History: Russian Blood, Part 2 Mopsy, Nika, and Uncle
New Yorker, May 3, 1982
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MOPSY and I went back together as far as I can go. Roaring Gap, North Carolina, summer of 1951. Mopsy (her youngest daughter, reading about Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail in a little book by Beatrix Potter, decided she should be called Mopsy, and that became her family name; her real name was Eliza veta- Elizabeth -Shoumatoff) was going to a resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains to paint a number of prosperous Southerners-Grays of Winston-Salem, tobacco Reynoldses, Chathams of Chatham blankets, stocking-company Haneses. On the spur of the moment, she decided to take me, then her youngest grandchild, along. I was four.
I vaguely remember a man in Elizabethan duds handing out samples of a new cigarette (Raleigh? Cavalier?) in front of the Greystone Inn as we went in to dinner. I clearly recall a drive we took one Saturday morning to Elkin, near the foot of the mountains. I'd complained of a toothache, and the nearest dentist was in Elkin. Mopsy always drove a Cadillac. This Cadillac had big fins and made no noise. With the windows up and the air-conditioner on, it almost seemed as if we were gliding down to Elkin. Serenely negotiating switchbacks, Mopsy was telling me a story about a witch called Goody Grum, who always said "hoity-toity." I was sitting beside her like a little conspirator, hanging on every word. Anyone who was ever painted by her as a child can attest that she was a mesmerizing storyteller. Goody Grum was a character in a British magazine called C hatterbox, which Mopsy read when she was a girl in Russia, but I didn't learn this until much later. When I was growing up, I didn't think of Mopsy as being Russian. She was always low-key about the past. There was nothing foreign about her. She didn't have an accent. She spoke a cultivated, Continental, neutral sort of English (not American, not English, not Russian) sprinkled with Mopsyisms-"by the bye," "anyhoo."
Sometimes there would be an opening in the lush Appalachian foliage, and we could see down to the hazy plain where we were headed, or across to the next rib of the Blue Ridge, where there was an abandoned roadprobably the old road to Elkin-with grass growing through its cracks. We rounded one bend in time to see a man walking on the abandoned road across a gully slightly below us. "Look, Mopsy," I said. The man was dressed in rags. He had over one shoulder a stick with a bundle hanging from the end of it. Mopsy explained that he was a hobo. I still dream of that hobo from time to time, and nothing in my life has surpassed the bliss of that spin to Elkin. But when I asked Mopsy about it years later she couldn't remember it at all.
She developed a special relationship, almost a pact, with each of her four grandchildren. With my sister, Tonia, it began when she was sitting for the second of four portraits that Mopsy did of her. Tonia was a snow-blond five-year-old, and Mopsy told her how when she herself was a girl she would, get up at six in the morning to weed the garden, and would read the lives of the saints by candlelight long after she was supposed to be asleep, because she wanted to be good, like them. Only the servants knew about her private devotions, and she had sworn them to secrecy. Years later, when Mopsy was invited by Princess Joan of Luxembourg to paint her children, Charles and Charlotte, she took along Tonia and her other granddaughter, Victoria (my cousin), and Tonia was able to experience her grandmother from the vantage point of young womanhood. It was one of Mopsy's last trips. She was in her eighties, and was in great form. After an elaborate luncheon (seven plate changes, sculptured potatoes), the entire party was getting up from the table when Mopsy felt her legs starting to give. Fortunately, two men in blue-green livery who had been standing against a wall came up and caught her under either arm. "I beg your pardon," she said to them with her most gracious smile. "I must have caught that heel of mine again." That was Mopsy's only concession to time -an occasional loss of equilibrium, a breakdown of the inner ear. Back in their rooms, Mopsy, Tonia, and Victoria told slightly macabre anekdoti and laughed for hours. Mopsy knew hundreds of them. She collected them. One of her favorites concerned a parrot whose vocabulary was limited to two words: "Charmante soiree." "One evening, just before a large dinner party," she told her granddaughters that afternoon, "the parrot was attacked by the cat, who pulled it from its cage and took it under the couch. The parrot's mistress was ushering in guests at the time. Just as they had all seated themselves, they heard an awful screech coming from under the couch. When the mistress pushed the couch aside, only the parrot's beak was left, still squawking 'charmante soiree.'"
first noticed the equilibrium problem in 1970, at a cocktail party. Svet1ana
Alli1uyeva, Stalin's daughter, who had defected three years earlier, was
among the guests. She had embraced the Russian Orthodox Church and had
come to stay with Mopsy for a few days. It was an emotional visit for Mopsy:
Svet1ana's father, after all, was responsible for the numerous arrests
and probably the execution of her oldest brother, Nika. Svet1ana turned
out to be a small woman with a round, compelling face. "He was a wonderful
father," she said to Mopsy as they stood chatting. "I only saw
In every room of Mopsy's house, generally in the easternmost corner as you entered, there was an icon. And every morning, before she was brought her soft-boiled egg, her hot milk and coffee, her toast with Tasmanian honey, and her Times, she would sit up in bed and read the appropriate entries in both the "Daily Word" and the "Russian Saints' Calendar." There was always a light burning in a little red glass, called a lampada, before the several dozen images of her bedroom kiot, or corner stand of icons. "The light is a constant source of prayer for everybody," she explained to me once. I had asked her about the icons. They were powerful friends if you believed in them, she said. She had four Virgins. The small, Ita1ianate one, painted on mother-of-pearl, she'd got at a monastery near the family's country house a few days before they left Russia, in 1917. The Bogoroditsa, or Mother of God, she'd had in her room since childhood. The seventeenth-century Our Lady of the Burning Bush was entirely covered in silver except for painted hands. Its job was to protect the house. The family icon, said to have been given to a fourteenth-century ancestor by two angels, also depicted a Madon?a. Once, I brought the family icon into the living room to look at it in the light. Mopsy was smoking a cigarette. "Please put it back," she said. "I can't smoke with it around." She had three icons of St. Spyridonius, the wonder-worker ("If you want money, pray to him, and the money will come"); one of Pante1eimon, the patron saint of physicians; one of St. Tsi1ime1, the healer; one of St. Barbara, the patroness of "someone who doesn't want to die suddenly." This last was one of three small travelling icons that had belonged to the late Czar. Mopsy's brother Andrei Avinoff, known to us as U nc1e-a remarkably versatile man, who made his mark here as an artist, a lepidopterist, and a museum directorhad got them from his friend Victor Hammer, the art dealer. Beside the lampada were some sprigs of pussy willow, which, because palm fronds were unavailable in Russia, had always been used on Palm Sunday there. There were also several crosses on the table of her kiot. One was made of olivewood and was a present from her old schoolmate Valya Svetkova, who became Sister Barbara, Mother Superior of the Mount of Olives Convent in the Garden of Gethsemane. She was Mopsy's best friend at the Pension Constant in St. Petersburg when they were sixteen.
