Geneva Anderson digs into art

“Hidden Treasures of the Romanov Dynasty”— Dr. Ekaterina Khmelnitskaya, Curator of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, will speak this Thursday, May 10, 2012 at the Sonoma County Museum

Charger, cup and saucer and bowl from the Kremlin Service, commissioned by Nicholas I in 1837. Intended for 500 people, the service included 2,000 dinner plates, 1,000 soup plates and 1,000 dessert plates and was the first time artists drew upon Old Russian motifs from the 17th Century for inspiration. The set took 10 years to complete. Select dishes are on display at the Sonoma County Museum as part of “The Tzar’s Cabinet,” through May 27, 2012. Photo: Giovanni Lundardi Photography

There’s something endlessly fascinating about antique tableware, especially intricately painted porcelain.  A zeal for the best, combined with the nearly limitless resources of Imperial Russia, fueled a craze for porcelain in Peter the Great who first saw this luxury item in 1718 when he visited the Dresden Court at Saxony.  The formula for the internationally coveted  “white gold” though proved illusive and it took Russian chemists several years to get it right.   It was Peter’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth Petrovna (1709-1762), who ascended to the crown in 1741 and established the most glittering court in Russian history, who founded the Russian Imperial Porcelain Factory in 1744 in the town of Oranienbaum (Lomonosov) and ordered it to produce porcelain wares exclusively for the Romanov family.  She promptly began to test the factory’s creative capacity with orders for royal items of porcelain that grew more lavish and refined as time passed.  During her rule, porcelain never left her palaces and attracted less attention from its practical use as by its rarity, its aura of inaccessibility and the mystique of its creation. The Imperial Porcelain Factory produced tableware exclusively for the Imperial Romanov family for nearly 200 years, reaching its zenith under the “Golden Age” of Catherine II (the Great) (1762-1796), whose hunger for exquisitely painted porcelain was insatiable.  Dr. Ekaterina Khmelnitskaya, Curator of Porcelain at the Hermitage Museum, one of Russia’s foremost authorities on porcelain, will speak on the founding of the Imperial Porcelain Factory and select rare pieces from the exhibition The Tsars’ Cabinet: Two Hundred Years of Russian Decorative Arts Under the Romanovs, currently on view at the Sonoma County Museum through May 27, 2012.  Her talk “Hidden Treasures of the Romanov Dynasty” will be presented on Thursday, May 10, 2012, from 6-7:30 p.m. at the musem.

About the speaker: Dr. Ekaterina (Tina) Khmelnitskaya is a curator of the Russian Porcelain and Ceramics collection of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.  She spent the first two months of 2012 as a Fulbright Scholar at the Library of Congress and has continued her Fulbright studies as a Visiting Scholar at Stanford’s Center on Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies.

A 2001 graduate of St. Petersburg State University, she defended her doctoral dissertation in 2007 on the styles of the interiors of the palace of the Romanov Grand Duke Vladimir.  Since 2001, she has worked at the State Hermitage Museum, and since 2003 she has been a curator of Russian porcelain.  She has received research support for work in Germany from the German Chancellor Fellowship and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and from the Max-Planck-Institut for research in Italy—Florence in 2010 and Rome in 2011.

Dr. Khmelnitskaya is the author of more than 40 scholarly publications, including guidebooks as well as scholarly articles and books on the porcelain collection of the State Hermitage Museum.  She participated in organizing over twenty Hermitage exhibitions, including exhibitions in Japan, Germany, and Scotland as well as Russia.  She was in charge of two porcelain exhibitions: “Under the Imperial Monogram: Porcelain from the collection of the State Hermitage Museum” (with Irina Bagdasarova) at the Kremlin in Moscow, 2007; and “Heraldry on Russian Porcelain” (with Irina Bagdasarova) at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg in 2008.

Khmelnitskaya’s current research devoted to the Russian sculptors who were affiliated with the work of the Imperial Porcelain Factory and who immigrated after 1917 and continued their work in Europe and elsewhere.

