The Home of the Last Tsar - Romanov and Russian History

Palace Personalities - The Human Side of the Tsar

by Amalia Kussner Coudert

From Century Magazine
Volume LXXII, 1906
The Human Side of the Tsar
by Amalia Kussner Coudert

I have hoped that some one free to speak would tell through the American press some of the kind things that I know to be true of the Tsar; but in all the writingabout Russia I have not found one word representing him as he appeared to me whenI painted a miniature of him a few years ago. It is scarcely likely that any ofthe writers can have had a better opportunity for forming an opinion. It was my rare privilege to see and now him as he is at home, in the private apartments of the Winter Palace, with, is family about him. I would not, in this case, break my rule of reserve concerning those whom I have had the pleasure of painting,were not the circumstances absolutely exceptional.

In March, 1899, I was quite unexpectedly summoned to Russia to paint a miniatureof Maria Pavlovna, the wife of the Grand Duke Vladimir, uncle of the Czar. Withintwo weeks after receiving the royal summons, I was in St. Petersburg. It was stillthe depth of Winter, and the fine snow that makes the peculiar gloom of the citycontinually filled the air. This first impression was singularly depressing, and the Grand Duchess afterward told me that she attributed to this prevailing grayand white much of the melancholy that is the marked characteristic of the Russian temperament.

But I had had only a glimpse from my hotel window when a message came from the Grand Duchess, requesting me to come to her at once. For a moment I was utterly dismayed. My trunks had not arrived, and I was shocked at the thought of appearing before royalty in a traveling dress; but a royal request must be complied with, regardless of circumstances, and I immediately set out for the Grand Duke's palace, after hastily putting on a long coat, in hopes that it might conceal my dress. Unluckily, there was a Russian custom of which I knew nothing. When I reached the grand entrance-hall of the palace, several of the attendants, gorgeous in gold lace, gathered about me, apparently insisting upon something. They spoke only the Russian language, which I did not understand, but it was soon clear that they were bent upon removing my coat, and they finally succeeded, in spite of all that I could do. As I looked longingly after it, I saw it hung up on one of several rough wooden racks, which seemed strangely out of place in that magnificent entrance to a royal palace. Afterward I saw these racks everywhere, even in the Winter Palace, and learned that the extreme heat of the houses made it necessary to remove all wrappings; and as the bitter outside cold makes many heavy ones necessary, these strange looking racks are required.

I now went on to the drawing-room, where the Grand Duchess received me by holding out her hand with a simple, cordial greeting spoken in perfect English.It need not be said that she is beautiful. Her beauty is well known, and it was even greater than I expected. There was something in her appearance that made me think I must have seen her before, without knowing her, but of course I said nothing of the kind, and soon forgot this impression in arranging the details of the miniature. I can scarcely tell how it was that I thought of veiling the throat in a brown scarf of tulle, as in the famous picture of Queen Louise; but when I suggested doing this, it suddenly struck me that the perplexing resemblance which I had seen in the face of the Grand Duchess was to that painting, and I said so before thinking that I might be taking a liberty. The Grand Duchess smiled, evidently pleased, and said that no one else had ever noticed her likeness to Queen Louise, who was her grandmother.

The first sitting was to have taken place on the following morning, but just as I was about setting out, a thunderous noise arose in the hall outside my door. There were such heavy steps, such loud words, and such a remarkable clatter of swords, that I was really alarmed, and could hardly believe my own eyes when I saw that one small man, all alone, was making the whole commotion. He had come from the Winter Palace, and brought a letter summoning me to the presence of the Tsarina, who wished to have a miniature painted. The message named as the time of my coming the very hour at which the Grand Duchess was to give me a sitting. Much embarrassed, and not knowing what to do, I hastened to tell the Grand Duchess of the message. She relieved me at once by saying that her miniature must be laid aside until the painting of the Tsarina was finished.

That is how I found myself driving to the Winter Palace on a gloomy, snowy morning in March, 1899. Whirling through the grim, gray streets, for Russian horsesgo very fast, I was surprised and rather frightened at being saluted by the police.We Americans have heard such dreadful tales of the way all strangers are watchedin Russia, that I wondered uneasily why the police should salute me. And I feltstill more nervous on leaving the carriage at the overwhelming entrance to thegreat pile of stones, and walking through the big guard- room full of officersand soldiers.

