accustomed (through ignorance, I suppose) to think and speak of Russia as a semi-barbarous country. It is in some respects, but in others it is the most splendid country -- with the exception of our own -- in the world, and St. Petersburg is the most interesting of all European cities. Through the introductions we brought with us, we have been enabled to obtain entree to the presence of royalty and see the interior of the finest of all the palaces.

"It was a bitter cold day when we drove in a gorgeous sleigh to the Winter Palace -- which was like a fairy picture in the fading light without, and illumined within with the brilliancy of thousands of candles -- to attend a court reception. The effect of the light on the snow and upon the gay equipages of the numerous guests was indescribable.

Constantine Ukhtomsky's 1865 painting of the Malachite Room (source)

"We approached the Empress [2] through 3,000 officials. First through superb state departments, each blazing with a thousand wax tapers and gorgeous with priceless hangings, malachite pillars, works of art, and tropical flowers and ferns. The sight was worth the journey from New York to Russia. The floors were things of beauty, inlaid with ebony and rosewood and ivory.

Kramskoi's 1882 portrait of Marie Feodorovna in court dress (source)

"As we waited for our turn I had a good opportunity to see, and I made much of it. At last we entered the throne room, and there, surrounded by a sea of splendor, stood the Empress, herself a moving mass of diamonds. On her head was a crown once worn by the great Elizabeth [3]. It was the first time I had seen a real crown on royalty, for the diamond tiara worn by Queen Victoria last summer at her reception was not a crown except in name. Mrs. Astor [4] used to wear a fine one. But this one on the imperial head was worthy to adorn the Empress of all the Russias.

"Describe it? No. I only saw millions of colored rays and white sparks of light emitted from it at every motion of the royal person. The necklace was made from what was left over of the crown. It reached from her neck to her waist, and had rubies, sapphires, and diamonds enough in it to have supplied a thousand ordinary royal necklaces. The imperial orders worn on her breast contained all the gems of the East. They scintillated with light, and that is all I can say of them.

Makovsky's 1874 portrait of Marie Feodorovna (source)

"The stuff on her gown was of emerald velvet, with a train of white velvet embroidered with enough gold to stock a mine, and bordered with real gold balls. The front of the gown was ornamented with ropes of linked pink coral, set in diamonds and fastened at intervals.

"Never saw I a human being thus arrayed. Solomon might have put on more, but I do not believe it. She was enough of herself to take the breath out of a body, but surrounded as she was by grand duchesses, each one ablaze with jewels worth a kingdom, she was the most wonderful sight I ever witnessed in my life. I did not know a mortal could look so magnificent.

"The position of her sister, the Princess of Wales [5; pictured above with Princess Toria and Empress Marie Feodorovna], is almost obscure as compared to the peerless destiny of this Empress of all the Russias, and if this war party succeeds, Empress of Asia as well. The officials in their semi-barbarous grandeur numbered hundreds upon hundreds, but I paid no attention to them; the Empress and the palace were what I went to see, and the sight has thrown me into a peculiar mental condition.

"My less-fascinated companion, who had been to court before, took my breath away from me by remarking that she pitied the poor woman. Why? Because she will not find anything new in heaven in the way of jewels or surroundings. How about peace of mind? Of that I think she stands in great need now, poor thing."

1. The Winter Palace in St. Petersburg was the official imperial residence of the Russian tsars from 1732 until 1917. Much of the current building dates to 1837. Today, the building is a part of the Hermitage Museum.
2. In 1888, the Russian empress was Marie Feodorovona, wife of Alexander III, who was born Princess Dagmar of Denmark.
3. The diadem being referenced here is almost certainly the diamond nuptial tiara made for Empress Elizabeth Alexeievna ca. 1800. The Russian government owns the tiara today.
4. Lina Schermerhorn Astor (1830-1908), wife of William Backhouse Astor, Jr., and gatekeeper of nineteenth-century New York society.
5. In 1888, the Princess of Wales was Alexandra of Denmark, later the queen consort of Edward VII of the United Kingdom. Alexandra and her sister were extremely close.