Faberge : The Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria, marked the 90th anniversary of the Austro-Russian Cultural Seasons (2013-2015) and the 525th anniversary of the first diplomatic contacts between Moscow and Vienna, by dedicating an extensive exhibition from February 18 to May 18, 2014, to showcase the works of Carl Fabergé, the period’s leading and most influential Russian jeweller, and the decorative arts in Imperial Russia at the turn of the 20th century. Curated by Paulus Rainer of Vienna and Tatjana Muntian of Moscow, the collections were loaned from two of Moscow’s largest museums – the Moscow Kremlin and the Fersman Mineralogical Museum.
The House of Fabergé crafted the most outstanding jewellery pieces – a combination of imagination and expert craftsmanship using the best of materials. This is particularly true for objects created for members of the Imperial Russian family after 1885, the year Fabergé received a Royal Warrant. In 1872, Peter Carl Fabergé took over the company from his father, and began to restore historical gold and silver artefacts in the Hermitage Museum, and to assist in the new installation of the Imperial Treasury. This careful study of historical jewellery and goldsmith work may be the reason why the family firm evolved from a jeweller to a company celebrated for their objets d’art. In addition to these artefacts, Fabergé is well-known for the Imperial Easter eggs that Peter Carl Fabergé and his craftsmen created for the Russian Imperial family – one of the reasons why he was known as the “Cellini of the North”.
Fabergé created a gold egg covered in white enamel enclosing a hen, a crown and a small ruby egg. Emperor Alexander III and his wife, Empress Maria Feodorovna, loved the “Jewelled Hen” egg, and each Easter they commissioned a new egg from Fabergé. So at the start of each Holy Week, the owner of the House of Fabergé would present his Imperial patrons with a new egg, surprising them again and again with unusual subject matters and his virtuosity. Following the death of Emperor Alexander III, his son and heir, Emperor Nicholas II, ordered two eggs each year: one for the Dowager-Empress, Maria Feodorovna, and one for his wife, Alexandra Feodorovna. Each egg had to be different from its predecessor, surpassing it in terms of inventiveness, composition and unusual design. In all, Fabergé created around 50 Easter eggs for the Imperial family, 42 of which have survived.
Egg with model of the cruiser “Memory of Azov”
Presented by Emperor Alexander III to his wife, Maria Feodorovna, at Easter 1891; Saint Petersburg, 1891; House of C. Fabergé,
Artist: M. Perkhin Heliotrope, aquamarine, brilliants, rose-cut diamonds, gold, ruby, platinum, silver, velvet egg: 9.3 x 7 cm, m odel: h. 4 cm x 7 cm © The Moscow Kremlin State Historical and Cultural Museum and Heritage Site. This egg made of heliotrope comprises two parts connected with a hinge and contains a model of the cruiser “Memory of Azov”. Two sons of Emperor Alexander III (Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich – later Tsar Nicholas II – and Grand Duke George Alexandrovich) travelled on it during their nine-month-long journey to visit and get to know Russia’s neighbours in the Far East and distant parts of the vast empire. However, this journey undertaken in 1890-1891 was not a success – both for George, whose tuberculosis worsened, and for Crown-Prince Nicholas, who was injured in the Japanese city of Otsu: a fanatical samurai attacked him with a sword. Many contemporaries saw the future ruler’s Far Eastern journey as an ominous premonition for his reign. Made of gold and platinum, the miniature version of the ship sits on a slab of aquamarine, its colour recalling the sea. The artist painstakingly included countless tiny details: minute platinum boats suspended from chains, cobweb-like rigging on the gold masts, and even the microscopically small letters spelling the ship’s name Asov. The egg is decorated in the neo-rococo style, also known as Louisquinze. These opulent motifs were popular in goldsmith work produced during the 1880s and the first half of the 1890s, and were ideally suited for decorating luxurious embossed work in gold. Carl Fabergé and his artists and jewellers spent countless hours studying the forms, details and ornaments of the art of earlier periods, continually drawing on them for new ideas that would appeal to their 19th century customers; they were known for their “clever selections”. The “Memory of Asov” egg is a perfect example of this and a document to an event in Russia’s turbulent history at the turn of the 20th century.
