The Romanovs’ Last Spectacular Ball Brought to Life in Color Photographs (1903)

In 1903, the Romanovs, Russia’s last and longest-reign­ing roy­al fam­i­ly, held a lav­ish cos­tume ball. It was to be their final blowout, and per­haps also the “last great roy­al ball” in Europe, writes the Vin­tage News. The par­ty took place at the Win­ter Palace in St. Peters­burg, 14 years before Czar Nicholas II’s abdi­ca­tion, on the 290th anniver­sary of Romanov rule. The Czar invit­ed 390 guests and the ball ranged over two days of fes­tiv­i­ties, with elab­o­rate 17th-cen­tu­ry boyar cos­tumes, includ­ing “38 orig­i­nal roy­al items of the 17th cen­tu­ry from the armory in Moscow.”

“The first day fea­tured feast­ing and danc­ing,” notes Rus­sia Beyond, “and a masked ball was held on the sec­ond. Every­thing was cap­tured in a pho­to album that con­tin­ues to inspire artists to this day.” The entire Romanov fam­i­ly gath­ered for a pho­to­graph on the stair­case of the Her­mitage the­ater, the last time they would all be pho­tographed togeth­er.

It is like see­ing two dif­fer­ent dead worlds super­im­posed on each other—the Romanovs’ play­act­ing their begin­ning while stand­ing on the thresh­old of their last days.

With the irony of hind­sight, we will always look upon these poised aris­to­crats as doomed to vio­lent death and exile. In a mor­bid turn of mind, I can’t help think­ing of the baroque goth­ic of “The Masque of the Red Death,” Edgar Allan Poe’s sto­ry about a doomed aris­toc­ra­cy who seal them­selves inside a cos­tume ball while a con­ta­gion rav­ages the world out­side: “The exter­nal world could take care of itself,” Poe’s nar­ra­tor says. “In the mean­time it was fol­ly to grieve or to think. The prince had pro­vid­ed all the appli­ances of plea­sure…. It was a volup­tuous scene, that mas­quer­ade.”

Maybe in our imag­i­na­tion, the Romanovs and their friends seem haunt­ed by the weight of suf­fer­ing out­side their palace walls, in both their coun­try and around Europe as the old order fell apart. Or per­haps they just look haunt­ed the way every­one does in pho­tographs from over 100 years ago. Does the col­oriz­ing of these pho­tos by Russ­ian artist Klimbim—who has done sim­i­lar work with images of WW2 sol­diers and por­traits of Russ­ian poets and writ­ers—make them less ghost­ly?

It puts flesh on the pale mono­chro­mat­ic faces, gives the lav­ish cos­tum­ing and fur­ni­ture tex­ture and dimen­sion. Some of the images almost look like art nou­veau illus­tra­tions (and resem­ble those of some of the finest illus­tra­tors of Poe’s work) and the work of con­tem­po­rary painters like Gus­tav Klimt. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that unease lingers in the eyes of some subjects—Empress Alexan­dra Fedorov­na among them—a cer­tain vague and trou­bled appre­hen­sion.

In their book A Life­long Pas­sion, authors Andrei May­lu­nas and Sergei Miro­nenko quote the Grand Duke Alexan­der Mikhailovitch who remem­bered the event as “the last spec­tac­u­lar ball in the his­to­ry of the empire.” The Grand Duke also recalled that “a new and hos­tile Rus­sia glared though the large win­dows of the palace… while we danced, the work­ers were strik­ing and the clouds in the Far East were hang­ing dan­ger­ous­ly low.” As Rus­sia Beyond notes, soon after this cel­e­bra­tion, “The glob­al eco­nom­ic cri­sis marked the begin­ning of the end for the Russ­ian Empire, and the court ceased to hold balls.”

In 1904, the Rus­so-Japan­ese War began, a war Rus­sia was to lose the fol­low­ing year. Then the aristocracy’s pow­er was fur­ther weak­ened by the Rev­o­lu­tion of 1905, which Lenin would lat­er call the “Great Dress Rehearsal” for the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary takeover of 1917. While the aris­toc­ra­cy cos­tumed itself in the trap­pings of past glo­ry, armies amassed to force their reck­on­ing with the 20th cen­tu­ry.

Who knows what thoughts went through the mind of the tzar, tza­ri­na, and their heirs dur­ing those two days, and the minds of the almost 400 noble­men and women dressed in cos­tumes spe­cial­ly designed by artist Sergey Solomko, who drew from the work of sev­er­al his­to­ri­ans to make accu­rate 17th-cen­tu­ry recre­ations, while Peter Carl Fabergé chose the jew­el­ry, includ­ing, writes the Vin­tage News, the tzarina’s “pearls topped by a dia­mond and emer­ald-stud­ded crown” and an “enor­mous emer­ald” on her bro­cad­ed dress?

