Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Pensive (?) Russian Bride -- Day 76

Walk: R/T Mindful Body, Teach
Distance: 8 Blocks and Teach vigorous class

Konstantin Makovsky, (1839-1915), Russian
The Russian Bride's Attire (1889) Oil on Canvas

On a cold, rainy day, my mind goes to a painting truly to get lost in at the Palace of the Legion of Honor. Huge, richly colorful, filled with numerous highly naturalistic details of the trappings of 17th C Russia court life: ermine-trimmed silk gowns, jewel-encrusted headdresses, rich Eastern tapestries.

The painting is the third in a series on the theme of the Russian bride which together comprise a partly historical, partly imaginative re-creation of a well-known incident from the early chapters of the Romanov dynasty, the taking of a bride by Czar Alexis I in 1648. In this tableau we are invited into the royal chambers as Maria Miloslavskaya is dressed by her entourage for her wedding to Alexis.

Here is a closer view of Maria:

The girl at Maria's feet is thought to be her sister, Anna, and there has been on-going debate about the nature of Maria's mood since the painting was first presented at the Paris Salon of 1891. Some say shyness, others say reluctance, sadness, glumness and depression are also speculated. The usual moods associated with brides - happiness, merriment, excitement - are thought to be surprisingly absent.

But given the circumstances surrounding the wedding, I along with many others, am not surprised at Maria's overt lack of joy. For one thing she is Alexis's second choice - a matter widely known.
Originally, when it was time for Alexis to marry, he was given six beautiful girls to choose from and chose Eufemia. Almost immediately after being chosen, Eufemia began to display epilepsy-like symptoms. Fears that Eufemia carried epilepsy made her an unsuitable czarina, and she and her father were banished to Siberia. Alexis was then persuaded to marry Maria by one of his advisors, Boris Morozov, who was also 1. having an affair with (and eventually married) Maria’s sister, 2. the enemy of Eufemia’s father and 3. suspected of possibly poisoning Eufemia. (Very Russian indeed!). In the midst of all these circumstances (and knowing what her future might hold if she herself showed unsuitability), I find it hardly surprising that Maria's heart is not visibly light and carefree in The Russian Bride's Attire.

Ironically, Maria's heart actually could have been joyful and optimistic. The marriage of Maria and Alexis is described as a happy one, producing 13 children and lasting 21 years until Maria Miloslavskaya, Tsaritsa of All Russia, died in 1669 at age 43-44. Two of their sons, Fyodor III and Ivan V became future Tsars.

Perhaps the history Makovsky presents in this painting is a bit fanciful, but it is stocked with details of costume, setting and decorative objects that successfully evoke 17th C Russia court life. Among the accurate period details are elaborately carved ivory and inlaid wooden coffers and furniture as well as the ivory comb with the which the bride's long hair is being dressed. These 'you are there' glimpses into history, combined with the glowing intensity of Makovsky's warm palette and exquisitely fine brushwork are like a stage setting that beckons the viewer to stop and walk in. Understandably The Russian Bride's Attire is one of the most beloved paintings at the Legion; you often see individuals or groups of people of all ages standing, smiling, delighting, 'walking in' with their eyes for extended periods of time. Maybe you?

(The detail above omits the far right side of the painting. In it a man is shown bursting through a door into the chamber. Who is he? Here we have another mystery that surrounds the painting - possibly to be discussed in a later blog. Stay tuned....)

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