An early porcelain plate from Her Majesty’s Own Service, the first dessert service completed by the Imperial Porcelain Factory, St. Petersburg, circa 1756, under Elizabeth (1741-1761), is on display in “The Tsar’s Cabinet” exhibition at the Sonoma County Museum through May 27, 2012. Photo: Giovanni Lundardi Photography

The Tsars’ Cabinet exhibition: Porcelain of Royalty, each piece an artwork:  The Sonoma County Museum is marking the bicentennial of Fort Ross with the splendid exhibition, The Tsars’ Cabinet: Two Hundred Years of Russian Decorative Arts Under the Romanovs, on view through May 27, 2012.  Most of the porcelain comes from the relatively new private collection of Kathleen Durdin an east coast collector, who gifted a portion of her collection to the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William and Mary.  The Tzar’s Cabinet is a travelling exhibition organized by the Washington, D.C.-based International Arts & Artists in cooperation with the Muscarelle Museum of Art.   The historic Sonoma County Museum is its third stop and only Northern California venue.   The show, which takes up the first and second floors of the museum, presents a rich portrait of the Russian Romanovs through the ornate plates they dined on and other luxury objects they either owned or gave as royal gifts.  Just two years away from the 400th anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty, this comes as a festive pre-celebration of their rich role in Russian history.

The exhibition is laid out chronologically, starting with early examples of gifted porcelain and attempts to produce porcelain in Russia which culminated in the 1756 dessert service created for Elizabeth—Majesty’s Own Service (Sobstvennyi)—a lovely spiraling basket weave design initiated in small pink flowers connected by a molded gold gilt trellis rope on hard paste porcelain.

One of the most interesting sections is devoted to Catherine II (the Great) (1762-1796), who had a great appetite for fine art and luxury items from all over the world and had the political savvy to use them to enhance her fame and claim to the throne.  She lavished attention on developing the Russian porcelain industry so that it could supply her with services for personal and state use.  The scholarship on the wall and cabinet texts at the Sonoma County Museum paints a fascinating picture of this young, enigmatic and enterprising woman who ruled Russia for 34 years, championing the ideas of the Enlightenments throughout her reign.  She had a passion for collecting, which did not stop with porcelain— with the help of sophisticated advisors, Catherine assembled the core of today’s State Hermitage Museum.

Jennifer Bethke, Curator of Art for the Sonoma County Museum commented on Catherine’s shrewd use of porcelain in a walk-through lecture she gave to museum guests in March, “Catherine, of course is known for her love of beautiful objects, but she used porcelain as a palette to honor those loyal to her, to call attention to her accomplishments and to her progressive beliefs.  She was especially fond of the neoclassical style and commissioned the “Arabesque Service” with design elements from the newly-discovered cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.  She had herself inserted in each piece as a goddess in classical dress on a pedestal with allegorical figures at her sides depicting Crimea and Georgia, calling out her own wisdom and sovereignty and Russia’s strength under her rule.  And it was no coincidence that her banquet tables had figurines of exotic Russian peoples—Cossacks and Tartars—these served as talking points about her vast territories.”

Various hard paste porcelain figurines of Russian ethnic groups in tribal costumes, from 8 to 8.75 inches tall, Imperial Porcelain Factory, 1785-1800. Catherine the Great used these figurines at state dinners as centerpieces to remind visiting dignitaries of the extent of her empire and to recognize her victory over the Turks. Photo: Giovanni Lundardi Photography

One of Catherine’s more famous and endearing services was a commission completed for her by the Sevres Factory in France, and inspired by her love of cameos—the Cameo Service.  This service is represented by a cup in the exhbition.  The complete service was for 60 and consisted of 700 pieces executed in a stunning turquoise with scrolling gold gilding, delicate garlands of flowers, and decorated with representations of cameos on themes from Greek and Roman history and mythology.  Catherine’s cypher EII was put on the center of each plate n the service.  The E stands for Ekaterina as Catherine was called in Russia.  The service exemplifies the most elaborate techniques in porcelain manufacture and design at the time.  In some of the pieces, cameos were inserted into the porcelain and secured by gilt-copper filets.  Some of the cameo medallions were applied with a transfer decal process that Sevres did not use again unto the 19th century.  The service was made of soft-paste porcelain, the secret of which was known only to the fabricators and painters of Sevres.  Why Catherine, certainly the richest woman in Europe at the time, took 13 years to pay for it is a question I hope Dr. Khmelnitskaya will address in her lecture.

