Karl Briullov's Portrait of Countess Samoilova

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Regina, Kristen
Hargrove, June
The stunning Portrait of Countess Samoilova (1832- 1834), painted by the Russian artist Karl Briullov (1799-1852), has been traditionally considered as only a decorative high society parade portrait. However, this thesis argues that the portrait is more than this: through encoded signifiers it ref1ects Briullov's love for and possession of Julia Samoilova, and a possible love affair between artist and sitter. Artistically these symbols developed out of the conventions of the eighteenth-century phenomenon turquerie, which continued into the nineteenth century as Orientalism. Employing such artistic conventions as turquerie in a highly personal manner, Briullov navigated across social boundaries (he was not of Samoilova's noble class) to transform this portrait into a covert profession of his love for the sitter and simultaneously possess her as his own. Popular in Europe, especially France, turquerie was at first a fashion for Turkish styles and motifs in interior design, masquerade balls, clothing and furniture. But European fantasies about the East intensified through colonial expansion at the end of the eighteenth century. Turquerie came to represent a European superiority over an exotic "other,' often manifested in the image of the black servant, which is also prevalent in Orientalist paintings. But the discourse of Orientalism extends over broader visual arenas such as the bath, harem-life, landscapes of exotic foreign lands and their inhabitants. Orientalism is a discourse which is based on continued colonial conquest and primarily considered a European, namely French and English, “othering" of the Near East and North Africa. Within the Orientalist revisionist discourse, other imperializing countries such as Russia are reconsidered. However, Oriental ism presents a dilemma when applied to Russia, as its identity is simultaneously European and Eastern "other," with western European perceptions tending to view Russia as singularly Eastern. To complicate the issue further, Russia itself was an imperialist nation. Samoilova is conceptually developed within this Russian discourse or Orientalism. As both artist and sitter were living in Italy when the portrait was painted, it was the duality and perception of Russian cultural identity that Briullov manipulated when creating Samoilova. The painting is a manifestation of both traditions of turquerie and Orientalism.