The invention of the hand-held Kodak in 1888 not only popularized the making of photographs but also generated a new type of image, artless and improvised. Capturing the spontaneous and the ephemeral, these images offer a sometimes irreverent glimpse into the intimacies of private lives. Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna, the sister of Emperor Nicholas II, took up photography after the example of her mother, the empress dowager, and her aunt, Queen Alexandra of England, both distinguished amateurs. An avid photographer in her youth, the grand duchess brought her camera to family picnics and excursions, as well as to formal gatherings and military reviews. In this album, she compiled no fewer than 1,120 images to document a single year in the life of her family, from June 13, 1904, to June 6, 1905.
For the imperial family, whose status forbade any display of familiarity outside its own circle and whose public appearances were governed by a stringent etiquette, moments away from the public eye held a particular savor. The album celebrates these moments of freedom from the constraints of duty, lovingly detailing picnics, tea parties, strolls in the woods, automobile excursions, or just scenes of carefree fun. Some images refer obliquely to the momentous events then affecting the country, such as the disastrous Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. The photograph of the emperor blessing the troops as they leave for the front in the presence of the dowager empress becomes in this context an intimate shot of a brother and mother. Scenes of battleship launchings and hospital visits are included, but the album is, as a whole, the chronicle of a large, closely knit family. Only the compulsive gathering of so many lighthearted memories at a time of such portentous events as Bloody Sunday, January 9, 1905, when a civilian protest was tragically crushed by the army, perhaps betrays a subliminal awareness of the ominous new climate affecting the country.
The pages devoted to the outings of May 28 and May 29 at Gatchina, the empress dowager's estate near St. Petersburg, juxtapose the horse-drawn jaunting car and the automobile, which in 1905 was still an exciting novelty. On May 29, on what was truly a photographic safari, the party brought along no fewer than four cameras. The panoramic image in which the grand duchess is seen on the left with her husband, Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, and their daughter Irina, later Princess Yusupov (see no. 237), is an elegant and dignified commemoration of the outing; the snapshots of the grand duchess and her husband frolicking on the grass or the image of the road where two little dogs are caught in mischief have the freshness of the unexpected.
Grand Duchess Xenia was not the sole author of these photographs. But it was her eye that determined the design of the pages, arranged the delightful sequence of the images, and gave the album the extemporaneous charm of a personal diary.
Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna; (sold, Sotheby's, London, November 28, 1991, lot 854); Gilman Paper Company Collection, New York