Today’s painting by Vigée Le Brun is her delightful portrait of Grand Duchesses Alexandra and Elena Pavlovna, the daughters of Tsar Paul I of Russia, which was painted in 1796. Grand Duchess Alexandra (1783-1801) married Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and her younger sister Elena (1784-1803) married Frederick Louis, Hereditary Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin in 1799. Vigée Le Brun thought that the Russian princesses were delightful and wrote that ‘their complexion especially was so lovely and delicate that one might have thought they lived on ambrosia.’
The portrait was commissioned by the girls’ grandmother Catherine the Great, who appears in the work in the miniature portrait that Elena is holding. Vigée Le Brun originally painted them in ‘very modest’ Grecian style tunics but was forced to hastily restart the work and change their costumes to Russian court dress when she heard that Empress Catherine was most displeased by the work’s original informality. ‘I had ruined my entire painting,’ Vigée Le Brun later complained, ‘not to mention the fact that the pretty arms, which I had done the best I could, were no longer visible.’ One can imagine her chagrin when she discovered later on that Catherine had said no such thing and it was all just a bit of malicious stirring on the part of Prince Zubov.
Nonetheless, we know for a fact that Catherine didn’t like the painting as she wrote to a friend that ‘Madame Le Brun has these figures hunker down before you on a settee; twists the neck of the younger one, makes them look like… two naughty little Savoyard girls, their hair done up like bacchantes with clusters of grapes and dresses them in big red and violet tunics; in a word, not only is there no resemblance but the two sisters are so disfigured that there are people who ask which is the elder and which the younger.’