Grand palace vases featuring reproductions of paintings are considered to be the finest works produced by the Imperial Porcelain Factory. Such vases were intended as magnificent surrounds for the Old Master works, which decorated their façades, and although the Imperial Porcelain Factory had begun producing them in the time of Alexander I, the heyday of this type of decoration was the reign of Nicholas I. It was during this period that the best examples of palace vases were produced, remarkable not only for their size but also for the fineness of their decorative elements.
DECORATION ON PALACE VASES
The offered vases, decorated with scaled-down versions of paintings by Philips Wouwermans, are exceptional examples of their type. Their form, known as fuseau (spindle) or bandeau, was one of two used at the time for vases painted with copies of two-dimensional works. The term bandeau refers to the main body, which resembles a wide ring and sits atop a second crater-shaped section.
The ormolu bands, which visually link the collar, base and foot, are also an important element in the overall appearance of the vases. These bands and the gilt-bronze plinths supporting the pair were made by Peter Pilman, 'a master of bronze-working' and head of the workshop at the Imperial Factory between 1846 and 1848.
The vases' imperial grandeur manifests itself not only in their scale, but also in the quality of their decoration. The use of both matte and gloss gilt, elaborately ciselé with ornamental plants in two colours, lends them a special opulence. The relief work on the base, neck and feet gives the vases a distinctly classical appearance, which is further complemented by the elegant form of the handles, which are finely moulded with acanthus leaves and pine cones.
OLD MASTER PAINTINGS REPRODUCED ON IMPERIAL PORCELAIN
The central reserves of the offered pair feature exceptionally finely painted copies of genre scenes by Philips Wouwermans (1619-1668). The corresponding subjects are a testament to the fact that these vases were conceived and made as a pair.
The originals by Wouwermans, along with approximately six hundred other paintings and engravings, were acquired by Catherine II in 1762 from the collection of Count Heinrich von Bruhl (1700-1763) in Dresden.
In 1901, curator of the Imperial Hermitage Andrei Somov compiled a catalogue of the collection, where both pictures were recorded (Somov, A. Imperatorskii Ermitazh. Katalog kartinnoi galerei. P. I-III. St. Petersburg, 1901. pp. 88-89, cat. nos. 1000, 1001) (figs. 1,2). However only one of them, Stables at a Roadside Inn, remains in the Hermitage collection today (State Hermitage Gosudarstvennyi Ermitazh. Zapadnoevropeiskaia zhivopis' 2. Leningrad, 1981, cat. no. 845). The second work, The Stable, was among the works from the State Hermitage which were sold by Gostorg, the State Trade Organisation, in the 1920s; it later appeared at auction in Berlin in 1932.
Both paintings are multi-figure equestrian compositions depicting gentlemen preparing for a journey. In the centre of each picture is a white horse, a trademark element of Wouwermans' work, which is complemented by amusing vignettes in the lower right corners depicting children at play, another repeated motif in the artist's œuvre.
CRAFTSMANSHIP AND TECHNICAL PROGRESS DURING THE REIGN OF NICHOLAS I
Nicholas I's keen interest in porcelain manufacture and high expectations manifested themselves in the production of truly magnificent works during his reign, most especially monumental palace vases such as these, which are not only a stunning size, but are also decorated to standards of refinement rarely seen in the decorative arts.
The significant technical advances in the firing of porcelain and the production of paints made at the time resulted in increases in both the quality and consequently in the popularity of objects such as the present pair. A new, expanded palette, which included lead-based fluxes and oxide tints, meant a wider variety of colours and shades, making almost any tone possible. The skill of the artists at the Imperial Factory who specialised in figure painting was highly regarded throughout Europe. Among the best porcelain painters were P. Stoletov and N. Kornilov (figs. 3,4), who copied Wouwermans' originals on the offered vases. Their signed work decorates a number of grand ornamental vases in present-day museum collections. Painting an intricate scene onto porcelain was a lengthy and complex process which could take up to six months or longer; before painting onto the vase, the factory artist first had to visit the Hermitage and copy the picture onto canvas.
TRADITION OF PRESENTATION
Traditionally works of such grandeur and importance were destined for presentation and therefore the choice of painting for reproduction was often determined by the emperor's personal preferences. In Russia, the term 'presentation' referred to the tradition of showing the Imperial Family the best works from the factories during the celebrations of Easter and Christmas. During Nicholas I's reign, the ceremony took place in the Winter Palace by special order of the Minister of the Imperial Court: 'objects from the Porcelain and Glass Factories are to be arranged in the Concert Hall for presentation' (Russian State Historical Archive, fund 468, op. 10 d. 239). Such large palace vases were typically intended for the emperor and empress and were used to decorate their private rooms as well as state chambers.
On occasion, large vases such as these were presented by the emperor as important gifts for foreign rulers. For example, the list of 'porcelain objects made on the special request of his Majesty and presented at Easter' from 1841 includes 'for the Count Paskevich of Erivan, King of Warsaw' 'the largest size of bandeau vase with handles, featuring a depiction of the Taking of Akhaltsikhe and decoration on gold', which cost 4000 roubles. In 1843, Archduke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin was given a pair of 'large bandeau vases with pictures taken from paintings in the Hermitage and decorated with gold on green, set in bronze', which were valued at 1750 roubles each; in 1849, 'two bandeau-form porcelain vases with landscapes and decoration on green, costing, with a bronze base, 5300 roubles in silver' were sent to the Prince of Württemberg (Russian State Historical Archive, fund 468, op. 10 d. 4, 201, 309).
Similar state gifts from Nicholas I today adorn the interiors of the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation Berlin-Brandenburg and the Württemburg State Museum in Stuttgart (figs. 5,6).
Undoubtedly, one of the most fascinating aspects of this pair is their provenance. The present vases are quite possibly those recorded in the list of works presented to the emperor at Christmas 1848: '... bandeau-form vases with paintings and gold decoration, larger than the first size – two'. Their scale, which was the largest produced by the factory (i.e. 'larger than the first size'), the bandeau form, the gilt decoration, and most significantly their inscribed date of 1848 all indicate a possible match with the recorded Imperial pair. Thus, these vases may have been part of the Imperial collection in the nineteenth century.
Vladimir Kirillovich, a great-grandson of Emperor Alexander II, was brought up in the best traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1924 his father assumed the title Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias, subsequently granting Vladimir the titles of Tsarevitch and Grand Duke. Upon the death of his father in 1938 and at the age of 21, Vladimir Kirillovich assumed the title Head of the Imperial Family of Russia and Titular Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, which was accepted by the majority of European royal houses. In 1948 the Grand Duke married Leonida, the daughter of Prince George Bagration of Mukhrani, a titular head of the House of Mukhrani, a collateral branch of the former royal dynasty of Bagrationi. Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich died in 1992 and is buried in the Grand-ducal tomb of the Peter and Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg.
We are grateful to Tamara Nosovich, Deputy Director General and Principal Curator of the Peterhof State Museum-Reserve, for her help with research of this lot.
If you would like to receive the Russian translation of the catalogue note, please contact the department on +44 (0)207 293 5570.
Height: 149cm, 4ft/ 10in.
Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich (1917-1992);
Thence by descent