Marie of Hesse and by Rhine (right) with her family. The statue is Ludwig I
. His eldest son, Ludwig II
stands in profile to the left center; his second son Georg, is to the left of Ludwig (with a sash). Friderich, the third son, is between them and the youngest, Emil, stands on the extreme right. The portrait on the wall is Wilhelmine
, Ludwig II's wife. Their eldest son, Ludwig III
, is the very tall man in the center, behind his wife Mathilde
. Their second son Karl
, is on the extreme left, behind his wife Elisabeth
and their children, Ludwig IV
and Heinrich. Prince Alexander
is standing between his brother and the statue, and Ludwig II's youngest child, Marie, stands to the right of the statue. Her husband Tsarevich Alexander is between her and Prince Emil. 1841.
Empress Maria Alexandrovna was born as Princess Maximiliane Wilhelmine Auguste Sophie Marie of Hesse and by Rhine, on 8 August [O.S. 27 July] 1824 in Darmstadt. She was called Wilhelmine, like her mother, while in Darmstadt, but was known as Marie afterwards.
Marie was the youngest child among the seven children of Ludwig II, Grand Duke of Hesse, and Princess Wilhelmine of Baden, a sister of the Russian Empress consort, Elizabeth Alexeievna. Maria Alexandrovna's parents were first cousins, but they were a mismatched couple. Ludwig, then hereditary Prince, was shy and withdrawn, while Wilhelmine, eleven years his junior, was pretty and charming. After the birth of three sons, the couple grew apart during the turbulent years of the Napoleonic Wars while Prince Ludwig was in the battle fields. However, after a gap of eleven years, Princess Wilhelmine went on to have four more children. Court rumors attributed the biological paternity of the second set of children to Baron August von Senarclens de Grancy, the Grand Master of the stables of the Grand Duke of Hesse. Of those four children, Marie and her brother Alexander, who was a year older, lived to adulthood. Ludwig officially recognized the children as his. By 1827, Prince Ludwig of Hesse and his wife became estranged. While Prince Ludwig occupied the Grand Ducal Palace in Darmstadt, in 1828, his wife moved with their two younger children and her household to Heiligenberg, a mountainside estate nestled on a hill overlooking the village of Jugenheim that she purchased that same year In 1829, however Wilhelmine and Ludwig celebrated their silver wedding anniversary in apparent harmony. In 1830, Marie's paternal grandfather, Ludwig I, Grand Duke of Hesse, died and her father, Ludwig II, became the new reigning Grand Duke. Gradually Marie's parents reconciled. Heiligenberg was used in the summer months by Ludwig II as well as his wife.
Marie was four years old when she moved to Heiligenberg with her mother and her brother Alexander. It was there where she spent most of her childhood. Heiligenberg, originally built in simple German patterns, had been previously a nunnery and it was located some 20 kilometers from Darmstadt. Princess Marie grew up under the care of her mother who was responsible for her education. Wilhelmine had a preference for French culture and literature, which was evident in the way she educated her daughter, with a special emphasis on literature and history. When Marie was eleven years old, her mother died of tuberculosis. Marianne Grancy, a lady-in-waiting to Marie's mother, a sister of August von Senarclens de Grancy, took over the responsibility of Marie's education. After her mother's death Marie and her brother Alexander moved permanently to their father's court in Darmstadt. The two siblings would remain very close throughout their lives. Marie also was close to her two elder brothers Ludwig III, Grand Duke of Hesse and Prince Karl of Hesse. The cloud over the legitimacy of their birth continued to be cast upon Alexander and Marie. On his part, their father, Ludwig II, was cold and distant towards his children.