Levitsky, D. G.
Ekaterina Ivanovna Molchanova.
Portrait of Ekaterina Ivanovna Molchanova (1758-1809), later Olsufieva, from the series "Smolianki" (Girls Educated at the Smolny Institute)
This is one of a suite of seven paintings called the "Smolianki" (Smolny Pupils), commissioned by Catherine the Great. As an ensemble, these portraits are considered among the most precious legacies of eighteenth-century Russian sensibility; individually, they reveal the considerable talents of the artist. Indeed, Levitsky's ability to capture the natural elegance and vitality of his female sitters is suggestive of exposure to English portraitists such as Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). However, the evidence suggests that no Gainsborough painting was brought to Russia until the nineteenth century. What Levitsky could have known of Gainsborough or Sir Joshua Reynolds would have been through mezzotints of their paintings, which did circulate in Russia during the period.
Originally hung at the Peterhof Palace, the seven Smolny Portraits were among the most desired works for the 'new' State Russian Museum. In the early part of this century, the important artist and aesthete, Alexander Benois (1870-1960; see ImageBase), had written: "If we were organizing a national museum, it would have been only natural to have Levitsky's "Smolny Girls" in a place of honor as well as some masterpieces by Borovikovsky from the Gatchina and Romanov galleries." (see Director's Introduction under Collection Information in the File Menu). Benois had his wish and the works were eventually transferred to the Museum directly from the Tsar's collection. (00267)