Praskovya Sheremeteva was the subject of a famous portrait painted by Nikolai Argunov, the serf-turned-painter who was the first Russian artist of serf origin to be elected to the Imperial Academy of the Arts. Born a serf around 1770, she caught the eye of her owner, Count Nikolai Petrovich Sheremetev, at the age of 16.
Sheremetev was the scion of the noble Sheremetev family, the wealthiest nobleman in all of Russia. Praskovya was trained in voice, and could perform operatic repertoire in French, German and Italian. Sheremetev refused to allow Praskovya to be married off to a local serf, instead taking her to be his mistress. Over time, Sheremetev rid himself of all his other mistresses, falling deeply in love with Praskovya. He was tormented over the question of whether or not he should marry her, as marriage between a noble and a serf was unheard of and akin to social suicide. With his recall to St. Petersburg, the Count was once again involved in intrigue, with prospective marital matches constantly rumored and time after time proven false. It was only after Praskovya fell ill that Nikolai Petrovich reevaluated their relationship. The two were married on 1801, after the Count liberated Praskovya from her servitude to him. However, she soon died of tuberculosis.
Questions for discussion in class:
How did the fortunes of the Sheremetev family change after the death of Praskovya?
What does her story tell us about the construction of gender in 18th century Russia?
Works Cited and Consulted
Figes, Orlando. Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia. New York: Picador, 2003.
By Christopher Hart-Moynihan and Mary McKillop