Conducted by a silent, bowing attendant, I was ushered into a reception-room, where a lady-in-waiting met me. While talking with her, I could not help mentioning the fact of being saluted by the police while on my way to the palace, and saying that I could not conceive of any reason for their noticing me at all.

"It was because you were coming to the Winter Palace," she said, smiling a little at my frankness, perhaps. "They know who you are, why you are here, and the time of your arrival. They also know exactly when you are to leave the palace, and if you should not do so most promptly, there would be immediate inquiry. "

This seemed strange and alarming to me, an American, with our ideas of freedom, but I afterward learned that it was quite true. One night at a dinner I met the courtly gentleman of high rank who was then the chief of police. He told me that he personally knew the movements of every one of importance in St. Petersburg.

"Well, in that case I should n't wish to be a person of importance," I said.

"But you are," he replied. "You are at the Winter Palace every day, comingin close contact with the Czar and the Tsarina."

Then, to prove what he had said, he went on to tell me that I had been here and there at such a time, and had done this and that on that very day. As he reminded me, I had gone into a small shop on the Nevskii to buy a hat, and failing to make the shopkeeper understand, had accepted the assistance of a gentleman who chanced to be in the shop and who spoke the Russian language.

But I had little time to discuss Russian police methods with the pleasant lady-in-waiting. An attendant now appeared, to show me into the presence of the Tsarina. At the door of a large drawing-room stood a giant Nubian, in native costume and armed with numerous swords. Near the center of the drawing-room the Tsarina was standing, and seemed to be waiting for me. She held out her hand, and greeted me as kindly and simply as the Grand Duchess had done. Indeed, the greatest whom I have known have always been the kindest and simplest. She was dressed simply,too, in a pretty tea-gown, such as any young wife and mother might have worn at home. The only jewels that she wore were large pearls in her ears, and a splendid star ruby in a ring, the star ruby being her favorite jewel.

The general appearance of the Tsarina may be fairly well known in this country, although fewer pictures have been published of her than of any other crowned head. But no picture that I had seen gave any idea of how she really looks, seen thus face to face. Perhaps this may be for the reason that much of her beauty comes from exquisite coloring, and that there is about her a subtle charm impossible to picture and difficult to describe. She is very tall and very slender, yet most finely proportioned. Her features are almost Greek in their regularity, and the natural expression of her face struck me at once as a singularly wistful and sweet sadness that never went quite away even when she smiled. Her hair is strikingly beautiful and luxuriant, long, heavy, glossy, and brown-gold in color. Her eyes are large, soft, lustrous gray-blue, with long lashes, and I painted them cast down, as they nearly always are; for she is shy, and hardly ever looks up without a blush.

Yet with all the Tsarina's blushing shyness, her bearing impressed me with a sense of something much deeper and graver than mere admiration for a beautiful, graceful woman. It is difficult to define iust what this impression was, but it may be termed majesty, for lack of a subtler term; and the feeling of it increased during the entire time that I was privileged to enter her presence, although no one could have been kinder or more simple in all that she said and did. Mentioning that she had heard of my being in the city, she said she had seen reproductions of some of my miniatures, and liking them, wished me to paint one of her. Then she went on to arrange for the immediate beginning of the miniature, saying that the first sitting would take place on the next morning.

I need hardly say that there was no tardiness upon my part; but when I reached the Winter Palace at the appointed moment, the Empress was ready and waiting. Indeed, I have always found royalty to be prompt beyond any one else with whom I have ever had an engagement. Probably this is because they have more to do than ordinary people, and every moment is arranged for.

This time the Tsarina received me in her boudoir. It was an exquisitely feminine room and distinctly individual. I have never seen one in the least like it. The prevailing color was mauve�in the rich silk hangings on the walls, the soft rugs on the floor, the curtains at the windows, the coverings and cushions, the frames of the pictures, the very mats around them, even in the pictures themselves there was a note of mauve. The vases about the room were all filled with the loveliest mauve orchids.