Kovsh (Ladle Or Traditional Russian Drinking Vessel)
Moscow between 1908 and 1917 House of C. Fabergé, artist: F. Rückert Silver, filigree enamel, painted enamel , amalgam, gilt, 11.4 x 15.5 cm ©The Moscow Kremlin State Historical and Cultural Museum and Heritage Site. A kovsh is a traditional Russian drinking vessel, and archaeological excavations have shown that such wooden ladles were used in Russia as early as the 10th and 11th century. They were later also produced in metal, and Russian princes bequeathed their gold and silver ladles to their children. At great banquets, mead, Russia’s favourite drink was drunk from a kovsh. Foreigners who visited Russia in the 16th and the 17th century described mead as “truly wonderful”, and, compared to celebrated Cretan wine, as “extremely pleasant”. In the 17th century elaborately embellished ladles were used during the formal entry into the State Hall of the Imperial Palace, where they were placed on special stands. In the 19th and early 20th century, a time of increasing interest in national traditions and art, Russian silversmiths again began to produce elaborate ladles. Most of these ladles are decorated with a composition executed in painted enamel on a matte surface: here we see the victorious advance of a Russian army led by a mounted prince in a billowing red cloak. In the background we see a torched Russian town. The battle field is littered with discarded enemy swords, shields and helmets. In the house of Fabergé, Fjodor Rückert was the leading artist for such miniatures executed in enamel; he worked in Fabergé’s Moscow branch, and specialised in works in the “original Russian style”. This ladle is a typical example of F. Rückert’s later work, which is characterised by darker tones, a mottled, somewhat heterogeneous enamel work, and a wealth of amalgam ornamentation in the shape of horizontal hatching on the decorative partitions and points melted into the enamel.
Presented by Emperor Nicholas II to his wife, Alexandra Feodorovna, at Easter 1906; Saint Petersburg, between 1904 and 1906 House of C. Fabergé Gold, silver, onyx, glass, glimmer, enamel of guilloche ground, enamel paint, oil paint h. 36.1 cm(incl. base), base: 18.5 x 18.5 cm© The Moscow Kremlin State Historical and Cultural Museum and Heritage Site “The Moscow Kremlin” egg commemorates the Imperial family’s visit to Moscow in 1903. Nicholas II, his wife and his children spent the two weeks before and after Easter in Russia’s venerable old capital, the former residence of the Tsar; this visit was regarded as an important and momentous event by all Russians in general and the Muscovites, in particular. After the tragedy that had occurred on the Khodynka Field in 1896, when more than a thousand people were squashed to death during the festivities to celebrate their coronation, Nicholas II and his wife, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, avoided visiting Moscow, the old Russian capital, which brought back painful memories of this tragedy. This is why Muscovites regarded the willingness of the Imperial couple to celebrate the most important holiday in the Orthodox calendar in Moscow as a symbol of reconciliation with them and their city. In this exceptional Easter egg Fabergé’s artists depicted the Moscow Kremlin. The egg is covered with translucent enamel and surmounted by a polished gold cupola that recalls the Dormition Cathedral, where the Russian Emperors were crowned. If you look through one of the glass windows you can even make out its lit interior as well as the iconostasis, the Tsar’s seat, and the massive columns with frescoes at the front. The egg’s base is constructed of red gold and depicts – twice the Kremlin’s Spasskaya Tower and Taynitskaya Tower that were connected with walls and bizarre phantasy lattice work. The gold base houses a gold music box that plays two cherubim chants – traditional Easter hymns by the composer A.D. Kastalsky.
Imperial Memorabilia & Hardstone Carving
In addition to the four Easter eggs by Fabergé, the exhibition showcased personal objects that belonged to members of the Russian Imperial family. Among them were precious objects for everyday use such as cigarette cases, objects to be placed on a writing desk, seals and fans. However, a particular focus of this exhibition is on a section of the decorative arts-production that flourished at this exalted level only in Russia: hardstone carving. Thus the exhibition draws a line from the Russian to other imperial collections, especially the Kunstkammer Vienna. Hardstone carving was much admired and collected in Kunstkammer by the 16thand 17th century princely connoisseurs; however, this genre retained its popularity only in Russia, and the objects produced in the Imperial-Russian manufactories at Petergof and Yekaterinburg in the 19thcentury were greatly admired all over the world. Peter Carl Fabergé opened his own stonecutting workshop at St. Petersburg. It produced precious vessels but also animal figures cut from semi-precious stones that were popular presents at court and in society, the choice of animal reflecting the recipient’s appearance or character.Over 30 of these small hard stone sculptures depicting animals, plants or people were on show in the exhibition;they were produced either in the Imperial stone carving workshops or by the house of Fabergé.
- Flower “Pansies” in Crystal Glass
Gift from Tsar Nicholas II to his wife, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, on their tenth wedding anniversary; Saint Petersburg, 1904 House of C. Fabergé, Artist: H. Wigström gold, rose-cut diamonds, rock crystal, glass, ivory, bone, enamel, water colours h. 15.5 cm © The Moscow Kremlin State Historical and Cultural Museum and Heritage Site. Among the most remarkable works produced by the house of C. Fabergé are his celebrated Easter eggs, objets d’art depicting cut flowers or berries in small rock-crystal vases that give the illusion of being filled with water, and miniature trees “planted” in gold earth in pots cut from jasper or bowenite. This “pansy” is the only flower produced by the house of Fabergé that features a mechanism and miniatures. The gold and enamel flower is placed in a rock crystal vase that gives us the illusion of being filled with water. Press the button on the stem and the flower opens to reveal portraits of the Imperial couple’s four daughters and only son. Executed in watercolours on bone, their tiny portraits are framed with diamonds. In 1904 Nicholas II gave this precious flower produced in the workshop of H. Wigström to his wife, Alexandra Feodorovna, on their tenth wedding anniversary.
