The Scottish-born artist Christina Robertson RSA (née Christina Sanders) was the first woman honorary member of the Royal Scottish Academy, who became a famous portraitist at the Court of Emperor Nicholas I (reigned 1825-1855). In addition to her portraits of the Imperial family, Robertson painted a large number of ceremonial and chamber portraits of representatives of Russia’s most distinguished families.
She was considered by contemporaries to be one of the most talented artists of her day, a remarkable achievement for a woman and mother of a large family in the male-dominated world of 18th Century portrait painting. It is also remarkable — and unfortunate — that, despite her great success and popularity, very little is known about the artist’s life.
She was born in Klinghorn in Fife (near Edinburgh) on 17 December 1796. She came from an artistic family, and showed considerable early talent herself. She is thought to have been trained by her uncle, George Sanders (1774-1846), from whose house in London, she launched into her career.
Christina Sanders was a successful portrait painter and she rapidly established a flow of commissions initially from Scottish patrons for her miniatures but later for oil and watercolour paintings.
In 1822, she married fellow artist James Robertson, their wedding was held at the Marylebone Church in London. Christina gave birth to eight children, four of whom lived to adulthood: two sons, John and William, and two daughters, Agnes and Mary.
In 1823, she began exhibiting at the Royal Academy in London, and later with the Society of British Artists (starting from 1824) and the British Institution (from 1833), all of which her work was lauded by critics. By 1828 she had her own studio in London’s prestigious Harley Street.
Her work was used as the basis for engravings for magazines including The Court Magazine, La Belle Assemblée, Heath’s Book of Beauty and John Burke’s Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Females.
In 1837 she visited Paris where she painted portraits of a number of members of the Russian aristocracy. It was not long before her fame spread to the Russian nobility in St. Petersburg. Christina Robertson visited Russia on two extended periods: 1839-1841 and 1847-1854.
In 1839, Robertson participated in an exhibition at the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, to great critical and public acclaim. As a result, in 1840, she was commissioned to paint for two full-length portraits, one of the Emperor Nicholas I and one of the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna.
It is believed that Robertson was also summoned to the Russian capital, where she was commissioned to replace some of the paintings which were lost in the fire that destroyed the Winter Palace in 1837. From 1839 to 1841 Christina Robertson carried out some of her finest portraits of members of the Russian Imperial family and nobility, which included full length portraits of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and her three daughters – the Grand Duchesses Maria, Olga and Alexandra Nikolaevna. In 1841, in recognition of her talent, she was made an honorary member of the Imperial Academy of Arts. Count M.D. Buturlin recalled in his memoirs that Robertson received “about one hundred thousand rubles in silver” for her work.
She remained in Russia for two years before returning to London, but St. Petersburg beckoned again, and in 1849, she returned to the Russian capital, where she established a studio, and continued to paint portraits at the Imperial Court.
In 1850, she painted several portraits of the Emperor’s daughters-in-law Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna (future Empress Maria Alexandrovna), and Grand Duchess Maria Iosifovna (wife of Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich). The portraits were rejected by Nicholas I, and in September 1851, the Court ordered the custodian of the Hermitage Museum Fyodor Bruni to return all copies to Robertson without payment.
At the end of her life she was poor, and could not return to England due to lack of money. There is evidence that several of her noble clients had refused to pay her. The death of Robertson during the Crimean War (1853-56), during which the majority of the British colony in St Petersburg left Russia, sadly went unnoticed.
She died in St. Petersburg on 30 April 1854, and was buried in the Volkhov Lutheran cemetery in the Russian capital.
Roberstson left dozens of paintings that are important if only because they record the portraits of members of the Russian Imperial family. She is thought to be less well known that she might be as of the deterioration of the relationship between the British and Russian empires.
After the October Revolution, portraits of Robertson’s work, kept in private collections, were nationalized and sent to provincial museums. Thirteen of Robertson’s works are currently stored in the collection of the State Hermitage Museum. These include seven portraits of the Russian Imperial family, four portraits of members of the Yusupov family from the Yusupov Palace collection in St Petersburg, a portrait of Yu. F. Kurakin, and one of Robertson’s finest works – Children with a Parrot. Three portraits, which caused the discontent of Nicholas I in 1850, are kept in the collection of the Peterhof State Museum Preserve.
The largest collection of her work remains in the State Hermitage Museum to this day, where her portraits of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, and her three daughters, the Grand Duchesses Maria, Olga and Alexandra Nikolaevna, currently hang in the Portrait Gallery of the Romanov Dynasty of the State Hermitage Museum.
© Paul Gilbert @ Royal Russia. 15 May 2018