Iconography of Dignity and Choreographic Positions in Russian Portrait Art of 18th Century

History of “dignity” category was developing from the aristocratic model of rank and status to the democratic model of personal dignity, from external forms of expression to the inner moral strength. But the idea of dignity embodiment should not be considered completely archaic. Firstly, behaviour is a very important aspect of respect. Secondly, metaphors of movements, positions, and corporal interaction play an important role in the discourse of dignity. Regardless of the fact that “dignity isn't something that you can see or something that you can take into your hands” (Nikolai Gogol “Diary of a madman”), it can nevertheless be destroyed, lost or threatened. In the 18th century culture, however, dignity and body culture are connected very closely.

Portraits are a very important source of our notion of external manifestations of dignity in the Russian culture of the 18th century. We might even presume that dancing poses (or sometimes even well recognizable classical ballet positions), very enigmatic and currently unexplained elements of Russian portrait art, are in fact symbols of high dignity and status. We’re referring to portraits of Peter the Great by Gottfried Kneller (1698, Kensington palace, British Royal collection), Peter II by Johann Ludden (1728, State Russian museum), Peter III by Alexey Antropov (1762, State Russian museum), grand duke Pavel Petrovich (Alexander Roslin, 1777, State Hermitage). Dancing positions of feet also seem to be depicted on the portrait of grand duchess Maria Fedorovna (Alexander Roslin, 1777, State Hermitage), Catherine the Great on the portraits of Rokotov (1780s, State Hermitage) and Eriksson (1766–1767, Denmark national gallery).

Choreographic positions of hands and feet, codified in the French school of ballet in the second half of the 17th century, weren't theatrical poses per sé but more of body positions in a noble dance and visual representations of belonging to the aristocracy. In this quality, they turned into a “commonplace” of ceremonial portrait iconography and remained as such until approximately 1760s. Dancing positions in Russian imperial portraits are the result of a cultural transfer, and it seems that in Russia such symbols of corporeal dignity surpassed the real practice of studying noble dancing based on 5 positions of feet and arms.

In the paper, based on the portrait materials as well as on art papers and dance teaching guidelines, we’ll present an attempt to substantiate the semiotic nature of choreographic positions in Russian portraits of the 18th century, clarify the conceptions on dancing positions and movements expressing dignity and show its nuances in “with regard to stature and appearance.” Let us recall that the famous “monolog” of portraits by Roger de Piles (“look at me for I am the undefeatable Tsar surrounded by greatness…”) refers to the body positions. Conclusions of the paper also dwell upon the issues of changing symbols as a result of cultural transfer: summarization of reference and summarization of meanings in the new cultural environment as well as increasing the sign’s status as compared to the original environment.