The Wife of Count August
Museum of King Jan III’s Palace at Wilanów

Passage to knowledge

Museum of King Jan III’s Palace at Wilanów

The Wife of Count August Hanna Widacka

Aleksandra Potocka, known as Aleksandryna (1818–1892), was born in St. Petersburg as the only child of Stanisław Septym (the son of Stanisław Szczęsny), privy councillor, senator and great master of the household at the Russian court, and Katarzyna, née Banicka. Orphaned  as a child (her father died in 1831), Aleksandra was brought up by her aunt, Zofia Potocka, the wife of Artur, and lived in Białecerkiew, St. Petersburg and Krzeszowice. She was a great friend of her cousin, Eliza Branicka, later the wife of Zygmunt Krasiński, with whom she corresponded from November 1835 to Eliza’s death (May 1876). The letters, which the girls and then young ladies  wrote profusely, show that Aleksandra had certain artistic talents, probably excessively praised by her drawing teachers. ” (...) But when I showed him [Mr. Petit] your [drawings] and Your portrait , dear Olesia” – the excited Eliza gushed in a letter sent from St. Petersburg on 16/7 December 1836  - ”when I started to praise you (...) he could not conceal his astonishment and admiration, and regards you as a second Claude Lorrain”.

Miss Potocka formally remained under the care of Tsar Nicholas I and in about 1836 became one of the ladies in waiting at the imperial court. The background of her marriage to cousin August Potocki of Wilanów was recalled years later by Jadwiga Zamoyska, née Działyńska: ”(...) Miss Aleksandryna, of the three misses Potocki who in Warsaw were known as: la belle, la bête et la bonne, and who was given the cognomen – the good, grew fond of her cousin, August, but since she was an orphan and legally a ward of the Tsar, she could not marry without the latter’s consent. It was by no means easy to receive such a blessing since the Tsar intended to marry Miss Aleksandryna off to a Muscovite so as to annex Wilanów. Miss Aleksandryna went to St. Petersburg, requested to be heard by the Tsar at an audience, and got what she wished”. In 1840 she married August Potocki, but the couple remained childless.

Husband and wife became exceptionally engaged in embellishing the Wilanów residence, restoring the palace and park, and enlarging the art collections; they financed the building of a church in Wilanów and in 1847 financially supported the Aleksander hospital. Countess Potocka brought over from St. Petersburg her father’s vast library, including part of the Tulczyn collection of Stanisław Szczęsny Potocki. After her husband’s death (1867), pious and exceedingly principled, she almost entirely shunned social life and devoted herself to charity, i. a. as a guardian in  the Warsaw Charity Society and as a protector of the Institute for the Aged and the Crippled; she also subsidised a lavish publication about Wilanów, written by Skimborowicz and Gerson (Warsaw 1877).

 Not by accident does a rare lithograph by Carl Wilhelm Ulrich, executed in St. Petersburg in 1841 upon the basis of a painting by Pyotr Fiodorovich Sokolov, show the young Lady Potocka busy drawing: on her lap lies an open sketchbook, held in her left hand, while the right hand clasps a stick of charcoal. The sleeves and neckline of the dark dress are adorned with lace. The graphic work, printed at the Karol Pohl Lithographic Institute in St. Petersburg, has no explanatory inscription; only the reverse features an annotation in ink: La Cte Auguste Potocki belle fille du Cte Alex Potocki en 1841. The lithograph comes from the Potocki collections in Wilanów.

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