But I had little opportunity for looking and admiring. The Tsarina at once began posing with what seemed to me unusual artistic feeling, and she sat for an hour without a word or a sign of being tired. When I asked if she were not feeling the strain, she answered, smiling, that "Anything worth doing at all was worth doing well." Then came the sound of a door opening behind me, and I heard the click of spurs. The Tsarina looked up with the sweetest blush and the shyest smile, saying: "The Emperor is coming." There was barely time for me to spring up, with my heart thumping, when I saw Nicholas II. It was hard to realize that this was the Great White Tsar, the ruler of the greatest empire, he seemed so young, so slight, so gentle, and so simple.

He held out his hand just as kindly and simply as the Empress had done, and he also spoke in perfect English, asking how the miniature was coming on. Indeed, I was already beginning to know that English is spoken exclusively by the Russian royal family in their private life. This would not be singular where the Empress herself were concerned, since she is virtually an Englishwoman, and has spent years in England; but I recall hearing the Grand Duchess Helene, the daughter of the Grand Duke Vladimir, since become the Princess Nicholas of Greece, say that she could not remember ever speaking anything but English to her father. And this exclusive use of English in their private life may account for the fact that among themselves they always say "Emperor" and "Empress" instead of "Tsar" and "Tsarina." At all events, I never heard any member of the royal family use the Russian title, and before long the Tsar and the Tsarina were the Emperor and the Empress to me also.

I wish it were in my power to tell exactly what I felt and thought at this first sudden and totally unexpected sight of the Emperor. There was something in his appearance that caused a quiet tightening in my throat and a queer thumping at my heart. As I have said, he looked young, gentle, and slight. He stood quietly and naturally, looking straight at me with steady, clear, kind eyes. There was a sort of winning buoyancy, too, in the quiet dignity of his bearing. Above all, he looked kind, there was kindness in his eyes, in his face, in his voice; kindness in every easy, gentle movement of his slight, youthful figure.

In dwelling upon the Emperor's youthful appearance and gentle bearing, there is no thought of implying any lack of strength. There could hardly be a question of physical bravery in any royal case, since personal fearlessness is a part of royal training, if not inherent in royal blood. But no one could see this young Emperor of Russia, as I saw him then, without seeing spiritual force in his direct gaze and hearing moral courage in his sincere voice. To my excited imagination he appeared fully aware of the weight of his destiny, and to be bear ing the awful burden with cheerful serenity, always looking at his great danger and without one waver of fear.

This first impression was, of course, largely due to my own fancy, but there was no difference in my estimate of the Emperor's personality after he also began sitting for a miniature, and I had a good opportunity to form a deliberate opinion. Sitting face to face with him for two or three hours at a time, I can scarcely have failed to form something like a true estimate of what he really is; for he bore himself without the slightest constraint, and talked quite freely of every topic that came up, precisely as any gentleman would have done under the circumstances. I remember that one of the first things spoken of was our war with Spain, which was just then the theme of the world. It surprised me to see how thoroughly he understood the American feeling, how clearly he saw our point of view, and how familiar he was with the names and careers of every American of note. He very frankly expressed his admiration for our national independence of character and opinion. One memorable thing that he said was: "You Americans never bother about what other nations think." He spoke also of leading American papers, showin familiarity with them; and I learned incidentally that every item in them affecting Russia or the royal family finds its way to his private desk. Knowing this, I have often smiled at the prevailing idea that the Tsar is kept in enforced ignorance of public opinion and even current events. He talked of every subject so freely and naturally as to set me quite at ease. One day I happened to mention a bit of innocent but amusing gossip that I had picked up somewhere. He was as much amused as any quick witted young person would have been, and, calling to the Empress, who was in an adjoining room, he requested me to repeat the story for her amusement, which I did.