Mopsy never started a painting without a prayer. "When I was a girl," she once told me, "illustrating stories that I read, like 'Quo Vadis,' Mother said, 'You must pray to St. John the Divine. He helps artists.' I did for a while, but then I switched to St. Alypius. I thought he'd be a more reliable saint for help. He was the first Russian artist. He lived in Kiev during the twelfth century, and his bones are buried in the catacombs there. He died in the middle of painting an icon, and an angel came and finished it for him." During her last year-1980when she was ninety-one, Mopsy still painted every day, but sometimes, when she wasn't feeling up to par, when she was feeling decrepit and her head was heavy, she'd ask St. Alypius to take over. The work was as fine as ever, or better than ever. In her studio, there was a painting of St. Alypius at his easel.
had given an icon of the Virgin of Kazan to Our Lady of Kazan Church in
Sea Cliff, Long Island -a small wooden church, handcarved in the old North
Russian style -which was about four miles away from where she lived. She
was a behind-the-scenes patroness, and at odd moments, like Friday afternoon,
she would sometimes go there to pray. She didn't attend the Sunday services.
As a rule, she didn't have much to do with the Sea Cliff Russian colony,
whose five hundred souls form one of the largest pockets of White Russians
in the East. There was a woman in Sea Cliff from whom she bought pelmeni
-Siberian meat dumplings that are a sort of cross between wonton and ravioli.
And sometimes when Mopsy was
home, on a quiet street in Locust Valley, was an unusually tactful ranch,
sitting in the shade of its low roof, with gray shingle siding, a varied
border of evergreen shrubs, ivy climbing the brick entry. There was a rose
bed with more than twenty-five varieties; a birch tree held a clearplastic
cylinder filled with thistle seed, which attracted goldfinches all sum
Most of the pictures in the house had been painted by Uncle and were of flowers with butterflies. He was considered by such discriminating observers of art as John Walker, the director of the National Gallery during the nineteen-fifties and sixties, and Helen Clay Frick to be the finest flower painter of this century. "His art was the art of a high culture, such as Russia had, for a limited number of people who were, in a sense, dilettantish," Walker has told my sister. "It bore no relation to the art that was being done by the significant artists of the twentieth century. But in just sheer technical bravura of the type that he practicedaccurate delineation, fairly dry wash, and so on-no one could surpass him." Over the fireplace was an Old Dutch bouquet he had been working on when he died, in 1949. Only the butterflies-a tiger swallowtail and a tortoiseshell-and the flowers had been painted in. On other walls hung his roses with butterflies, his orchids with butterflies. The hallway leading to the dining room had some of his Jamaican andscapes-tree ferns and waterfalls, air plants and languidly flapping heliconilne butterflies, and the sun-drenched hillsides of the Cockpit Country, frothing with rain forest. Butterflies were more than a hobby for Uncle; they were his lifelong passion. Before the Revolution, he had financed forty-two collecting expeditions and had himself trekked into the remote fastnesses of Ladakh and western Tibet in search of new species. By 1917, the year he left Russia, he had more than eighty thousand specimens in his collection-one of the largest ever made by a private individual. Although he had to leave it behind, he continued to do important lepidopterological work here. Mopsy didn't share Uncle's scientific interest in butterflies, but she liked to have them around. They had warm associations. She had butterflies on her mailbox, on her soap and towels and toilet-seat covers, on her matchboxes and ashtrays, on her curtains, table mats, and china. In the dining room, there was a triptych of Uncle's in which a Urania moth, a black day-flying species with swallowtails and opalescent bars, and several spectacular tropical butterflies were gliding over a crumbled, vine-smothered ruin.
Mopsy never had a real show, and only a handful of her more than three thousand portraits are on public view. The Locust Valley Library has one she did of its first treasurer. The Frick Collection has a small watercolor of Adelaide Frick. The White House has her portraits of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. (She was approached about doing Richard Nixon, but refused.) The portraitists Mopsy most admired were Mme. VigeeLebrun, the court painter of Marie Antoinette and Catherine the Great, and Peter Sokoloff, who painted the notables during the reign of Nicholas I. The cultural niche she eventually filled here was comparable to theirs. Like them, she painted the most illustrious families, the captains of industry, the heads of state. Having a watercolor by Mme. Shoumatoff in your living room was to the members of that group a mark of standing. It went with being in the Social Register. She worked best in watercolor, and gradually perfected a technique of laying color on color which was original. No other aquarellist comes close to her skin tones or her eyes. She captured the essence of the person through the eyes. Her eyes are uncanny.