Today’s painting by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun is another one of her charming portraits of the gorgeous Countess Ekaterina Vasilievna Skavronskaya (1761–1829), which was painted in St Petersburg in 1796. The Countess was one of the famous Engelhardt sisters who were brought to the Russian court by their uncle Prince Grigory Potemkin, who was the great love of Catherine the Great’s life. Along with at least two of her sisters, Ekaterina was sexually involved with her uncle, who gave her a position at court as lady in waiting to the Empress, showered her with riches and made her a fabulously wealthy woman in her own right, which caused a furore in Russia and overseas.
The Countess was married to Count Paul Martynovich Skavronsky in 1781 and after his death she married again, to Count Giulio Renato Litta, with whom she was passionately in love.
Vigée Le Brun made no mention of the Countess’ liaison with Potemkin in her memoirs, although she wrote about her at some length. ‘The Countess was as sweet and pretty as an angel. The famous Potemkin, her uncle, had loaded her with wealth, for which she had no use. Her great delight was to live stretched out on a lounge wrapped in a large black cloak, and wearing no stays. Her mother-in-law sent her, from Paris, cases full of the most beautiful dresses then made by Mlle. Bertin, Queen Marie Antoinette’s dressmaker. I do not believe that the Countess ever opened one of them, and when her mother-in-law expressed a wish to see her in the beautiful gowns and head-dresses contained in the cases, she answered indifferently: “What for? Why?” She gave me the same answer when showing me her jewel-case, one of the most splendid I have ever seen. It contained enormous diamonds given her by Potemkin, but I never saw them on her. I remember her telling me that in order to go to sleep she had a slave under her bed who told her the same story every night. She was utterly idle all day, she had no education, and her conversation was quite empty. But in spite of all that, thanks to her lovely face and her angelic sweetness, she had an incomparable charm.’