"She was a voluptuous and indolent creature of pleasure, this blonde niece of the mighty Russian Prince Grigori Alexandrovitch Potemkin."
So writes the art critic Joseph Baillio about the Countess Ekaterina Skavronskaia (née Catherine Engelhardt), widely regarded as the most gorgeous woman in Europe in the Romantic era.
The French envoy to the Russian court judged Ekaterina's beauty so remarkable that she could "have served as a model for an artist to paint the head of Venus," according to Simon Montefore in his biography of Potemkin. Montefore also records that "Potemkin called her his 'angel incarnate'--'and never had anyone ever been more justly named,' the Prince de Nassau-Siegen later told his wife."
The Web site russiarevisted.com, a tribute to the pre-Revolutionary Russian aristocracy, lists some of the terms of endearment that her beauty invited: "Ekaterina . . . whom Segure (Segyur) nicknamed 'Cupid's Head,' and whom Prince P. Tzitzianov named 'Floating Angel' (meaning that she appeared to be gliding through the skies, rather than walking on earth), and the flatterer Derzhavin called 'Magnetic Eyes' and 'Cloudless Sunrise' . . ."
When a military protégé of Potemkin's was dying from battle-wounds, the prince brought Ekaterina to the man's sickbed, expecting that he would recover simply by "seeing one of the prettiest women in Europe."
And Ekaterina was indeed revered throughout the continent. While she toured Italy, Montefore reports, "she could not help but flirt. She became Naples's leading coquette, high praise in a city that was soon to experience the wiles of Emma, Lady Hamilton." And when she visited Vienna, the Emperor Joseph himself entertained her.
But Ekaterina's disposition was completely different from that of the hyper-aerobicized, leather-skinned, androgynous celebrities who are today's synthetic stars.
Baillio describes the "languorous pose" that Ekaterina adopts in the above painting as emblematic of her "characteristic lethargy." In the eyes of the artist Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, who painted her frequently, "she was utterly idle all day." Montefore describes her as "dreamy," and "placid and passive." And like a princess out of a fairy tale (as Vigée-Le Brun reveals), "in order to fall asleep, she had a slave under her bed who would tell her the same story every night."
But these pampered, luxurious aspects of her character did not detract from her allure. Quite the opposite. Baillio enthuses that "thanks to her ravishing face and angelic temperament, she possessed an invincible charm. Count Scavronski [her husband] was madly in love with her." Montefore records that in the Russia ruled by Czarina Catherine the Great, "half the [Russian] Court, including at various times both Catherine's sons, Paul and Bobrinsky, were in love" with Ekaterina. Her "eternal languor and nonchalant sexuality," as Montefore describes it, made her even more irresistible.
And despite the celestial comparisons that her beauty invited, her character was more Venus than Seraph, for she was a self-indulgent, physical being. Potemkin, who knew her intimately, recognized this quality, and called her his "angel of fleshly delights." Vigée-Le Brun revealed an almost scandalous detail when she said of Ekaterina, that "her pleasure was to live stretched out on a sofa, without a corset, wrapped in a black pelisse [fur]."
In a time when it was unheard of for noblewomen to dress without stays, the fact that this goddess preferred to leave her curves unconstrained testifies to a level of comfort with her figure that one could only wish more full-figured goddesses possessed today.
Here is Vigée-Le Brun's most famous painting of Ekaterina, created six years later than the above image, and now hanging in the Louvre--where it easily surpasses the Mona Lisa as the loveliest visage in the museum. Note the timeless aspect of her beauty, with her pronounced resemblance to Shannon Marie, Lillian Russell, Christina Schmidt, etc.:
Baillio writes that "in this intimate likeness, the painter's artistry focuses on the warm cushioned ambience of the Countess's everyday existence, her feminine charm, and the soft sensual qualities of her body."
And life at court obviously agreed with Ekaterina, for she appears considerably fuller-figured here, and more beautiful, than in Vigée-Le Brun's earlier painting. Her facial features are rounder, and she exhibits no trace of a visible clavicle. This masterpiece also glories in her peaches-and-cream complexion.
Vigée-Le Brun's final painting of the Countess, titled "La Malicieuse," is only available in a minuscule Web form, scanned from a poor source. Nevertheless, the viewer can see that Ekaterina's gorgeous facial features are even fuller here. The painting underscores the Countess's sensual nature, and attests to the coquettish charm that made her the darling of the European aristocracy.
In her lifetime, Ekaterina Skavronskaia's reputation as "a voluptuous and indolent creature of pleasure" brought her adoration and worship. Princes courted her; artists painted her; emperors entertained her in royal style. Pampered, spoiled, and utterly irresistible, she drank it all in, and loved every minute.* * *
Today, the media champions an entirely different standard of womanly behaviour and appearance, to the exclusion of any other. But are we any the better off for it? Or has this subjected women to escalating eating disorders, tormented bodies, and stressed-out lives? Perhaps instead of gym-manufactured aggression, and diet-induced bitterness, the "angelic softness" that Vigée-Le Brun attributes to Ekaterina would be a far happier and healthier ideal for women to adopt--and for men to adore.
Baillio, Joseph. Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Fort Worth: Kimbell Art Museum, 1982.
Montefore, Simon Sebag. Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin. London: Weidenfeld, 2000.