- “Constellation” Eg Saint Petersburg, 1917 House of C. FabergéRock crystal, rose-cut diamonds, glass h. 18 cm© Fersman Mineralogical Museum
For Easter 1917, the house of Fabergé devised precious Easter eggs for the Empress and the Dowager Empress, respectively. However, World War I and the outbreak of the Russian Revolution prevented their completion. In 1925, Agafon Fabergé presented the extant pieces of the last – unfinished – Easter egg to the Mineralogical Museum. In 2005, 80 years later, these remnants were combined to what we see here. The blue cobalt egg comprises two parts. The upper part is decorated with several six-pointed stars connected by a faint engraving depicting Signs of the Zodiac. Fabergé had probably planned to set the indentations with diamonds. We may assume that the largest star would have been in the sign of Leo, the birth sign of Crown Prince Alexei; he was the only son of Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, the intended recipient of this egg. The blue egg rests on a cloud-like surface made of dull rock crystal. Fabergé had planned to add a nephrite base, silver Cupids and a clock work. However, the egg’s incomplete state makes it a poignant symbol of the fall of the Russian Empire and of the end of the House of Romanov, who had ruled Russia for over three centuries.
Presented by Emperor Nicholas II to his wife, Alexandra Feodorovna, at Easter 1900 Saint Petersburg, 1900 House of C. Fabergé, Artist: M. Perkhin Gold, platinum, partly-gilt silver, rose-cut diamonds, ruby, onyx, crystal glass, wood, silk, velvet, enamel on guilloche ground, filigree enamel egg: h. 26 cm, train: l. 39.8 cm, wagon: h. 2.6 cm © The Moscow Kremlin State Historical and Cultural Museum and Heritage Site. This egg refers to one of the most important achievements of the reigns of Emperors, Alexander III and Nicholas II: the Trans-Siberian Railway that connected the European and Asian parts of the vast country. The egg itself is decorated with an engraved map of the Russian empire and the route of the Trans-Siberian Railway. The inscription reads “ The great Siberian Railway around 1900”. The surprise contained in the egg is a miniature working model of a train of the Trans-Siberian Railway. An intricate mechanism sets the gold and platinum train in motion, and it runs for several metres before it stops again. The train comprises a steam engine with a ruby lantern and brilliant headlights, and five carriages with rock-crystal windows. The carriages have inscriptions that can be deciphered with the help of a magnifying glass. The first carriage is inscribed with “Direct Connection to Siberia”, the second, third and fourth respectively with “Ladies”, “Smokers” and “Non-Smokers”; in addition, the carriages are marked 1st or 2nd class and give the number of available seats (18 and 24).
ENAMELS & JEWELLERY : Another section of the show focuses on Fabergé’s enamel work, celebrated for its virtuosity, and the firm’s sumptuous jewellery. Only a handful of the latter has survived in Russia; most were broken or reworked, and many of the precious stones reset. A rare exception is the hoard of magnificent pieces of jewellery discovered by chance in the 1990s during rebuilding work in a Moscow house. We now know that they were hidden by one of the directors of the holding company C. Fabergé; this is how they survived the turmoil of the 20th century. These rare artifacts were on show in the exhibition, together with other magnificent examples of Russian goldsmith work. The exhibition documented that Fabergé’s fame was buttressed not only by his Easter eggs but also by his wide range of fine goldsmith work, making him Russia’s leading jeweller at the turn of the 20th century.
The small animal figures cut from hard stones – rock crystal, carnelian, agate, nephrite, etc. – by specialists working for the house of Fabergé were in a class of their own. Many of these precious figurines were inspired by Japanese netsuke, which were extremely popular in Europe in the late 19th century. Carl Fabergé was a great admirer of Japanese artefacts and assembled an impressive collection in his house in Saint Petersburg. Members of the Imperial family also owned hundreds of figures cut from semi-precious stones, most of which were, however, designed by Fabergé. One example is this charming bulldog cut from citrine. Its eyes are set with sapphires and its collar is made of gold. In his youth, the pet-name of the husband of Empress Maria Feodorovna, Emperor Alexander III (then Grand- Duke Alexander Alexandrovich), was the “little bulldog”. Or this may be a portrait in stone by Fabergé’s artists of the pet bulldog of the second daughter of Emperor Nicholas II, Grand Duchess Tatiana Nicholaievna (1897-1918), which she had named Ortino.