If the Romanovs had any inkling their almost 300-year dynasty was com­ing to its end and would take all of the Russ­ian aris­toc­ra­cy with it, they were, at least, deter­mined to go out with the high­est style; the fam­i­ly with “almost cer­tain­ly… the most abso­lutist pow­ers” would spare no expense to live in their past, no mat­ter what the future held for them. See the orig­i­nal, black and white pho­tos, includ­ing that last fam­i­ly por­trait, at His­to­ry Dai­ly and Rus­sia Beyond, and see sev­er­al more col­orized images at the Vin­tage News.

via The Vin­tage News

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Russ­ian His­to­ry & Lit­er­a­ture Come to Life in Won­der­ful­ly Col­orized Por­traits: See Pho­tos of Tol­stoy, Chekhov, the Romanovs & More

Tsarist Rus­sia Comes to Life in Vivid Col­or Pho­tographs Tak­en Cir­ca 1905–1915

Col­orized Pho­tos Bring Walt Whit­man, Char­lie Chap­lin, Helen Keller & Mark Twain Back to Life

How Obses­sive Artists Col­orize Old Pho­tographs & Restore the True Col­ors of the Past

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (26)
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  • Steve says:

    They cared more for their peo­ple than the mon­sters that mar­tyred them. Now their peo­ple, hav­ing suf­fered through inhu­man oppres­sion, cel­e­brate them fond­ly on this day.
    You would do well to remem­ber that decades and cen­turies from now they will still be remem­bered and cel­e­brat­ed, but the snide non­sense you reg­u­lar­ly try to pass off as ‘cul­ture’ will have van­ished like so much flat­u­lence.

  • Margaret Barr says:

    I doubt that.. … if the Romanovs had cared for their peo­ple.… they prob­a­bly would­n’t have been deposed. Thing is, if your peo­ple suf­fer they will have a ten­den­cy to revolt and engage in Rev­o­lu­tion.

    It would be nice when all of human­i­ty could evolve to an enlight­ened place and get along and not destroy the plan­et or each oth­er… when we will all be self reliant and work togeth­er. sigh.. but I fear it won’t ever be.

  • Gibson Block says:

    Bloody Sun­day — 22 Jan­u­ary 1905 in St Peters­burg, Rus­sia

    Unarmed demon­stra­tors, led by Father Geor­gy Gapon, were fired upon by sol­diers of the Impe­r­i­al Guard as they marched towards the Win­ter Palace to present a peti­tion to Tsar Nicholas II of Rus­sia.

    Pro­voked mas­sive strikes. The start of the Rev­o­lu­tion of 1905.

    The killing of peo­ple whm had seen the Tsar as their “Lit­tle Father”, result­ed in a surge of bit­ter­ness towards Nicholas and his auto­crat­ic rule. A wide­ly quot­ed reac­tion was “we no longer have a Tsar”.

  • Terrence Kosick says:

    The rea­son we work is for sump­tu­ous art and cre­ativ­i­ty to hap­pen. If you work for bread and rice you get bread and rice and every­one dies of bore­dom.

  • Anne Bidez says:

    Mar­garet, I fear you are cor­rect.

  • Rosa Miot says:

    Whilst it was ter­ri­bly sad that the Czar and his fam­i­ly met with such a hor­ri­ble end, they were total­ly obliv­i­ous to the plight of their peo­ple. The chil­dren were inno­cent casu­al­ties.

    Rev­o­lu­tions are not sur­pris­ing when the mass­es are pushed to the lim­it…

    His cousin, King George could have saved them.….and tried, I think.
    But the UK govt saw them as a lia­bil­i­ty and stopped the “res­cue”

  • Joe says:

    Please cor­rect the begin­nen of the arti­cle, they were not the longest rul­ing roy­al fam­i­ly.
    Also, as much as some want to believe that rev­o­lu­tion brought a solu­tion to peo­ple’s suf­fer­ing, rev­o­lu­tion dou­bled it if not trip­pled it with eco­nom­i­cal ref­or­ma­tion of the first years after­words. While the top of Bol­she­viks inhab­it­ed the hous­es of the for­mer nobil­i­ty. Not the best trade in the his­to­ry.

  • Paul Smyth says:

    King George actu­al­ly decid­ed that he bet­ter stay out of the sit­u­a­tion all togeth­er as he didn’t want to stir trou­ble for the British Roy­al Fam­i­ly. He feared that he was seen to help the Romanov fam­i­ly he would be seen as not car­ing for the peo­ple. The British Gov­ern­ment thought the same. They all feared rev­o­lu­tion in Britain.

