Empress Maria (née Sophia Dorothea von Württemberg), wears cream dress with tiny cameo of her mother-in-law, Catherine the Great at her corsage, a blue ribbon in her powdered hair. The cameo she wears appears similar to that depicting Catherine II as Minerva that Maria wears in a portrait by Jean-Louis Voille, dated 1792 (cf. Exhibition Catalogue, Paleis Het Loo, Apeldoorn, p.95, no.59). Alexander (1777-1825) (later Tsar Alexander I) and Constantine (1779-1832), both wear blue coat, white lace collar, blue sash and breast star of the Russian Order of St. Andrew and the cross of the Russian Order of St. Anne on a red ribbon about their neck. Alexandra (1783-1801) wears pink dress with white lace collar; Helen (1784-1803) and Marie (1786-c.1849), wear blue dress with white lace collar and Katherine (1787-1819) wears white dress with blue sash, all the girls except Helen wear the breast star of the Russian Order of St. Catherine.
There exists confusion in the identification of the work of Jean Louis Voille, a pupil of Hubert Drouais most noted for his full-scale portraits of the Russian aristocracy (to whom the present lot has previously been given), and Henri François Gabriel Viollier, a Geneva-born miniaturist active in Russia at the same time. This has undoubtedly been compounded by the fact that in the 1780s both artists were in the service of Grand Duke Paul Petrovich - Voille as painter to the Grand Duke and Viollier as inspector for H.I.H. Cabinet of Fine Arts and Building. Viollier moved to St Petersburg in the late 1770s having previously lived in Paris. He was joined there shortly afterwards by his brother Gabriel François (b.1763) who was appointed a secretary to Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna. Unlike many of the Swiss who passed through St Petersburg seeking to profit from the riches of the Imperial Court, the Viollier brothers became naturalised and both married Russians. Violliers sitters included Empress Catherine II, members of the Imperial Court and the high aristocracy. His portrait of Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna holding her infant son, Grand Duke Nicholas Pavlovich (Museum of Pavlovsk, cf. Musée Historique de Lausanne, 100 Ans de Miniatures Suisses 1780-1880, Geneva, 1999, p.41, fig.52), is indicative of his style. Most distinctive are the currant-like eyes and small pursed lips, features which are evident in the portraits contained in the present lot. By contrast Voille depicts his sitters in a bolder, more volumetric manner that is no doubt the product of his training as a full-scale portrait painter. The reverse of the frame is engraved Fait au mois de Septembre de lannée 1788 and by tradition it has been suggested that the portraits were a present from the Grand Duke to his consort. The close connections the Viollier brothers had with both the Grand Duke and Duchess would certainly have made the choice of artist straightforward.
Princess Sophie Dorothea, of the junior Montbéliard branch of the ducal House of Württemberg, was selected by Empress Catherine II as a suitable consort for the Tsarevitch Paul Petrovich, following the death in 1776 of his first wife, Natalia Alexeievna (born Princess Wilhelmina of Hesse-Darmstadt). Upon Orthodox baptism Princess Sophie Dorothea assumed the name Maria Feodorovna. She had had a strict upbringing and was described by the Baroness dOberkirch, a childhood friend, as unaffected, witty, without the least pretension, free from all coquetry, and, above all, gifted with the gentlest disposition (Memoirs of the Baroness dOberkirch, London, 1852, vol. I, pp. 47/8). These attributes must have helped her live with the many eccentricities of her husband to whom, in spite all, she remained devoted- in a letter to the Baroness dOberkirch she wrote This dear husband is an angel, and I love him to distraction (op. cit. p. 106). Her gentlest disposition must also have helped the Grand Duchess to accept Empress Catherines insistence in controlling the education of her children, a matter that was of great interest to her. Possibly as a consequence of this she, when she was Dowager Empress, she assumed the role of a benevolent matriarch, founding many charitable and educational institutions.
Henri François Gabriel Viollier (Geneva 1750 - St. Petersburg 1829)