Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Intrepid Women: Scottish Artist Christina Robertson, Painter of Imperial Russia

Wednesday, August 28, 2013
Isabella reporting,

Portraitist Christina Sanders Robertson (1796-1854) may not be a household name today - or even a name that pops up in many art history classrooms - but in the early 19th c., she was not only one of the most popular artists in Britain, but also in France and in Russia, with travels that definitely qualify her as an Intrepid Woman.

Born in Fife, Scotland, Christina Sanders was the daughter of a coach painter. More importantly, her uncle was a successful miniaturist who taught her painting and helped launch her career; by 1819, she was already developing an aristocratic clientele for her portraits. She married fellow-artist James Robertson in 1822, and together they relocated to London. Within a year, her work was included in the annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy, and her society portraits were being engraved and reproduced in ladies's magazines and popular journals, right. Her affluent sitters liked her elegantly flattering portraits with their emphasis on jewels and rich clothing.  She was paid her well for her work, and her reputation soared.

Christina's success has a remarkably modern feel to it. While her career grew, far exceeding her husband's, she also bore eight children, four of whom survived to adulthood. During the 1830s, she left her children behind with her husband in London and travelled to Paris for several lucrative, prolonged stays, completing portrait after portrait of stylish aristocrats. In 1839, she traveled to St. Petersburg - not an easy journey, especially not for a solitary woman - to paint Empress Alexandra, Tsar Nicholas I, and other members of the imperial court. In recognition of her talent, she was named an honorary member of the Imperial Academy of Art.

She remained in Russia for two years before returning to London, where she continued to maintain a studio. She was made an honorary member of the Royal Scottish Academy, and exhibited there from 1829-1845. But St. Petersburg beckoned again, and in 1849, she once more left London and her family and returned to the Imperial Court, painting portraits like this one of Marie of Hess-Darmstadt, lower left. While tastes in formal oil portraits were changing, she still found both financial success and artistic freedom with her watercolors, and prospered even as the coming Crimean War made Russia an uneasy place for a British woman. Christina's health was faltering as well, and she died in St. Petersburg in 1854, not long after her husband died in London. She is buried in St. Petersburg in the Volkhov Lutheran cemetery, and the largest collection of her work remains in the Hermitage Museum.

But as impressive as Christina's achievements may be, they also raise some tantalizing questions. Exactly how understanding was her husband, left behind in London? What did her children think of having a mother in faraway St. Petersburg for most of their youth? And how much of Christina's independent career and traveling was based on her need to support her family, and how much was a desire for artistic and personal freedom? In her self-portrait, above left, she looks resolute and determined in her fur-trimmed pelisse, staring off to one side as if a little impatient at being interrupted at her work. At least that's how she seems to me. What do you think?

Click here for more examples of Christina Robertson's work.

Update: Since this post appeared, I've heard from several readers regarding this portrait of Maria Alexandrovna. Seems that while I found the painting on several sites online attributed to Christina Robertson, in other places it's credited to Franz Xaver Winterhalter, and I agree that it does look like his work. Ahh, the challenges of tracking down the works of a now-obscure artist via the internet! In any event, I've now replaced the painting in question with another portrait of Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna that is definitely by Christina Robertson, directly from the Hermitage Museum website.

Top left: Christina Sanders Robertson, self-portrait, c. 1822, watercolor on ivory. Victoria & Albert Museum.
Right: Charlotte Florentia Percy (nee Clive), Duchess of Northumberland, engraving by Thomas Anthony Dean after Christina Robertson (1825), published 1829. National Portrait Gallery.
Lower left: Detail, Marie of Hess-Darmstadt (Maria Alexandrovna), by Christina Robertson, 1849, Hermitage Museum.


Karen Anne said...

It's interesting to see that the second picture is a copy? of her work. I was wondering, the third pic is splendid but the second pic has those weird hands. I suspect the copiest(sp?) is responsible for the hands.

Hels said...

It is interesting that her work was included in the annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy, and her society portraits were being reproduced in popular magazines. So she had the approval of both professional and popular opinion. Yet.. yet... we largely do not recognise Christina Robertson's name.

Perhaps if the largest collection of her work remains in the Hermitage Museum, there aren't enough other pieces of her work in places we might easily see it.

Anonymous said...

Not to diminish her obvious talent, but my first thought when I saw the third portrait was "God it looks like a Vogue cover" - the lighting, I guess, and the drama. What a face on that last portrait!

Chris Woodyard said...

Wonderful post! I saw a strikingly modern portrait by Robertson a few years ago, but there seemed to be nothing online about her. Thank you for telling her story. And what a sad portrait of the unhappy Maria Alexandrovna. One of Robertson's best, I think.

Grace Burrowes said...

Interesting too, that she exhibited with the Royal Academy, but was not a member. While two of the founding members were women, when those two died, it wasn't until the 20th Century that the Academy chose another female academician. Wonder if the Royal Academy's chauvinism figured in her desire to travel?

Marie Macpherson said...

This is SO interesting. I've read a lot about the Scots in Russia - military men, physicians, architects, the painter William Allen etc but have never come across this lady. Wish I'd known about her when I lived in Leningrad & wandered through the Hermitage. Wonderful post, Thank you!

Karen Anne said...

Somebody really ought to write a biography of her. How about one of you...

All I could find on the web was that her later years in Russia might have been difficult financially, since there was tension between the countries and some of her subjects were not paying her.

I wonder if there are letters around.

Karen Anne said...

Is the last portrait by her? I went looking for more info about it, and it is attributed to another artist in places. His other portraits are similar in style to this one.

Jenny O said...

Fascinating! I majored in art history - in Fife! - and had never heard of her. What a story!

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