  • Carol Tencza says:

    What­ev­er hap­pened to all the his­tor­i­cal items? So much got lost dur­ing those times of rev­o­lu­tion — destroyed or sold. The Russ­ian peo­ple have had a ter­ri­ble his­to­ry of oppres­sion. It did­n’t seem to mat­ter who was in charge. They still suf­fered tremen­dous­ly. The tragedy of Rus­sia.

  • Ike Rosen says:

    Beau­ti­ful! But it would have been help­ful for the pho­tos to have cap­tions telling us who the peo­ple were.

  • Teresa says:

    Thanks for that quote. I need­ed to absorb that.

  • Johnny says:

    The sad­dest part was all the beau­ty and splen­dor of this era went away w/ the revolt.
    The Czar was hard­ly the type of man to lead a nation, pick­ing a Ger­man Cza­ri­na was­n’t the best idea either.

  • Barbara says:

    A lot has been heard of the Roy­al fam­i­ly hav­ing their jew­els sewn into their cloth­ing when exe­cut­ed. Has any of the Roy­al jew­els ever been recov­ered?

  • Monica Guagnelli says:

    La Belleza existe y hay que admi­rar­la como tal, los tra­jes, las joyas y el tra­ba­jo que impli­caron, son increibles.
    Y el tra­ba­jo de pon­er­les col­or, es espec­tac­u­lar.
    Sin duda las caras de las per­sonas, mas allá de si son o no los Romanof, son caras her­mosas, excep­to la de la Rey­na Ale­jan­dra, que se ve tan triste, tan eno­ja­da, tan deses­per­a­da.

    Veamos a las per­sonas, las imá­genes y el bel­lo tra­ba­jo de Tere­sa.

    El pueblo Ruso es Mar­avil­losa­mente bon­da­doso, siem­pre cree que algo bueno suced­erá, siem­pre dese­an­do que los Zares, los Pres­i­dentes o los Cama­radas Líderes, sean sus padres, son fenom­e­nal­mente tra­ba­jadores, resisten el frío y resistieron el rig­or del tra­ba­jar has­ta morir cau­sa­do por el Psicó­pa­ta de Stal­in, no solo de los Rusos, sino de tan­tos país­es como Hun­gría, la siem­pre las­ti­ma­da y sufri­da Ucra­nia, no ten­emos los mex­i­canos la menor idea de lo que sufrieron quienes debían lograr los locos sueños de un Dic­ta­dor, que, sin embar­go, logró como en su momen­to Pedro el Grande, que Rusia se comu­nicara, que abri­era paso hacia el mar, pues antes de eso, a pesar de ser un mag­no ter­ri­to­rio, el mas grande del mun­do no tenía sal­i­da al mar.

    Queri­dos todos, solo el que car­ga el costal sabe lo que car­ga, para juz­gar, hay que ubi­carnos en el tiem­po y en las cir­cun­stan­cias en que cada quien vivió. El sufrim­ien­to de pobla­ciones siem­pre es cau­sa­do por ambi­ciones de quienes creen, real­izan “mejo­ras” para la humanidad.

    Feli­ci­dades Tereza por tan bel­lo tra­ba­jo.

  • Monica Guagnelli says:

    Perdón escribí Romanos en lugar de Romanof.

    Bue­nas noches

  • Riv says:

    Joe, even though Czar Nicholas didn’t have the longest reign, the Romanovs were in fact the longest rul­ing fam­i­ly of Rus­sia.

  • Peter Chrisp says:

    A few weeks ago on,4k tv via youtube,in regards to the Romanov
    family.It is so chill­ing one of the
    Romanov fam­i­ly mur­der­ers recounts
    the actu­al killings,+ how he want­ed
    to kill them. 3 ideas 1st to kill
    while they sleep 2nd a bomb.3rd was
    the final one. It is gut wrench­ing.
    The record­ing is 3:16 long +
    he is actu­al­ly talk­ing about the
    best way to mur­der the fam­i­ly

  • Peter Chrisp says:

    A few weeks ago got a chill­ing
    message,in regards to the Romanov
    fam­i­ly mur­der­ers. I have a 3:16
    actu­al record­ing of one of the mur­der­ers + how he recount­ed what
    he want­ed to do + how to go about
    the killings 3 ideas 1st while sleep­ing 2nd a bomb 3rd we,know the out­come. He’s actu­al­ly talk­ing
    about the best way to kill the fam­i­ly

  • Christina Kinsey says:

    I am more inter­est­ed in these pho­tos from a cos­tume his­to­ry point of view, I can only won­der at the work that went into these cos­tumes. How much hand sewing and embroi­dery went in to them ? Hand sewing is labour inten­sive and embroi­dery like this can be hard on the eyes.
    Would any­one nowa­days l won­der con­sid­er it OK to wear actu­al 17th cen­tu­ry clothes for a cos­tume ball ?l can hear the hor­ri­fied screams from cos­tume muse­ums.…
    By the way, my inter­est is in the medieval peri­od , thats anoth­er sto­ry altogether.…but a lot of roy­al­ty then came to sticky ends too

  • Vladimir Vladimirovitch says:

    Absolute codswal­lop, peo­ple are lead into a rev­o­lu­tion usu­al­ly by a minor­i­ty of greedy b’s­tards that want to usurp pow­er.

