THE “FATAL AURORA”. An Unfinished Story

Lyudmila Markina

Magazine issue: 
#1 2008 (18)

On September 18-19 2007, in London, Sotheby’s was due to offer for sale a unique collection of Russian art belonging to Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya[1]. The most valuable lots included the “Portrait of Aurora Karlovna Demidova” by Karl Briullov, priced at £800,000-1,200,000. Back in 1995 the Tretyakov Gallery had wanted to buy this piece, but Galina Pavlovna “ran with the ball”. It looked as if the opportunity was presenting itself again - but the collection was bought up in its entirety by the Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov.

I first heard that Sotheby’s was going to put up for sale a portrait by Karl Briullov from Baron Eduard von Falz-Fein, who visited the Tretyakov Gallery in May 1995, when the museum celebrated its re-opening after the end of its lengthy renovation. In just two weeks I learned that John Stuart (the then head of the Russian department at Sotheby’s) was in Moscow and brought the latest catalogues. On one of the first pages of the splendid catalogue, under No. 17, I saw the magnificent portrait of a belle. A light satin dress with a deep decollete, a fashionable turban, an expensive sable wrap were pictured with extraordinary brilliance and attested to great craftsmanship: the regular facial features of the subject, the perfect line of the slope of her shoulders, the chiseled neck. There was no doubt that I saw a portrait of the famed Aurora Demidova (1806—1902), created by the Russian painter. However, it was believed that this portrait was stored in the museum of Nizhny Tagil. What was on sale in England then? The original or a copy made by the author? From where had it come, and where had it been previously? The only way to answer those questions was to examine the piece on site. A bold idea came to me then. If the painting indeed proved to be an original work of “the great Karl”, the desire to acquire it for the Tretyakov Gallery was considerable.

Colonel Carl Johan Stjernvall (1764—1815) served in Finland, and his elder daughter Aurora spent her childhood in that northern country, then a part of Sweden. The girl’s father died when she was nine. After her mother remarried, Aurora came to St. Petersburg and lived with her aunt, who was taking care of her. When the aunt’s young ward started visiting balls and social functions, she won general admiration. Her amazing beauty was celebrated by poets, and men fell madly in love with her — in short, she was adored. The new prima-donna’s suitors included Yevgeny Baratynsky and Pyotr Vyazemsky, Vasily Zhukovsky and Fyodor Tyutchev. The composer Mikhail Vilyegorsky composed a romance and a mazurka named, symbolically, “Aurora”. Emperor Nicholas I remarked on the unmatched beauty of Aurora Stjernwall. Yevgeny Baratynsky wrote in raptures:

“Come hither and breathe on us with ravishment,
You a namesake of dawn,
Enliven and illuminate everyone
With your blushing visage!”

But Aurora, far from “enlivening”, was in fact fatally precipitating the death of men close to her. Two gentlemen to whom she was betrothed died suddenly: Alexander Mukhanov on their wedding day, in April 1834. It was as if a curse was placed on her. In spite of her heavenly beauty, Aurora Stjernwall time and again failed to make a life for herself. She was 28 already when Empress Alexandra Fedorovna persuaded the fabulously rich Pavel Nikolaevich Demidov to marry her lady-in-waiting.

Demidov (1796—1841) was the elder son of Nikolai Nikitich Demidov, a secret counsellor and chamberlain, and a Russian ambassador to Florence. His mother, Baroness Elizaveta Alexeevna, came from an old noble family, the Stroganovs. Pavel Demidov belonged to a new generation of owners of mines and foundries. A true son of the age of Enlightenment, he received an excellent education, but was exposed to severe trials early in life. Demonstrating a “patriotic fervor”, the 14-year-old Demidov the younger took part in the battle of Borodino as a soldier of a special Demidov riflemen’s regiment sponsored by his father’s money. Later his career was not connected with the military — instead, he spent his life in civil service. Receiving the title of full state counsellor, he became a chamberlain of the court and was awarded numerous distinctions. Demidov inherited ore mines in the Urals and Siberia, and eight plants manufacturing supplies for the army, and he spent his riches not only for the cause of increasing his own wealth. He was one of Russia’s major patrons of the arts and sciences: in 1831 the Academy of Science on his initiative founded special Demidov prizes, to be awarded “for original works created in all venues of science, literature and industrial production in the homeland”.

On November 9 1836 Demidov and Stjernwall were married. The bride-groom was already very ill and spent the marriage ceremony seated in his wheel-chair.

In the summer of 1995 I started a frantic search for information about the copy of the “Portrait of Aurora Karlovna Demidova” from Nizhny Tagil. I made many calls to different museums, and finally obtained the necessary information. The piece came to the Nizhny Tagil Museum of Local Lore, History and Economy in 1936, from the funds of a Mid-Ural Mining Trust, and originated from the collections of the Demidov family. When asked whether the museum held the original or a copy, the museum’s worker, apparently insulted, said that theirs was uncontestably the original work, a gem of their collection always on public display. True, my colleague recalled, the painting had been renovated in Moscow, sometime in the late 1950s, it seemed.

So I had to visit the archive of the Grabar Artwork Restoration Centre. An experienced archivist glanced at the registration card and said dryly that the piece in question was ascribed to Karl Briullov. How was that? I took a close look at the restoration documents, and photographs of the painting taken prior to its restoration. The “Portrait of Aurora Demidova” came to the centre in late 1957 in a sorry state, with no canvas-stretcher, slits in the canvas, and the initial layers of paint painted over in many places. The restorer N.L.Marennikova spent about three years struggling to bring the painting back to life. The documents said that it did not look certain that the piece was of Briullov’s making. A question mark was placed after the painter’s name. In the early 1960s the painting was sent back to Nizhny Tagil.

Esfir Atsarkina, the author of an authoritative biography of Karl Briullov (Moscow, 1963), included the “Portrait of Aurora Demidova” in the catalogue of Briullov’s works, dating it to 1837—1838. And she mistakenly wrote that the piece was in the Nizhny Tagil art museum. In fact the painting at that time already belonged to the Nizhny Tagil Museum of Local Lore, History and Economy. More than 30 years passed after the book’s publication, and some new information emerged about the process of the creation of the “Portrait of Aurora Demidova” and the exact dating of the piece.

Demidova’s marriage to Russia’s richest man strengthened her position in high society, with her beauty again shining at countless receptions and social functions. “Yesterday’s ball was superb,” wrote Dmitry Vyazemsky to Emilia Demidova, “and your sister was glittering all around with diamonds. There was ‘sun’ over her brow, but it could not obscure Aurora’s radiance.” It seems that Pavel Demidov felt flattered by the general admiration for his young spouse, and he commissioned her portrait from the famed portrait painter who charged hefty fees. Exactly a month after the marriage, on December 9 1836 Ivan Turgenev wrote in his journal: “I visited Briullov, saw Aurora’s portrait there.”[2] An entry for December 28 has a similar record: “ Briullov, Aurora’s portrait there.”[3]

The completion of the portrait turned out to be longer than the artist himself probably could have expected. Christmas with its never-ending masquerades and rounds of merry-making was near at hand, obviously diverting the attentions of the life-loving maestro. It was not before the end of February of the following year, 1837, that the commissioned work seemed to be nearing a finished stage. “23rd February. Today I called on Briullov,” wrote in his diary the artist Apollon Mokritsky, “for a minute, but stayed for nearly three hours; when I came, he was at work, finishing the portrait of Mrs. Demidova, nee Stjernwall.” Briullov’s diligent student carefully recorded how the work proceeded: “At first he tackled the head, and it was very interesting and instructive to see how he set about his work ... with every moment the head was losing the materiality of colours and looked like she was being dressed up with flesh; the blue eyes started to sparkle, the cheeks blushed, and the crimson blush became velvety — something artists usually have difficulty to convey; the magnificent bosom, also enveloped in the pulchritude of transparent semi-tones, started to heave under the touch of the magic paintbrush, which breathed life into it. And he was working daringly, albeit cautiously: and when he was tackling the dress, you gasped surprised by the daring which guided the exceptional artist.”

