Portrait of Princess Olga Orlova

Artist: Valentin Serov
Date: 1911
Media: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 237.5 x 160 cm
Ownership: Russian Museum, St Petersburg
Donated in 1912 by Prince Vladimir Orlov and Princess Olga Orlova, St Petersburg
Style: Impressionism
Valentin Serov, Portrait of Princess Olga Orlova, 1911


Valentin Serov followed the traditions of Russian ceremonial portraiture, as exemplified by Dmitry Levitsky in the eighteenth century and Karl Brullov in the nineteenth century. But the artist’s psychological images could be merciless towards the subject and few dared to commission him to paint their portrait.

Princess Olga Orlova may not have been beautiful, but she had that special pedigree that comes with breeding. Proud and narrow-minded, Olga was considered the most elegant and fashionable woman in the Russian capital; it was said that “no one in St Petersburg wore a hat better than she did.”

The skilful and dynamic composition, the restrained and noble tones, the sharp silhouette, the gesture of the well-groomed hand and the enamel-like paintwork are all intended to create a psychological portrait of this leading Russian socialite. The expression in the sitter’s eyes is both dreamy and haughty.

Serov showed the painting to great acclaim at the Esposizione internazionale di Roma in 1911. But Olga Orlova was so displeased with her portrait – a true masterpiece – that she lost no time getting rid of it after the artist’s death, presenting the canvas to the Alexander III (now the Russian) Museum in 1912.

Olga believed that the accessories diverted attention from her true character and commissioned another work from Serov. The smaller dimensions and choice of graphic media in the second portrait were intended to create a more intimate image of the princess – and appear to have finally satisfied the stylish aristocrat.

Princess Olga Orlova (1872–1923) was the daughter of Prince Konstantin Beloselsky-Belozersky (1843–1920) and Nadezhda Skoboleva (1847–1920). She was the first wife of Prince Vladimir Orlov (1868–1927), who was a close friend of Tsar Nicholas II and headed the Military-Field Chancellery (1906–15).

Graphic modelli: Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow; Russian Museum, St Petersburg


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