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What’s Wrong with Ekaterina Demidova?

Taking pride in being depressed—and being clever and socially connected

Artist Unknown, Portrait of Ekaterina Demidova (1783-1830), c.1825, Alexander Pushkin's Museum (Prechistenka). Wikimedia Commons.
Source: Artist Unknown, Portrait of Ekaterina Demidova (1783-1830), c.1825, Alexander Pushkin's Museum (Prechistenka). Wikimedia Commons.

What does the picture say? Ekaterina Petrovna Demidova’s posture is traditional. It’s one that’s associated in art with depression and melancholy. The elbow rests on a flat surface and the hand supports the drooping head. The depressed person is usually on their own. (If they are in company, then they are probably just bored. You can see some of these images on my website by clicking here.) Ekaterina Demidova holds a violin in her left hand. There’s no accident in that. Depression, or melancholy, has a very long association with creativity. It goes right back to the Greeks and the Romans. Depression and melancholy were especially linked to creativity in the Romantic era, the period of this painting. Ekaterina, the painting is saying, is depressive and this is part and parcel of her musical and creative abilities.

The beautiful and sensitive princess, Ekaterina Petrovna Demidova, had her musical skills celebrated elsewhere. This time she is pictured with a guitar, though there’s no hint of melancholy. You can see her creative skills in the striking representation to follow. But she still looks melancholy to me.

 Edition of Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich of Russia, printed in 1905-1909 as a catalogue of a 1905 exhibition. Wikimedia Commons.
Source: Ekaterina Petrovna Demidova, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, from Russian portraits of the 18th and 19th centuries: Edition of Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich of Russia, printed in 1905-1909 as a catalogue of a 1905 exhibition. Wikimedia Commons.

Who was Ekaterina Petrovna Demidova? Before her marriage she was the Princess Ekaterina Petrovna Lopuchina. Her father, Pëtr Vasil'evič Lopuchin, was a very prominent, wealthy, and omni-competent Russian courtier, civil servant, and politician. In 1797, when she was just 14, Ekaterina married a man to match her father, Grigorij Aleksandrovič Demidov. Her long marriage produced six Russian children. The first was Nikita Grigor'evič, born when Ekaterina was just 15. Nikita Grigor'evič matched Ekaterina’s birth age by living only to 15 years. But some of her children lived longer and became very well known indeed. Ekaterina died young, aged 47. Her portrait with the violin is from five years before her death. She looks more youthful than her 42 years. The canvas with Ekaterina and the violin is, I suppose, a society portrait. It’s the sort of thing we’d pay a talented photographer to make of us these days. Ekaterina and her family don’t appear to have been in the least concerned about her being portrayed as melancholic. It’s as if her posture was the mark of considerable refinement and creativity. Her illness – though it can hardly be an illness if it’s paraded so proudly in this beautiful painting – is a badge of pride. Perhaps it should be.

And here is another version, but this time from Poland and from the 20th century. It’s not Ekaterina this time. The woman in the painting is not identified

Tadeusz Pruszkowski (1888–1942). Melancholia, 1925, National Museum of Warsaw. Wikimedia Commons.
Source: Tadeusz Pruszkowski (1888–1942). Melancholia, 1925, National Museum of Warsaw. Wikimedia Commons.

Tadeusz Pruszkowski’s portrait of a melancholic woman makes some of the same points as does the society portrait Ekaterina Demidova. It’s in the same tradition. The title gives the game away. The young woman is the spirit of melancholia or depression. She is alone as she should be if she depressive. Her head is rested on her hand and her elbow is, typically, propped on a flat surface. Then there’s the violin, Ekaterina’s sign of melancholia’s creativity. If this was not enough there is sheet music and two quills. The Spirit of Depression is not just a performer, she’s also a composer.

In my title I suggested that depression could be associated not just with cleverness and creativity but as well with social connection. I don’t mean by this that depressives are all wealthy and born into the upper classes like Ekaterina Petrovna Demidova. Sometimes it seems that they just make very good friends.

It’s the remission that I’m talking about here, not the full-blown depressive phase. Individuals who are in between depressive episodes, or who are suffering from milder depression, or who live permanently with a lingering sense of sadness that some might understand as depression, these are the individuals I’m suggesting often make very good friends. Why? I speak anecdotally here. But people who have been through depression do seem to score higher on the pub empathy scale. This is a point that’s made strongly by Jonathan Rottenberg in his book, The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic. He is speaking of a social worker, Sylvie. “Not only did depression lead Sylvie to new understandings; it also lead her to change her behaviour. Depression helped her grow in her work,” Rottenberg argues. “She uses her experience of depression to achieve greater empathy and efficacy with older patients…She spots depression in others easily and is in a strong position to deliver realistic hope.”

The theme is illustrated powerfully, I’d say proudly, by Andrew Solomon. In his great and personal book on the history and experience of depression, The Noonday Demon, Solomon speaks of depression and friendship. He wrote his book in the remissions from the depressive episodes of his life. He shows his generous hearted, empathetic and friendly response to the comrades who have turned away from him during his periods of illness. Here’s a long, but moving quote from his book:

“The fact is that most people are appalled by depression. Though some respond to a display of depression with increased sympathy and altruism, more respond with revulsion and disgust. It is not unusual to discover in depression that people you had believed were reliable are actually unreliable – a valuable piece of information you might have preferred not to have. My depressions have sorted out the wheat from the chaff among my friends, but at how high a cost? And is it worth forsaking other relationships that give me pleasure simply because they were not reliable at a terrible time? What kind of friend should I be to such people? How much of friendship is about being reliable anyhow? How much does being reliable in a crisis relate to being kind or good?”

Who knows if Ekaterina Petrovna Demidova felt like this? We’ll never be sure. But this young musician looks like the most empathetic and sympathetic of women. She looks like she’d have made a good friend. And it looks like she and her family were proud of her melancholy.

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