(Portrait of Praskovya Ivanovna Zhemchugova-Sheremeteva by Nokolai Argunov, from Wiki File)
The musical life of eighteenth-century Russia was dominated by the court and private theatres such as the Sheremetev's, which was considered as good as the court's theatre in St. Petersburg. Boris Sheremetev, the head of the Sheremetevs, was a long-standing ally of Peter the Great. When Boris Sheremetev died in 1719, the Tsar told his widow that he would treat Boris' children as his own. Pyotr Sheremetev, his sole surviving son, was brought up in the court and became one of the few companions to the future Tsar (Peter II). As a result of the close connections with the court, the Sheremetevs became unimaginably wealthy, so wealthy they owned 200,000 "census serfs" (which meant actually a million serfs). Pyotr was survived by Count Nikolai Petrovich Sheremetev, who turned out to be an admirer of European cultures. From the 200,000 census serfs, the Count would select a few hundred and train them as artists, singers, architects, painters, furniture makers, actors and sculptors. The painting above was painted by Nikolai Argunov, Nikolai Petrovich's favourite serf painter.
The lady in the painting was Praskovya Sheremetev, one of the many Sheremetev's serfs. In the painting Nikolai Petrovich was reduced to a miniature, suspended from Praskovya's neck. Praskovya was born to a family of serfs on the Sheremetev estate. Noted for her beauty and her voice, she was selected to be trained for the opera. She also learnt Italian and French, both of which she spoke and wrote with fluency. She made her first appearance on stage at eleven, in 1779, and within a year, she played the leading roles in major performances. The Count, who frequented the theatres, was a fan of her.
One summer evening in 1784, Praskovya was driving her father's cows down to the stream when some dogs in the count's hunting group began to chase her. Nikolai Petrovich called the dog away and walked to Praskovya. When he knew that Praskovya's father was intending to marry her off to a local forester, the Count said that he would forbid any such marriage. 'You weren't not born for this! Today you are a peasant but tomorrow you will be a lady!'
By the beginning of the 1790's Praskovya had become Sheremetev's de facto wife. It was no longer just the pleasures of the flesh that attracted him to him but, as he said, the beauty of her mind and soul. For a very long time the count would remain torn between his love for her and his own position in the society. Marrying a serf girl was unthinkable. It was not even clear, if he married Praskovya, whether he would have a legitimate heir. Somewhat he was forced to choose between his own romantic feelings and the customs of his class. Praskovya's secret relationship with the count also placed her in an almost impossible situation. When rumours went from one house to another, her fellow serfs became resentful of her privileged position and called her spiteful names. She was also shunned by society. People would come to snoop around her house and sometimes taunt the "peasant bride". It was only through her strength of character that she managed to retain her dignity.
The Emperor Paul, an old friend of the count, assumed the throne in 1792. Paul appointed Sheremetev Senior Chamberlain, the chief administrator of the royal court. Sheremetev had little inclination towards court service but he had no choice. It was at that time that the first signs of Praskovya's illness became clear. The symptoms were unmistakable: it was tuberculosis. Her singing career came to an end and she was confined to the Fountain House, the count private estate.
Praskovya's confinement to the Fountain House was not just the result of her illness. The snobbish prejudices of the noble class and the resentment of her fellow serfs had left little breathing space for her. All she could do was to spend the days with the count, play the harpsichord or do needlework. The vast reception rooms of the Fountain House were empty - and the only people who would ever visit were loyal childhood friends and artists who were above prejudices and resentment. The Emperor Paul was in this category. He always believed that the Sheremetev family was different from other aristocratic clans, a little bit above the social norm. Several times he would arrive incognito at the back entrance of Fountain House. Paul was enchanted by Praskovya and presented her with his personal diamond ring, which she wore for her portrait by Argunov.
In 1801, the count married her in a secret ceremony at a small village church on the outskirts of Moscow. One year later Praskovya gave birth to a son, Dmitry. She was weakened by the birth and died after three weeks of painful suffering. At this moment, the most desperate time in his time, the count was abandoned by the whole of Petersburg society. In preparation for the funeral he publicised the news of Praskovya's death. Few people came - so few that the viewing of the coffin was reduced from the customary three days to five hours. There was only a small group of mourners - close friends of Praskovya, a few serf performers, some domestic servants, and a few close friends of the count. There was no one from the court (Paul was already dead); no one from the noble families; no one from the Sheremetev family.
Lost in grief, the count resigned from the court, turned his back on society, remained a widower and, retreating to the country, devoted his final years to religious study and charitable work in commemoration of his wife. He spent vast sums on building village schools and hospitals, set up trusts for the care of orphans, endowed monasteries to give the peasants food when the harvests failed. The most ambitious project was the alms house which he founded in Praskovya's memory on the outskirts of Moscow - the Strannoprimnyi Dom, which was by far the largest public hospital in Russia. For years the grief-stricken count would leave the Fountain House and walk through the streets of Petersburg distributing money to the poor. He died in 1809, the richest nobleman in the whole of Russia, and no doubt the loneliest as well.
Praskovya was buried at Alexander Nevsky Monastery, next to the grave of the count's father - a place that was reserved for the count himself. She died a lonely woman, but she was later joined by the like of Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky, at the Monastery.
The painter of Praskovya's portrait, Nikolai Argunov, died as a serf. But his children were among those liberated by Nikolai Petrovich.