There was only one occasion on which I had cause to remember that this perfectly unaffected and extremely intelligent sitter was the Great White Tsar of all the Russias. By an unlucky slip of the tongue, I mentioned Siberia with precisely the same tone of horror that we Americans usually speak of that land of terror, adding hastily, as I realized what I was saying, that it must be a most dreary country, because it was so cold and barren. The Emperor spoke more quickly than he usually did, and said, on the contrary, that Siberia was a beautiful, fertile country, green and blossoming in summer, with fathomless mines of gold and turquoise under the rich soil. I did not pursue the subject, but afterward heard in society that the Tsar had always strongly disapproved the sending of prisoners to Siberia. It was said that he considered it a great injury to so fair a country to associate it solely with suffering and crime. I did not doubt the truth of this, remembering what he had said to me.

One day he was talking of Russian horses, and I ventured to say that I had heard how fine his were and that I had been hoping to see them ever since comin to St. Petersburg. He said that I would have an opportunity on that very day, if I should be looking out of the hotel window at three o'clock, as he and the Empress were going to drive along the Nevskii Prospect at that hour. Of course I was watching at the window long before three, expecting to hear and see some imposing escort thundering before the Emperor's approach - some great cordon of guards drawn up on both sides of the thoroughfare, making a brilliant military spectacle. But there was nothing of the kind. Not a sound or sign told of the Tsar's approach till I glanced up at the clock on a church across the street and saw its hands just on the hour of three. Then looking downward, I saw the policeman of the block directing the usual traffic to the sides of the street, and there came the Tsar, with the Tsarina by his side, and only the coachman on the box of the open carriage. And the only difference between his and the other Petersburg coachmen was that his looked rather fatter - fat as they all look. For this absurd padding of the Russian coachman, which is apparently the survival of a singular custom intended to convey the idea that rich people feed their servants well, is one of the characteristic features of St. Petersburg streets. The Tsar's coachma also sat far forward, with arms outstretched and with taut reins, as all Russians drive.

The royal carriage had come and gone so quietly and quickly that I could scarcely realize what I had seen. I had never heard that the Tsar was in the habit of driving out entirely unattended; but now I heard that he had always done so whenever heliked, which was frequently, and a Russian lady whom I had reason to believe spoke the truth told me a little story of one of the Tsar's drives when he chanced to be entirely alone. This well-authenticated story stated that the Tsar thus caught sight of a party of students who were being marched through the street on their way to Siberia, and, so the story went, at once ordered the release of the students. Afterward, the lady told me in a whisper, the police marched their prisoners on streets through which the Tsar did not drive.

Giving this story for what it may be worth, I can speak with certainty of the common people's confidence in the personal kindness of the Tsar. The heavy, dull faces of the Russian peasants - surely the heaviest, dullest faces on the whole earth - will light up at the name of the Little Father. At all events, I saw them shine at the sound of it, and I think it unlikely that there can have been any great changes among the masses since then. A singular instance of this came under my own observation. The waiter who served me at the hotel table was rather above his class. He was an art student, and knowing, as everybody knew, that I was painting the Tsar, made an appeal for help. He said that he could not study to advantage in Russia and that he could never hope to make a living there by his art, yet he could not go away, as he had not served his time in the army. Twice he had offered himself for service, and had been found too delicate for the standard of army regulations. Explaining all this, he begged me to state his cause to the Tsar, feeling sure that the Little Father would grant his request to be allowed to leave Russia. I also felt quite certain of the generous response, and was truly distressed when, on consulting a diplomat, I was strongly advised against naming any political matter during my visits to the Winter Palace.

When I went again to the palace, after the memorable sight of the Tsar driving alone like any private gentleman, I mentioned how strange it had seemed to me, an artist, to whom time means nothing, that he should have passed at the very instant that he said he would pass, at which smiling, he replied: " Punctuality is our first lesson." Patience also must be a royal lesson. Not once did he show any restlessness during the long sittings, and the only time that the sitting was shortened was when the Empress asked me to excuse him, as he had been up all night and must be very tired. After he had gone from the room, she went on to explain that he had spent the whole night in cock-shooting, a fine Russian sport. The blackcock, is, she said, a most difficult bird to approach. He hears the slightest sound, and it is almost impossible to shoot him except when he is singing to his mate, which he does so blindly and passionately that he neither sees nor hears. "But," the Empress continued, with her shy smile and sweet blush, " could anything be more cruel than to kill him at such a time!"