  • Judy says:

    In response to Bar­bara, the jew­els sewn into the corsets worked quite well as bul­let-proof jack­ets as it took longer to shoot and kill the women and girls, their exe­cu­tion turned into a blood­bath. Of course that jew­ellery would have been loot­ed from the dead bod­ies. But yes, some of the Russ­ian jew­els sur­vived and can be vis­it­ed. Queen Mary bought impor­tant pieces offered to her by exiled fam­i­ly mem­bers, to add to the Wind­sor trea­sure-trove. I have had the plea­sure of vis­it­ing the Vic­to­ria and Albert Muse­um in Lon­don, where on enter­ing a stron­groom inside the Muse­um I instant­ly rec­og­nized the Russ­ian Crown Jew­els dis­played in their dia­mond-glit­ter­ing glo­ry. Sev­er­al shelves of them. I was­n’t expect­ing that! and to be frank it was such a thrill to actu­al­ly see them up close. Good on ya, Queen Mary. Her grand-daugh­ter Queen Eliz­a­beth II wears the Russ­ian Dia­mond Fringe Tiara for grand occa­sions, so yes, in good hands to pre­serve for future gen­er­a­tions to see and mar­vel over.

  • Margaret Lopukhina says:

    Your com­ment is pure emo­tion­al opin­ion and sore­ly lack­ing any knowl­edge of Russ­ian his­to­ry. You might want to read up before you make such igno­rant pro­nounce­ments.

  • NXA says:

    Nicholas could­n’t real­ly take one of his own peo­ple as a bride; in the Russ­ian impe­r­i­al fam­i­ly, you HAD to mar­ry roy­al­ty or your part­ner would be seen as “unequal” and any child would be barred from the throne, so mar­ry­ing for­eign­ly was the only option. Plus, Ger­many and Rus­sia had no issues with each oth­er when the two of them mar­ried; Nicholas could­n’t have fore­seen what would hap­pen.

  • Sirena Sexton says:

    I don’t know the straight facts of this fam­i­ly, how­ev­er, what lit­tle I do know is that what­ev­er the rea­son for what hap­pened to them was beyond trag­ic for every sin­gle per­son involved. Includ­ing those who did the actu­al mur­ders. They had felt they suf­fered enough to come to the deci­sion they did and the czar did what he was only taught to do from birth I’m sure. Plus I bet it was­n’t just is thoughts help­ing him decide what to do through­out his rule. It’s not just a one sided suf­fer.
    And as far as the pic­tures go, absolute­ly breath­tak­ing is my per­son­al opin­ion. Thank you for shar­ing them.

  • Cynthia says:

    Hel­lo all!
    My great grand­moth­er lived 107 years. She was born in 1891 in Aus­tria. She played with the daugh­ters of Czar Nicholas. She spoke sev­en lan­guages. She told me many sto­ries about the times when she was young before she came to Ellis Island.
    The one thing I remem­ber clear­ly is that she loved Czar Nicholas. So I know that his­to­ri­ans love to alter the “facts” and rewrite his­to­ry to work polit­i­cal mag­ic. But my great grand­moth­er lived through those years. She saw the world change beyond any­thing that you or I can imag­ine. I’m going to give her the ben­e­fit of the doubt. Espe­cial­ly since I per­son­al­ly knew her and I know her stan­dards were quite high.
    Thank you.
    Feel free to dis­re­gard as you please. Just thought I should men­tion it.

  • Cynthia says:

    Yes, I con­cur.
    Also, my great grand­moth­er lived 107 years. She was born in 1891 in Aus­tria. She played with the daugh­ters of Czar Nicholas. She spoke sev­en lan­guages. She told me many sto­ries about the times when she was young before she came to Ellis Island.
    The one thing I remem­ber clear­ly is that she loved Czar Nicholas. So I know that his­to­ri­ans love to alter the “facts” and rewrite his­to­ry to work polit­i­cal mag­ic. But my great grand­moth­er lived through those years. She saw the world change beyond any­thing that you or I can imag­ine. I’m going to give her the ben­e­fit of the doubt. Espe­cial­ly since I per­son­al­ly knew her and I know her stan­dards were quite high.
    Thank you.
    Feel free to dis­re­gard as you please. Just thought I should men­tion it.

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