Peter Ivanowitz Potemkin, The Russian AmbassadorCa. 1681. Oil on canvas, 207.2 x 122.8 cm.
Peter Ivanowitz Potemkin arrived at the Spanish court as ambassador for the Grand Duke of Moscow, Feodor II, in 1668 and returned in 1681-82. Carreño’s portrait is thought to be from the second visit, given its stylistic relation to the likeness of Eugenia Martínez Vallejo (P646). As such, it would have been painted in the last years of the artist’s life, when his style combined solid compositions with light and brilliant colors.
This is one of the finest Spanish portraits of its time, and its splendid palette reveals Carreño’s knowledge of the works by Titian in the Royal Collections. It combines a powerful and energetic sense of Potemkin’s physique with sumptuous clothing that perfectly transmits the Spanish reaction to the Russian retinue’s uncommon and dazzling presence. The painter obtained the finest results from a traditional formula of Spanish portraiture that had been successfully exploited by Velázquez: the presentation of a standing figure, turned slightly, before a monochrome background that brings out the model’s volumes. In such works, the figures were usually dressed in dark clothing, with a gray background. Here, however, the intense red of the ambassador’s exuberant garb projects from a dark surface that accentuates its presence. In a court where black clothing was the norm, this painting, with its vivid richness and quality, must have been truly striking. In his Museo Pictórico y escala óptica (1724), Antonio Palomino alluded to Carreño’s considerable skill as a portraitist, citing examples that included one of the Moscow ambassador who was here in 1682.
The origins and details of this commission are unknown but they were probably related to the Spanish court’s fascination with envoys from distant and exotic lands whose clothing, retinues and manners were the object of interest and admiration. In its testimonial intentions, this portrait can be linked to the abundant literature generated by the presence of this sort of entourage, including those of the Japanese ambassadors who visited Spain in the early 17th century. This painting comes from the Royal Collections, where it was first listed in 1686 (Text drawn from Portús, J.: El Prado en el Ermitage, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2011, pp. 152-153).