(Robert Massie’s new book Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman is highly recommended as a companion read—suspenseful and full of rich period detail.  Click here to listen to Massie interviewed by Charlie Rose about his new book.)

Teapot from the Gothic Service, Imperial Porcelain Factory, circa 1833, 6 x 9 x 5 ½ inches. The handle is formed as a neoclassical woman emerging from a leafy cornucopia and the lid filial has a helmeted female warrior. Both are finished in matte gold gilding. The sides and lid are decorated in red, blue, green and black to resemble a Gothic stained glass window. Photo: Giovanni Lundardi Photography

The exhibition continues with sections addressing how porcelain embodied Russian nationalism under Alexander I and Nicholas I and shows several regal examples of services drawing upon Russian culture for inspiration.   One of the most attractive pieces in this section is a teapot, circa 1833, from the Gothic Service commissioned by Nicholas I, a great champion of porcelain who elaborately gifted his sons and daughter with porcelain services for dowries and weddings and began the practice of commissioning additions of many of the earlier major services he fancied whether Russian or foreign.  The teapot’s sides and lid are decorated in red, blue, green and black to resemble a Gothic stained glass window.  The handle is designed as a neoclassical woman emerging from a leafy cornucopia and the lid filial has a helmeted female warrior.  Both are finished in matte gold gilding.  The Gothic Service itself was used often during imperial parties and ceremonial banquets up until the beginning of the 20th century.

Several items, obtained locally from Andrew Romanoff, the grandnephew of the last Tsar Nicholas II, have been added to the exhibition and include a calling-card case and family photographs. Romanoff’s grandmother and parents escaped to England and were offered asylum at Windsor Castle, where Andrew grew up.  Now 89 and an artist, he lives in Inverness with his wife, Inez Storer, who has a companion exhibition of her artworks, “Inez Storer: Recent Works,” in the museum’s first floor.

Dessert Plate, Two Dinner Plates, Soup Plate, Butter Plate, Cup and Saucer from the Raphael Service, 1884-1903, Period of Nicholas II, Imperial Porcelain Factory, Russia, on display at the Sonoma County Museum as part of “The Tzar’s Cabinet,” through May 27, 2012.

Russian Porcelain at auction:  On May 28, 2012, Christies, London, will auction several pieces of Russian porcelain, including two important dinner plates from the Raphael Service from the period of Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia, estimated to fetch from £12,000 – £18,000 ($19,416-$29,124) each.  Several plates in this pattern are currently on display at the Sonoma County Museum.  The detail is breathtaking—the centre of each plate is decorated with a classical figure painted en grisaille on a red ground in a hexagonal frame, on white ground, surrounded by a border of classical-style friezes with three red ground roundels, cream ground interjections and six stylized panels, at intervals, within gilt banding, the panels with raised beading, decorated with monochrome mythical figures, gilt rim and foot, marked under base with gilt crowned monogram of Alexander III.  

Details: “Hidden Treasures of the Romanov Dynasty” will be presented on Thursday, May 10, 2012, from 6-7:30 p.m. at Santa Rosa’s Glaser Center at 547 Mendocino Ave, Santa Rosa. Tickets are $8 SCM members and $10 non-members and are available for advance purchase online here  and will be available at the door of the Glaser Center beginning at 5:30 pm on May 10, 2012.  Note seating is limited and advance purchase is highly recommended.

May 7, 2012 Posted by | Art, Sonoma County Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment