Where? Gallery 17 of the Legion of Honor Museum
What do you see? A life-size depiction of a scene before a 17th-century Russian wedding. The girl dressed in white in the center is about to get married to the tsar. She looks pale, and her sister is at her feet. The bride did not choose her partner, and she is not looking forward to the wedding and the rest of her life. She will have to give up her happy life as a teenager and faces a life in which she will have to do whatever the tsar demands. Most of her female friends and family members surrounding her share the somber mood.
The mood is in stark contrast with the sumptuous, colorful outfits of the wedding guests. Tradition prescribes that only women can be present while the bride is prepared for the wedding. An exception is made for the little boy sitting on the left. However, the man entering the room – possibly the bride’s father - is not welcome and is urged to leave the room.
Backstory: The bride’s name is Maria Ilyinichna Miloslavskaya. She is about to get married to the 18-year old Tsar Alexis I. Makovsky created two versions of this painting. The first version is on display in Serpukhov`s Museum of History and Art. This version is much less colorful and almost eight times smaller than the version in the Legion of Honor.
Makovsky used his second wife as the model for the bride in this painting. When this painting was traveling through the United States in 1893, Michael Henry de Young bought the painting. He left the painting for the museum that was eventually named after him, the De Young Museum, which forms together with the Legion of Honor Museum the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Bridal theme: Makovsky enjoyed painting the 17th-century life of the Russian upper class. He created several portraits and large paintings on this topic. Among his paintings is also The Choice of the Bride in the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico. In this painting, potential brides for the tsar line up and the tsar can choose who he wants to marry. The young women have no say in this as the tsar’s word is law.
Who is Makovsky? Konstantin Yegorovich Makovsky was born in 1836 in Moscow. The artistic gene ran in the family as his father and brothers were artists as well. He was one of the most successful Russian painters of his generation and loved to spend his earnings on traveling across the world. He died in 1915 in Saint Petersburg.
His works are a combination of the Realist and Academic art styles. He painted a variety of themes, including historical and mythological topics, genre pieces, and portraits. His most famous mythological work is probably The Judgment of Paris in the Faberge Museum in Saint Petersburg. A nice example of Makovsky’s portraits is the Portrait of Varvara Bibikova in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.
Fun fact: The size and colors make this painting look very impressive. One is inclined to think at first glance that Makovsky painted a happy occasion. But a better look at the bride tells a different story. This story is emphasized by the faces of the other guests in the room. They do not look happy either. However, Makovsky did not make an effort to express much emotion on these faces. They mostly look dull and expressionless.
While Makovsky was an accomplished portrait painter, he clearly did not make a big effort in painting meaningful faces and expressions. Instead, he focused on the coloring, which was his main interest during this stage of his career.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster
Written by Eelco Kappe