Apollon Mokritsky minutely recorded what sorts of brush, paint and special techniques the artist used to convey the texture of objects and specific details. The student of Briullov also rightly remarked that, “in Briullov’s pictures an accessory, no matter how natural looking, would never obscure the essential. In his portraits the wonderful furs, satin, velvet and objects of sheer metal, all their beauty and shine notwithstanding, would never obscure the head and the hands — you can say, they keep as much distance as they do in real life.”[4] In four days Mokritsky again visited his teacher’s studio: “27th February. Today in the morning I called on Briullov, while he worked. And what a fine job he was doing on Demidova’s (Stjernwall’s) portrait. How well I understand what he does. How much life in her, how much refined taste!”[5]

Although Mokritsky wrote that the portrait was close to completion, even by spring Demidova’s portrait was not yet ready. Here, too, “Fatal Aurora” showed her perversity — the acclaimed portrait-maker was experiencing difficulty in capturing her image. “4th April. I was in the studio in the morning,” wrote Mokritsky. “Briullov continued working on the portrait of Demidova, nee Stjernwall; the big painting ‘Crucifix’ was waiting for inspiration; at time he would turn to it, look at it attentively, and then again return to the portrait, which was coming more and more alive with every touch of his brush.”[6] It remains unclear when exactly the portrait was finished and passed over to its distinguished owners, and no documents have yet appeared to shed light on this. Two years after the completion of the portrait, when she was already over thirty, Aurora Demidova gave birth to her only son, called Pavel after his father (1839—1885). Unfortunately, Aurora’s first marriage did not last long: leaving behind his one-year-old son, Demidov died in Frankfurt in July 1841. After six years of widowhood, in 1846 Aurora Karlovna married again — her new husband was Andrei Nikolaevich Karamzin (1814—1854), a son of the famous writer and historian. She married into a family all of whose members were close friends of Alexander Pushkin. A friend of Mikhail Lermontov, Andrei Karamzin belonged to the intellectual elite of Russian society. As the husband of a co-proprietress of industrial plants and the guardian of her infant, he visited Nizhny Tagil. During his short time there he founded a public library and a chemical laboratory and arranged for free lunches at the ore mines and mining plants. His spouse contributed to philanthropic causes too — she opened “Aurora’s” shelters, alms-houses and schools in Nizhny Tagil. But this time, again, Aurora’s happiness was not to last long. At the beginning of the Crimean war Karamzin enrolled in military service as a volunteer and died in combat in 1854. “Fatal Aurora” was to live to a great age, however. She not only survived her mother, two sisters and brother, but also her only son and his two wives. She passed away at the age of 94 in Helsinki.

During her long life Aurora Demidova was portrayed by different artists. The surviving pieces include a very delicate water-colour by Emilio Rossi (1840, in the Russian Museum), a lithograph by Leo Wagner (1845, Nizhny Tagil Museum of Local Lore, History and Economy), an oil painting by Alexis Perignon and a lithograph by A. Legran (in foreign collections). However, among all these nice and delicate images Briullov’s work uncontestably stands out for the painter’s ability to convey not only the sitter’s external beauty, but also the complexity of her inner life. Demidova must have liked the portrait.

