Notes to Portrait of Avrora Karlovna Demidova-Karamzina (1808-1902), née Stjernvall, 1868 (no 842) [Part 2]

January 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

Avrorva Stjernvall Demidova 1868 Winterhalter

Notes to Portrait of Avrora Karlovna Demidova-Karamzina (1808-1902), née Stjernvall, 1868 (no 842) [Part 2]

For those who understand Russian, there’s a delightful lecture about Avrora Karlovna Demidova-Karamzina by Mikhail Kostolomov on YouTube –; and an in-depth article about her at

Avrora Karlovna Stjernvall, a daughter of a Finnish governor, frequently travelled to St Petersburg, where her beauty and intelligence caused sensation. Most prominent Russian poets, such as Pushkin and Lermontov, dedicated verses to her, and the Emperor Nikolai I appointed her as a lady-in-waiting to his wife, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. In 1836 she married the fabulously wealthy Pavel Nikolaevich Demidov, the owner of extensive mines and factories in the resource-rich Ural region of Russia. However, too much of a good life impacted his health, and Demidov died only four years after their marriage. The fortune smiled again on Avrova, when she fell in love and married in 1846 Andrei Nikolaevich Karamzin. However, their happiness was also short lived, as in 1854 Karamzin was killed in the Crimean War.

Avrova Karlovna never remarried, but concentrated on the upbringing of her only son, Pavel Pavlovich Demidov, and took an active part in the management of the family fortunes and business affairs. While her family palace in St Petersburg, with its rounds of balls and dinners, became a prestigious rendezvous place for the social and artistic elite of the Russian Empire, Avrova Karlovna also used her immense fortune to help innumerable charities, and endow various welfare, health, and educational institutions in Russia as well as in her native Finland. She was fated to outlive her only son as well as his first wife, and one of her grandchildren, dying in 1902 a few months short of her 94th birthday.

In spite of the wealth and stature of the sitter, her portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter appears rather understated. However, it fits among other portraits by Winterhalter of the era. In the middle of the 1860s, the years of hard work and constant travel around Europe and across the Channel (and think of the travel conditions in those days!) took their toll on Winterhalter’s health; and in 1865 he became seriously ill. Henceforth he undertook extended trips to health spas and holiday resorts, and painted significantly less. With a few notable exceptions, large-scale, full- and three-quarter-length portraits became rare in his oeuvre, and the artist concentrated more and more on smaller, more intimate half-length and head-and-shoulder portraits.

Avrora Karlovna Demidova-Karamzina is shown accordingly in a head-and-shoulders format, appearing close to the viewer within the intimate setting of the vignette-like oval portrait. Her hair is parted in the middle and gathered low at the nape to emphasise the fashionably correct oval of her face. The jewellery is minimal, and limited to earrings and a single string of pearls. While Avrora Karlovna is shown décolleté, a lace head-dress modestly descends covering her shoulders. As I have seen neither the original portrait nor the colour photograph of it, I can only presume that it is carried out in a sombre palette, comparable to Winterhalter’s portraits of Mme Mélanie Goldschmidt (1834-1894) (Louvre) and Countess Genowefa Puslowska (1821-1867) (Collegium Maius), both of which were also painted in 1868. Such encapsulation of Avrora Karlovna also fits within the preferred depiction of widows and ‘women of a certain age’ during the second half of the nineteenth century.

To be continued…

© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg, 2014


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You are currently reading Notes to Portrait of Avrora Karlovna Demidova-Karamzina (1808-1902), née Stjernvall, 1868 (no 842) [Part 2] at The Winterhalter Catalogue.


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