In my respect I found both of the royal sitters more tinselfish, more thoughtful, and more considerate than almost any one else that I have painted. To the portrait- painter there can hardly be anything more distracting than to have the pose of the sitter disturbed by visitors or notes or messages. Nothing of this kind was ever permitted to interfere with my work at the Winter Palace. No third person was present during the sittings. It was only when the pose was finished that the Empress sometimes asked me to touch the bell which summoned a lady-in-waiting. This little bell was a curiously beautiful bit of ivory carving, representing elephants in trappings of gold and jewels standing on a piece of jade. One - bore a huge diamond on his back, another a great sapphire, and the other a huge star ruby, which I touched when the Empress was ready for the lady-in- waiting Usually the sittings ended just at luncheon-time, and as I left the Winter Palace I often saw a long procession of cooks in white caps and aprons bearing covered dishes and running at full speed, so that the food for the royal household might not get cold between the distant kitchens and the private apartments.

My stay in St. Petersburg extended over Easter, so that I saw the greatest fete of the Russian year. The Empress gave me a sitting on the day before Easter, and naturally spoke of the curious custom requiring her to kiss every member of her household, the servants as well as the ladies.

Smiling and blushing, she described the repeated scrubbings that the servants give their honest faces by way of preparation for this great event, and how red and shining their cheeks were�all smelling of soap - when presented on Easter day. Then as each woman, high and lowly alike, is kissed, she places an egg in the hand of the Empress, and there is much rivalry in trying who can dye the egg most brilliantly. The Emperor, so the Empress went on to tell me, kisses all the men from the highest noble to the humblest soldier. "And," she continued, "sometimes it seems to me that the Emperor has rather the advantage, the new leather that the soldier wears smells so nice."

Her kindness encouraged me to ask if I might send her two little daughters some small Easter gift; for the Grand Duchess Olga and the Grand Duchess Tatiana had quite charmed me with their bright ways. The Empress readily consented that I might make the children an Easter gift, and I sent them a wire cage in the form of a large egg. The wires were twined with flowers, and inside the floral cage was a live white sparrow. When next I saw the Empress, she told me that the little girls were so excited by delight, on first catching sight of the bird, that they allowed it to escape from the cage, and would not rest until the Emperor himself caught it again and put it back. One day when I was painting the Emperor, the children came in and danced about him, coaxing for a piano. He laughingly reminded them that they had two already, and they accepted the refusal in perfect good humor. Dancing up to the Empress, who now entered the room, they held up their little lips to be kissed; then over to me and ran away. Recalling these unconscious and charming scenes of a simple and happy home life, it is no wonder that I fail to recognize the Emperor whom I know in the Tsar that I have since read about. Moreover, I saw with my own eyes how the common people love the Emperor, and most of all those who come closest to his daily life.

In order to spare him unnecessary fatigue in painting detail, I asked that he send to my hotel the uniform of the Preobrajensky Guard which he usually wore, and the one in which I painted him. It was brought to me by his old valet, who had been his father's valet also, and when I was done with the uniform, this same old valet came to take it back to the Winter Palace. When a most curious scene took place. Before leaving my apartment the devoted servant spread the uniform on a table and~ went over it again and again, inch by inch, patting the cloth with his hand. He gave no explanation of what he was doing, but I understood that this was his way of making sure that nothing harmful was concealed in the garment. It hurt me to think that such precautions should be necessary on behalf of so gentle and kind a man as the Emperor seemed to me.

But just at this point it was discovered that the napkin in which the uniform had been wrapped could not be found. It was a very large and fine one, and in the corner the imperial arms were richly embroidered, as large as one's hand. In utter dismay I had my apartment turned upside down, the maids and waiters were called, but the napkin could not be found. Finally I sent for the proprietor, and, after explaining, told him that I must report the matter to the Winter Palace. He went out backward, bowing and protesting in evident alarm, and a few moments afterward the napkin was handed in at the door without a word. I do not believe that the proprietor had anything to do with its disappearance; but he most likely took active measures to learn who had taken it, and probably frightened some servant into returning it. Meantime, that gray, grave old valet stood beside the table, with his faithful hands on his beloved master's uniform.

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