Thursday, August 13, 2009

La Comtesse du Nord

In May of 1782 Paris was in a flurry over the visit of the "Comte and Comtesse du Nord," the pseudonyms adopted by Grand Duke Paul and Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna, future Tsar and Empress of Russia. The imperial couple traveled incognito so as to lessen the formality of their European tour, which otherwise would have entailed a variety of stiff state receptions. As it was, the young pair were able to meet with other royals, such as Louis and Antoinette, on a more informal basis. They even won the approval of the Orléans clan by sending calling cards to all the Princes of the Blood the day after their arrival in Paris. Although Paul was called a "Tartar," Maria's tact and wit made the visit of the Russian heirs a social success.

Grand Duke Paul, the son and heir of Empress Catherine the Great, was known for his mercurial temperament and general oddness. He was loved, however, with unconditional and endless devotion by his second wife, Sophie Dorothea of Württemberg, who upon her conversion to Orthodoxy became "Maria Feodorovna." When Maria married Paul in 1776 she was hailed as "an angel incarnate." They made family life a priority and had ten children, two of whom later became Tsars of Russia. Maria Feodorovna had a tenuous relationship with her mother-in-law Empress Catherine, whom she rivaled in both intellect and sense of style. Maria was a skilled horticulturist and the gardens she created at the imperial palace of Pavlovsk lasted for generations to come.

Like many who traveled to the court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette (except perhaps for Emperor Joseph and Thomas Jefferson) "the Nords" were impressed with the magnificence of the royal palace and the gracious conduct of the sovereigns. Marie-Antoinette was uncomfortable at first, since she had heard that the Grand Duchess was an intellectual. As one biographer describes the meeting:
At first sight the grand-duchess, who had a beautiful figure, though somewhat too fat for her age, and who was stiff in her bearing, and fond of displaying her learning, had displeased [Marie-Antoinette]. By an unusual accident, the queen, whose manners were easy, and who had always an amiable word to say, had been embarrassed before these imperial visitors; she had retired to her chamber as though overcome with faintness, and had said, on asking for a glass of water, that she had just discovered that the role of queen was more difficult to play in the presence of other sovereigns, or of princes destined to become sovereigns, than before courtiers. This embarrassment, however, was but momentary; and her reception of her new guests was, on the whole, as affable and gracious as usual....

The first interview was cold; the queen, as we have said, was disturbed ; the king appeared timid, as usual. That evening, at dinner, all embarrassment disappeared. The grand-duchess exhibited wit; the grand-duke, who was extremely ugly, and had a face like a Tartar, made up for his ugliness by the vivacity of his eyes and conversation. The queen, 'beautiful as the day,' animated all by her presence.

Marie Antoinette could not fail to do the honours of Trianon for her guests. There was given in the theatre 'Zemire et Azor' by Gretry, and 'Jean Fracasse au Serail,' a ballet by Gerdet; the dances were gay, the costumes very rich, the actors excellent. After the play there was supper; after the supper an illumination. The garden looked like fairy-land; the queen enjoyed all these splendours, which were hers, and her grace and kindness and delicate thoughtfulness added to them. 'How much I should like to live with her!' the Comtesse du Nord said, on the day following this entertainment. 'How glad I should be if Monsieur le Comte du Nord were dauphin of France!'

Then on Saturday, June 8, there was a fancy-dress ball at Versailles. The salons, and especially the gallery, were beautifully decorated with a profusion of candles and girandoles. The whole court was in full dress, the king having ordered that every one should be as brilliant as possible, or not appear. The ladies who danced wore dominoes of white satin....But [Marie-Antoinette] outshone every one. 'She had a manner of walking,' an eye-witness said, 'a graceful majesty in the carriage of her head, which was peculiar to her.'
The garden party at Trianon has been written of here before and Madame Campan's remarks on such occasions are always worth a glance. As recorded in her infamous Memoirs:
Brilliant entertainments were given at Court in honour of the King of Sweden and the Comte du Nord. They were received in private by the King and Queen, but they were treated with much more ceremony than the Emperor [Joseph], and their Majesties always appeared to me to be very cautious before these personages. However, the King one day asked the Russian Grand Duke if it were true that he could not rely on the fidelity of any one of those who accompanied him. The Prince answered him without hesitation, and before a considerable number of persons, that he should be very sorry to have with him even a poodle that was much attached to him, because his mother would take care to have it thrown into the Seine, with a stone round its neck, before he should leave Paris. This reply, which I myself heard, horrified me, whether it depicted the disposition of Catherine, or only expressed the Prince’s prejudice against her.
The Comte and Comtesse du Nord eventually took leave of France and visited several other countries before returning to Russia. In 1796 they became Tsar and Empress at the death of Catherine the Great. Tsar Paul and Empress Maria gave sanctuary in their empire to the orphaned daughter of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, as well as to Louis XVIII. Maria Feodorovna's life was shattered when her husband Paul was brutally murdered in 1801. Not someone to be swept out of the way, she continued to exert considerable influence as dowager Empress and as a patroness of the arts and of many charities. Her combination of beauty, grace and brains even into old age made her a force with which to be reckoned, although she tempered majesty with gentleness, kindness and wit. Empress Maria died in 1828 at the age of sixty-nine at her beloved Palovsk, where she had raised most of her children with the husband whom she found immensely lovable even if no one else did. Share


May said...

I loved this post! So interesting and charming. Thank you, I always enjoy learning about this period.

Catherine Delors said...

Lovely post, Elena! I will have to link to it.

M Buvat de Virginy said...

Wonderful topic, the 1782 visit itself is well-known, it's great to learn more about the personality of one of its leading participants !