Borzoi in art

Nikolai Semenovich Samokish
Perhaps because of the breed’s connection with one of the most autocratic and art loving Royal households, there are some wonderful pictures of Borzois. One such picture is the subject of this week’s column. Painted by Nikolai Semenovich Samokish (1860-1944), it is titled ‘The Hunting Party with Tsar Alexander III and Tsarina Maria Fedorovna’.
Fox hunting with Borzois and without guns is a typical Russian type of hunting. It usually took place in early October, which can be clearly seen in the autumn landscape. The Tsar and Tsarina are accompanied by the master of the hunt, Tschertkov Grigori, on the chestnut horse. They seem decidedly indifferent to the ‘kill’ that is being presented to them and far more interested in posing for their picture! To the right of the picture the traditional hunters breakfast is being prepared.
In the picture the Tsar, who was an avid hunter, is wearing the uniform of the bodyguard of the Izmailovsky Regiment. He did not like the presence of women during the chase and made an exception only of his wife, who was also an avid hunter.
Favourite hunting areas for the Tsar included the vicinity of Gatchina just south of St Petersburg, Bailowiez and the area around Lowicz where this picture was probably painted. The Imperial Kennels were situated on the Tsar’s hunting estate at Gatchina and were avidly carried on by his son, Tsar Nicholas II, but the quality of hounds from the royal kennel was never regarded as outstanding. The kennel was run by Prince Boris Galitzin.
The best hounds in Russia in the 19th century were owned by Nicholas’ cousin, Grand Duke Nicholai Nikolaievitch Romanov in Perchino, Tula, just south of Moscow. It was from this kennel that the American millionaire, Joseph Thomas, bought some very good hounds to help establish the breed in America. In 1892 the Grand Duke sent a big group of his hounds over to Crufts, a number of which were bred in the Imperial Kennel of the Tsar. At that time it was common practise to give a selling price in the catalogue but all those bred by the Tsar were not for sale.
Each large estate in Russia had its own kennel until 1861 when the serfs were freed from what was really slavery. Many estates went bankrupt with the new concept of paying the labour force, and the serfs were also allowed to buy land for the first time. It has been said that a lot of sons sold their father’s estates to fund a life of women and wine in the big cities and as each estate was disbanded, so too were the Borzoi kennels.
Somokish painted the picture of the Tsar and his wife in 1886 during the months after finishing at art school with a gold medal and before entering the studio of Édouard Detaille, the Paris based academic and military artist. It is being sold by Dorotheum in Vienna in their sale of 19th century paintings on the April 17 with expectation of between 150,000 and 200,000 euros and has come to auction from a private collector in Germany.