In the course of my research into the story of Ortino and Tatiana, I encountered the famous portrait of Prince Felix Felixovich Yussupov* and his French Bulldog. The painting, which now hangs in the Kremlin Gallery, was painted by Royal portrait painter Valentin Serov. Intrigued, I soon learned that the fresh faced young boy pictured so tenderly cradling his dog was one of the cadre of royalists responsible for the murder of Rasputin.
Almost one hundred years after his death the legend of Grigory Rasputin, The Mad Monk and “Little Father”, lives on. Confidant and advisor to the Court of Czar Nicholi Romanov, the man referred to simply as “Our Friend” by the Czar’s wife and family in their diaries was reputed to have mesmerizing powers, and was loathed for the influence he exercised in the court of the last Czar of the Russias. His power was especially galling to the influential and wealthy Yussupov family, who were not used to having to share the ear of the Romanovs.
An aristocratic family of great reputation and illustrious history, the Yusupovs were among the wealthiest and most influential families in Czarist Russia. Yussupov estates dotted the Russian landscape from the Crimea to Moscow and St. Petersburg, and the splendor of their palaces rivaled even that of those of the Czar of Russia in scale and sumptuousness. In the capital, the Yussupovs had three palaces, including a sprawling building on the Moika canal, which was the family’s primary residence.
A flamboyant young man of striking good looks, Felix was the second of two sons born to Princess Zanaida Yussupova and her husband, Count Elston-Sumarkoff. Felix was infamous for his high spirited antics. He delighted in dressing in his mother’s finest clothes when frequented the nightclubs of pre revolution Russia. There is a story that Felix himself loved to spread, intimating that none other than Edward VII of England (a fellow French Bulldog fancier) tried one night to make the acquaintance of a certain ‘beautiful and mysterious woman’. That woman, of course, was Felix in masquerade.
Felix was considered to be quite vain about his looks – not surprising, since he was often referred to as “the most handsome man in Russia”. This vanity extended to Felix’s French Bulldog, Gugusse, who is pictured with him in his famous portrait. Gugusse, who was originally christened “Napoleon”, was purchased by Felix and his mother on the Rue de la Paix in Paris, during a trip to the Paris Exhibition of 1900.
Felix insisted that it was Surov who requested Gugusse pose in the portrait with his master, calling the dog “his best subject”. As shown in photographs, Gugusse had drop ears – incorrect for a French Bulldog, according to the newly written French Bulldog standard. Felix, not wanting to have his French Bulldog portrayed as anything less than perfect, had Serov paint Gugusse with the proper “bat” ears the newly written standard specified.
Felix writes quite extensively about Gugusse in his memoirs –
For eighteen years, Gugusse was my devoted and inseparable companion. He soon became quite famous, for everyone knew and loved him, from members of the Imperial family to the least of our peasants. He was a real Parisian guttersnipe who loved to be dressed up, put on an air of importance when he was photographed, adored candy and champagne… He was most amusing when slightly tipsy. He used to suffer from flatulence and would trot to the fireplace, stick his backside into the hearth and look up with an apologetic expression.
Gugusse loved some people and hated others, and nothing could stop him from showing his dislike by relieving himself on the trousers or the skirts of his enemies. He had such an aversion for one of my mother’s friends that we were obliged to shut him up whenever she called at the house. She came one day in a lovely gown of pink velvet, a Worth creation. Unfortunately, we had forgotten to lock up Gugusse; no sooner had she entered the room than he made a dash for her. The gown was ruined and the poor lady had hysterics.
Gugusse could have performed in a circus. Dressed as a jockey, he would ride a tiny pony or, with a pipe stuck between his teeth, would pretend to smoke. He used to love going out with the guns, and would bring in game like a retriever.
The head of the Holy Synod (*Supreme Council of the Russian Orthodox Church.) called on my mother one day and, to my mind, stayed far too long. I resolved that Gugusse should create a diversion. I made him up as an old cocotte, sparing neither powder nor paint, rigged him out in a dress and wig and pushed him into the drawing room. Gugusse seemed to understand what was expected of him, for he made a sensational entry on his hind legs, to the dismay of our visitor who very quickly took his leave, which was exactly what I wanted.
I was never parted from my dog: he went everywhere with me and slept on a cushion by my bed, When Serov, the well-known artist, painted my portrait, he insisted that Gugusse should be in the picture, saying that the dog was his best model.
Gugusse reached the ripe old age of eighteen and when he died I buried him in the garden of our house on the Moika.
An inveterate playboy, Prince Felix was well traveled, and had visited most of the great cities of Europe. He completed his education at Oxford in England, where he resided in a stylish London flat which he had painted black and carpeted with lavender floor coverings. Felix quickly became the center of fashionable society, enjoying a care free life of parties, balls and theatre. While in London, Felix acquired another Frenchie, an event he mentioned in a letter to his friend Dmitri Yannovich:
“I have now a new pet, a charming little French Bull Dog, given to me by our friend Andrei. He is simply too charming with his little prick ears, but does snore rather insufferably. I shall bring him with me when I return home”.
Felix referred to Punch as “most eccentric”, and claimed that checked patterns – even if on linoleum flooring- drove Punch wild. In his memoir, Felix recounts stories of Punch’s antics, and his hatred for checked fabrics –
One day when I was at Davies my tailor’s, a very smartly dressed old gentleman, wearing a checked suit, came in. Before I could stop him, Punch rushed at him and tore a huge piece out of his trousers.
On another occasion I went with a friend to her furrier’s; Punch noticed a sable muff encircled by a black and white checked scarf. He immediately seized it and rushed out of the shop with it. I, and everyone else at the furrier’s, ran after him halfway down Bond Street, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that we managed to catch him and retrieve the muff, happily almost intact.
As he had mentioned in his letter to Dmitri Yannovich, Felix did indeed bring Punch back home to Russia with him during the holidays, and planned to then bring him back to Oxford when classes resumed. Felix, unfortunately, had forgotten that dogs entering England were required to stay in quarantine for six months. Not one to conform to society’s requirements, Felix devised a plan to spare Punch ‘jail time’ –
As six months in quarantine was out of the question, I decided to evade the law. On my way to Oxford in the autumn, I passed through Paris and went to see an old Russian ex-cocotte (nb: prostitute) whom I knew. I asked her to come to London with me; she would have to dress as a nurse and carry Punch, disguised as a baby. The old lady agreed at once, as the idea amused her immensely, although at the same time it frightened her to death.
The next day, we left for London after giving “Baby” a sleeping draught so as to keep him quiet during the journey, Everything went smoothly and not a soul suspected the fraud.
Felix apparently owned several more French Bulldogs during this time period. In a letter he wrote to a family friend in 1914, Felix wrote:
“I am greatly pleased with the French Bull bitch my friend has just sent me from Paris. She is of finest quality and pleasing color.
I shall look for another such when I travel there again in May”.
* Note: throughout my research I have seen the name “Yussupov” spelled several different ways, likely due to various translations from the Cyrillic. For the sake of clarity, I have chosen to use the spelling Prince Felix himself seems to have used most often. – back to top