The more I learned about the portrait, the more I became convinced that the painting now in Britain was the original painting by Briullov. Time and again I walked around our excellent exhibition of this master’s works. Of course, the Tretyakov Gallery has his best portraits — the archaeologist Lanci, poet Kukolnik, translator Strugovshchikov, and the superb “Horsewoman”. However, room could be found for the “namesake of dawn” as well. There were hardly any works of the “great Karl” left in Russia to be purchased, so the chance to buy one more Briullov, which offered itself in summer 1995, was not to be missed. The Tretyakov Gallery director Valentin Rodionov considered my arguments with sympathy and trusted me with an important mission — to go to London, to make sure on site that the expert opinion was correct, and to try to buy the painting. The tentative price was £40—60,000. Of course, such a buy was beyond the Gallery’s means, but we enlisted the support of the Ministry of Culture and relied on our sponsors.

So, I was dispatched to London.

On the flight I again read the catalogue. “Aurora Karlovna Demidova’s Portrait” originated from the Demidov collection in San Donato, its last owner — Pavel Karadjordjevic, Prince of Yugoslavia. It is common knowledge that Pavel Demidov’s younger brother, Anatoly (1812—1870) did not live in Russia — he settled in Italy. He bought the San Donato principality near Florence, acquiring the title of prince. Following his wish, he ordered the construction of a luxurious villa, which was painted with frescoes and filled with superb artwork from across the world. Like doges in the Renaissance period, Anatoly Demidov lived his life surrounded by scholars, poets and artists. He commissioned from Briullov the huge painting “The Last Day of Pompeii”. The exhibition of the majestic picture in Rome and Milan introduced the Italian audiences to Russian art and won for the artist the fame of “triumphant genius, comprehended and valued by all”. Briullov’s equestrian portrait of Anatoly Demidov, which remained unfinished, is now in the Pitti Museum. It could well have been that Anatoly introduced his elder brother to the artist and suggested to commission from the latter the portrait of his young wife.

Anatoly Demidov was highly eccentric in his choice of spouse as well. In 1841 he married Mathilde de Monfort, Napoleon Bonaparte’s niece, even if their marriage was short-lived; they divorced in 1845. However, Anatoly Demidov deemed it his duty as a relative to establish a rich museum to Napoleon in the latter’s former residence on the island of Elba.

The prince of San Donato died childless, and all of his vast fortune was inherited by Aurora Karlovna’s son. At first Pavel Demidov lived at the Villa San Donato, but in 1872 relocated to another estate, Villa Pratolino. Maybe it was then that his mother’s portrait by Briullov came to Italy. Pavel Demidov died there, and his estate passed to his daughter Maria Pavlovna (1877—1954). Left a widow early in life, her only daughter dying early, she bequeathed the Villa Pratolino and her wealth to her nephew Pavel, a scion of the Yugoslavian royal family of Karadjordjevic.

In 1969 Prince Pavel sold off Pratolino and put up for auction stunning works of international artists and expensive antiques of which any museum would be proud. The Russian pieces were fairly few, but after the auction was over the Tretyakov Gallery, overcoming many obstacles, managed to buy marble busts of the Demidov couple created by Fedot Shubin.

In the early 1990s, after the demise of Prince Pavel Karadjordjevic, his heirs were selling off Russian pieces from their collection one by one. Thus, in June 1995 “Aurora Karlovna Demidova’s Portrait”, a work for a long time inaccessible to the general public and all but unknown to specialists, came up in London. The first impression produced by the picture was ambivalent — more like disappointment; a closer visual inspection identified typical features of Briullov’s craftsmanship. But the traces of indelicate intervention by restorers were disconcerting. The painting was “dressed up” before the auction; the deliberately slicked-up surface, a fresh layer of varnish and patches of overpaint leaped to the eye. But even in such a state Aurora was a coveted item, and potential buyers were keeping watch. True, the visit of an envoy from the Tretyakov Gallery only whetted the appetite for the auction lot.

