After the sudden death of his father, the imperious Tsar Alexander III, in fall 1894, 26-year-old Nicholas Romanov turned with damp blue eyes to a cousin and cried, "What is going to happen to me? To all of Russia? I am not prepared to be a tsar. I never wanted to become one. I know nothing of the business of ruling. I have no idea of even how to talk to the ministers."
Nicholas could and did talk to his wife, the beautiful, melancholy Alexandra. Queen Victoria's favorite grandchild, born Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, was 12 when she first met the 16-year-old who would become Russia's last tsar. He introduced himself as "Nicky." Four days later Nicholas pronounced himself in love. Another decade passed before Alix yielded to his repeated proposals of marriage. (Religion was the obstacle, but in the end the Lutheran Alix converted to Russian Orthodoxy.)
As scores of books and films report, their love was genuine—but shadowed by grief. Their wedding took place less than a month after Alexander's death. Alix was known as "the funeral bride," and Nicholas's first decree was to proclaim her new name, Alexandra Feodorovna. At their coronation, more than a thousand people were crushed to death in a stampede sparked by rumors that free beer and souvenirs were running out.
In 1904, Alexandra finally gave birth, after four daughters, to a desperately longed-for male heir. Within weeks of his birth, the infant, Alexei, began to bleed from the navel. He was diagnosed with hemophilia, a genetic inheritance, through his mother, from Queen Victoria herself. From that moment, observed a family member, "the empress's character underwent a change." Not long afterward, Alexandra became infatuated with the peasant mystic Rasputin, who alone seemed to her capable of healing her son.
Nicholas and Alexandra retreated into the apparent safety of family life. At their private residence outside St. Petersburg, the Alexander Palace"an enchanted fairyland," according to a member of the royal entouragethey madly photographed each other, their four daughters, son, pets, friends and relatives.
At night they glued pictures into scrapbooks, read and sewed, wrote diaries and, when separated from one another, doting letters. "Sweetest One," "My beloved Nicky dear," Alexandra began her letters to the tsar. Nicholas closed his notes to her, "your own Huzy."
Bric-a-brac in the palace
Alexandra decorated her private rooms in chintz and filled them with the claustrophobic bric-a-brac of Victorian England. The family took afternoon tea. Dinners were multi-course affairs with menus printed on embossed cards. Household servants dressed in red-and-gold costumes with ostrich-plumed caps. Annually, the tsar and tsarina exchanged fantastic Easter eggs concocted by the imperial jeweler, Peter Carl Fabergé. They accumulated diamonds, toys, books, gowns, military uniforms (even their daughters wore them), porcelain, palaces and icons.
During his 23-year reign, Nicholas II collected as few as a dozen works for official ends, among them François Flameng's four imaginary scenes of the domestic life of Napoleon Bonaparte. Little known today, Flameng was a popular portraitist who also produced historical and decorative works, including ceilings for the Opéra Comique and Gare de Lyon and nine panels for the staircase of the Sorbonne.
Nicholas acquired three Flameng canvases in 1896 and a fourth in 1905. They hung in two separate drawing rooms in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The images show another doomed emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, at the height of his powers, cavorting happily with his family—fantasies that obviously appealed to the tsar.
In one painting Napoleon plays tag with his stepdaughter; in another he kisses his newborn son, the preposterously named "King of Rome"; in a third he promenades with his new wife, Marie-Louise, Archduchess of Austria; and in the last Flameng work Nicholas owned, Napoleon engages in one of the tsar's favorite pastimes, hunting.
Earlier Romanovs had collected numerous monumental works showing the defeat of Napoleon in battle. A year after Russian troops occupied Paris in 1814, a triumphant Alexander I had bought up the art holdings of Napoleon's first wife, Joséphine. At the 1912 centenary of Napoleon's defeat at Borodino, Russia, Nicholas II rode around the battlefield and voiced thanks to his victorious ancestors. Russians were fascinated by France, the Revolution and Napoleon. The Empress Alexandra kept a portrait of Marie Antoinette in her drawing room.
A dynasty in decline
By the time Nicholas took power in 1896, the immense Russian empire, then one-sixth of the Earth's surface, was closer than most suspected to its end. More than 30,000 Russian soldiers died in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904. A year later, on what became known as "Bloody Sunday," troops gunned down more than a hundred unarmed workers outside the tsar's Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Though he wasn't there and hadn't ordered the shooting, Nicholas nonetheless bore blame for the carnage.
Did he fear he might have a Waterloo ahead of him as he gazed at his four Flameng paintings? Or did he content himself with the illusion that, unlike Napoleon, he might continue to enjoy life's simpler pleasures? Both emperors were short brunettes with striking good looks and a penchant for military dress. Both married women who had the stuff to become legends. Perhaps Nicholas was trying to emulate the French emperor when, in 1915, exactly 100 years after Waterloo, and against all but his wife's advice, he fired the commander of the Russian army and took control of the nation's troops during World War I. The results were disastrous. By 1917 more than three million Russian soldiers had died in the war, and the country was in chaos. That March, the people rebelled, Nicholas abdicated and the 300-year reign of the Romanovs ended. A year later, the revolutionary Bolsheviks assassinated the tsar, his wife and their children.
Miscast in every role but that of husband and father ("he was clearly a nester at heart," says U-M Museum of Art Director James Christen Steward), Nicholas II dreamedto judge from his taste in paintings—of a destiny opposite the violent conflicts he faced. Just after relinquishing the throne in 1917, he told an acquaintance that his heart's desire was to keep a farm, maybe in England.
He had no Flameng to paint his domestic capers, but Nicholas did have a camera, a gift from the Kodak company. A surprising number of Romanov scrapbooks survived both the Revolution and the Soviet regime.
Much as Nicholas may have looked in wonder at Flameng's images of a carefree Napoleon, so can we peruse the last tsar's photographs—many now reproduced in lavish coffee-table editions—of a loving family frolicking in the snow, wading in the sea, walking on stilts, planting vegetables—and imagine a less brutal end to it all.