With the end of the Napoleonic Wars two years earlier, anything Russian was eminently fashionable in 1817, when the portrait was painted. Princess Charlotte of Wales, only legitimate child of the Prince Regent (later George IV) was desperate to have the Russian Order of St Catherine bestowed on her. She’d been trying for the honour since at least 1813, with little success. (The order was only given to women, primarily those of the Russian royal family but also occasionally granted to foreign queens and high-ranking princesses.)
The well-known portrait of her, by George Dawe and dated to 1817 (shown above), depicts the princess in a Russian style dress, known as a sarafan, and – supposedly – wearing the Star of the Order of St Catherine’s. The notes on the Royal Collection Trust website say of the portrait:
At her left breast she wears the star of the Order of St Catherine, which she received on 1 July 1817, from Maria Feodorovna, wife of Paul I, in gratitude for hospitality shown to her son Nicholas during his visit to London. (Princess Charlotte’s husband, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, also served under the Russian Emperor during the Napoleonic Wars.)
Now, we don’t want to contradict the RCT who surely know better than us, but we can find no corroborating evidence that Charlotte ever received this honour, and upon zooming in to the portrait, the Star insignia which she is wearing looks incorrect. It almost appears to have the Prince of Wales feathers atop it and is not studded with diamonds, as it should be. Maybe, however, Dawe chose to paint it this way? Although we have our suspicions, we really can give no confirmation one way or another and will have to rely on the royal collection’s assertion that this is the Star of the Order of St Catherine.
The dress Charlotte wears could almost have been copied from a portrait of Sophia Petrovna Svechina, a Russian exile in Paris. She was painted by François Joseph Kinson in 1816, just a year before Charlotte sat for her portrait, wearing a remarkably similar dress.
A Sarafan is a Russian trapezoidal jumper (or pinafore) dress, and a traditional folk costume. These two Russian portraits show the subjects wearing dresses that are also very like that worn by Charlotte.
No doubt Charlotte had her dress especially made (it was produced in England) for the portrait and to set off her Russian order, whether being worn legitimately or not. Charlotte’s version of this Russian dress is made from blue silk, trimmed with gold lace which has red highlights, and edged with gold fringe. Amazingly, it has survived and is also in the royal collection. As you can see from the images below, it has either faded slightly, or Dawe used a little artistic licence to darken it in his portrait of the princess.
When she sat for her portrait, the princess was pregnant. Her child – a son – was stillborn, and Charlotte died from complications following the birth the next day, 6 November 1817. She was just twenty-one years of age. Had she or her son lived, they would have been heir to the British throne.
Copies of the painting were made, many with slight variations. One shows the dress in white instead of blue, another leaves off the gold trimming. This version below shows the dress in a darker hue, and with a much more extravagant ‘blouse’ beneath, with lace sleeves.
Interestingly, when George Dawe’s brother, Henry Edward Dawe, made a mezzotint copy of the portrait after the princess’ death, which was published in January 1818 and an amalgamation of two of the portraits already given above, the Order of St Catherine pinned to Princess Charlotte’s breast was totally omitted.
George Dawe subsequently spent many years at the Russian court where he painted many of the nobility there. It is thought that he used the portrait of Princess Charlotte as inspiration for his later one of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. Certainly, the rich colour of the dress and the pose are reminiscent of the princess’ portrait. It increases the pathos of poor Princess Charlotte’s picture however; how she would have loved to be painted with her arms around her children. Sadly, that was not to be.
Letters of the Princess Charlotte, 1811-1817 (1949)
Autobiography of Cornelia Knight, Lady Companion to the Princess Charlotte of Wales: With Extracts from Her Journals and Anecdote Books, Volume 1 (1861)