On June 15 1995 at ten in the morning the bidding began. The room was full of new Russians and former Soviets, dealers and gallery owners, proprietors and collectors, and journalists. Although it was early in the day, even Galina Vishnevskaya came from Paris. She took a seat in first row, “arming herself with spectacles” and a “bidding paddle”. It is hard to find words to describe the atmosphere at the bidding. The sale of Pyotr Vereshchagin’s view of Nizhny Novgorod for a figure dozens of times more than the starting price became a sensation at the auction. There was a big hike in the price of Demidova’s portrait by the end, too. According to the price list, the closing price reached £133,500 — more than $200,000! Alas, neither the Tretyakov Gallery nor other contenders — a group that included Russian banks — could guarantee that much money. Galina Vishnevskaya became the happy owner.

When Aurora’s portrait was put up, she raised her bidding paddle and held it up unflaggingly until she outbid everyone! After the auction the artist Sergei Esayan, who consulted Vishnevskaya, kindly introduced me to her. After I whole-heartedly congratulated her, I expressed my regrets over the fact that the picture, acquired for specialists, would be again inaccessible to the general public and, most of all, to the Russian public. It came to my mind, however, that 1999 would be the year of Briullov’s bicentennial. Born in the same year as Alexander Pushkin, the artist had forever been obscured by the dazzle of the anniversary festivities dedicated to “the sun of Russian poetry”. There was a hope to organize, together with the Russian Museum, a first major solo exhibition of Briullov’s works, and there was a good chance that museums and private collectors outside Russia would lend their pieces for the occasion. It would be so nice to bring Aurora Karlovna to Russia! Trying to get the piece from Nizhny Tagil was also an important task on the agenda. Then it would become possible to make a definite conclusion about the two works. I thought at that time that I would hardly have a chance to see the piece from Nizhny Tagil.

August 1997. All of a sudden I received an invitation from Nina Grigorievna Demidova, a descendant of the distinguished dynasty and the secretary of the Demidov foundation, to participate in celebrations marking the 295th anniversary of Nizhny Tagil. So, when I told the above story at a scholarly session of the 3rd International Demidov Assembly, I had not seen yet the Aurora from Nizhny Tagil. My presentation provoked great interest, and all participants were anxiously waiting the moment when I would see the portrait in the local museum. The opening of the exhibition dedicated to the Demidov dynasty and their deeds was scheduled for the next day. And there I was face to face with the long-awaited Aurora. My doubts proved to be true. I saw a handsomely executed... copy.

Who and under what circumstances could have made it? As is well known, the Demidovs had artists who were emancipated serfs. In 1827—1833 the most talented among them — M.K. Fedoseev (Dmitriev), V.     Kozitsyn (Kazantsev), Stepan Khudoyarov (Fedorov) — were sent to Italy to develop their skills. Briullov himself was their supervisor in art education. In the late 1840s-early 1850s Fedoseev and Khudoyarov again visited Italy. Obviously, during their study years and later the Demidov family’s painters copied the works of the “great Karl”. The museum has a 1830s painting by Stepan Khudoyarov called “Gardener” — a piece in Briullov’s style — and a “Woman’s Head” by Vasily Khudoyarov from the 1850s, one of the images of the “Last Day of Pompeii”.

My dream of seeing Aurora Demidova’s portrait at Briullov’s anniversary exhibition in Moscow never came true. Vishnevskaya turned down the Tretyakov Gallery’s request to lend the painting, saying it was being renovated. Several years later, at the celebration of the tricentenary of St. Petersburg, I met with her again, when she was awarded a decoration by the Demidov foundation. When I asked her how was Aurora Karlovna, the owner said the renovation was over and the Aurora became even more beautiful than before. I thought then that I barely stood a chance of seeing the precious painting again.

But in September 2007 I did see it — and under what circumstances! Not knowing what was in store for me, I came to New Bond Street straight from the airport. I walked up the stairs, and in one of the halls to the left, in the place of honour on the far wall saw the portrait of Aurora Demidova. The picture was almost unchanged; however, there were obvious traces of recent intervention by renovators: a fresh shiny varnish, showy colours. And events were heating up in the auction rooms, with people milling around angrily gesticulating and swearing in loud whispers. And suddenly an announcement was made that the auction was cancelled. It was decided to sell the whole collection to one person. Soon the potential bidders learned the name of the lucky owner.

