Catherine the Great Ate an Orange and Then Threw Some Rubles at an Artist

(Or was it not really Екатерина II Великая {Yekaterina II Velikaya}? Or still even rather yet: Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg?)

And when I say she ate an orange, she ATE an orange, did our Tsarina Yekaterina. One might be forgiven, were one an emissary from the French court, for thinking that perhaps one should peel an orange before eating it. Were one an emissary from the English court, which is not outside the realm of possibility in those days, perhaps, one might have a strong sense of, not deja vu exactly, but a strong resonance with those stories one heard of Queen Elizabeth at grandmama’s knee.

Yekaterina cleared her throat and, had there been any noise whatsoever, one imagines it would have ceased immediately. “Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, approach us,” she said, though not in English, and probably not even in a Russian easily recognizable to today’s Russian speaker, one thinks.

Vigée Le Brun approached Yekaterina as she sat at table, biting into another orange. Vigée Le Brun (Louise to her acquaintances, Betty to her friends, something else entirely to her lovers, one imagines) curtsied deeply, and spoke something in French. Oh, I’m sure it was recorded somewhere what was said, who laughed, and who kissed whose hand. The Tsarina said something about being a fancier of art, and Vigée Le Brun, who had hardly expected to find a place more civilized, a place less fraught with terror, but then there you go, could barely even remember agreeing to paint the portrait, much less the painting of it.

When painting Tsarina Yekaterina’s portrait, Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun endeavored, with all her skill, to portray the brief moment of kindness she had felt, in the eyes perhaps, or maybe the mouth.

The large sack of rubles didn’t hurt, either.

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