In the great scheme of things that was the right decision. Preserved in its entirety, the unique collection of Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya was to remain in Russia. We cannot but hope that the Russian public will have the chance to see all of the pictures.


  1. The artworks offered for sale at the auction are introduced in the article.
  2. Manuscript Department, Institute of Russian Literature, fund 309, item 316, sheet 63 (reverse).
  3. Ibid, sheet 66.
  4. Akademik Apollon Mokritsky. Vospominaniya o K.P Bryullove // (Academician Apollon Mokritsky. Memoirs on Karl Briullov // Otechstvennye zapiski, Vol. XII, 1855, p.168.
  5. Dnevnik khudozhnika A.N. Mokritskogo (Journal of the Artist A.N. Mokritsky). Compilation, introductory article and endnotes by Natalya Priimak. Moscow, 1975, p. 110.
  6. Akademik Apollon Mokritsky. Vospominaniya o K.P. Bryullove (Academician Apollon Mokritsky. Memoirs on Karl Briullov) // Otechstvennye zapiski, Vol. XII, 1855, p.175.
Karl BRIULLOV. Portrait of Princess Aurora Demidova
Karl BRIULLOV. Portrait of Princess Aurora Demidova
Oil on canvas. 90 by 71cm
The Grand Hall, Moscow Conservatory, Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya with Dmitry Shostakovich at the premier of his 14th Symphony, 1974
The Grand Hall, Moscow Conservatory, Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya with Dmitry Shostakovich at the premier of his 14th Symphony, 1974
Georg Christoph GROOTH. Grand Duke Petr Fedorovich on Horseback
Georg Christoph GROOTH. Grand Duke Petr Fedorovich on Horseback
Oil on canvas. 66 by 56 cm
After Vigilius ERIKSEN. Portrait of Catherine II
After Vigilius ERIKSEN. Portrait of Catherine II
Oil on board. 34 by 27 cm
A part porcelain coffee service. Late 18th century
A part porcelain coffee service. Late 18th century
Height of coffee pot 27 cm. Gardner manufactory
Attributed to Johann Baptist LAMPI or his studio. Portrait of Empress Elizabeth I (1709–1762)
Attributed to Johann Baptist LAMPI or his studio. Portrait of Empress Elizabeth I (1709–1762)
Oil on canvas. 137.2 by 106 cm
Sir William BEECHEY R.A. Portrait of Don Ataman Matvei Platov. 1814
Sir William BEECHEY R.A. Portrait of Don Ataman Matvei Platov. 1814
Oil on canvas. 76.5 by 63.5 cm
A military porcelain plaque. Period of Alexander II (1855–1881)
A military porcelain plaque. Period of Alexander II (1855–1881)
Diameter – 33.5 cm, diameter with frame 45 cm. Imperial porcelain manufactory
Clock, surmounted with the figural group of Tsar Nicholas I on a prasing horse. Circa 1835
Clock, surmounted with the figural group of Tsar Nicholas I on a prasing horse. Circa 1835
Gilt-bronze, bronze and malachite. 80 by 42 cm
Ilya REPIN. Portrait of Boris Grigoriev. 1915
Ilya REPIN. Portrait of Boris Grigoriev. 1915
Pencil on paper. 39.5 by 27.5 cm
Ilya REPIN. Portrait of Kornei Chukovsky. 1910
Ilya REPIN. Portrait of Kornei Chukovsky. 1910
Oil on canvas. 75.5 by 66 cm
Boris GRIGORIEV. Self-portrait
Boris GRIGORIEV. Self-portrait
Oil on canvas. 61 by 46 cm
Sergei SUDEIKIN. On the sofa
Sergei SUDEIKIN. On the sofa
Oil on canvas laid on board. 30 by 51.5 cm





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