This monumental and spectacular vase is an exciting discovery, adhering almost exactly to an 1802 design by the celebrated and influential designer Andreï Voronikhin (1760-1814) and is an important addition to the oeuvre of the German-born St. Petersburg bronzier Friedrich Bergenfeldt. Its history is equally fascinating, as it descends directly from the the noble Russian line of Speransky-Cantacuzène, and may even have been commissioned by Count Mikhail Mikhailovich Speransky, one of Tsar Alexander I's most important ministers. More recently it was owned by Julia Dent Grant (Princess Julia Grant Cantacuzène), granddaughter of President Ulysses S. Grant, who wrote a celebrated memoir of her experiences in the Russian Revolution.
THE VORONIKHIN DESIGN
Voronikhin, who was first discovered by Count A.S. Stroganov, was one of the most important neo-classical designers during the reigns of Paul I and Alexander I in the early 19th century. He studied in Moscow under Bazhenov, before travelling through Europe to Paris. On his return to St. Petersburg in 1790, Stroganov commissioned him to design the interior schemes for his palace on the Nevsky Prospect, where he subsequently designed the cathedral Notre-Dame de Kazan. He worked extensively with the architect Vincenzo Brenna for Tsar Paul I at the Palace of Pavlovsk, and created designs for furniture, bronzes d'ameublement and mounted hardstones to provide a distinctively Russian interpretation of the prevailing neo-classical style of the Empire period. In spite of the Russian embargo on French gilt-bronzes and clocks, Voronikhin was also strongly influenced by the work of the Parisian bronzier Claude Galle, and the design of the Speransky-Cantacuzène vase closely resembles a vase made by Galle for Schloss Ludwigsburg in 1800 (reproduced in H. Ottomeyer & P. Pröschel et al., Vergoldete Bronzen, vol.I, Munich, 1986, p. 365, fig. 5.12.11).
The vase offered here can be firmly attributed to the St. Petersburg bronzier Friedrich Bergenfeldt, and is an exciting addition to his oeuvre. It forms part of a small group of similar vases executed circa 1802-5 which can be firmly attributed to him on the basis of a
signed example. Within this small group of vases, the example offered here, with its wonderful aquatic imagery of sea-gods, grottoes and mermaids, is closest to Voronikhin’s design of 1802. The others in the group comprise: the pair recorded in the collections of the Hermitage in the first half of the 19th century; another pair, possibly the latter, exhibited by Ariane Dandois in ‘L’Empire Travers l’Europe’, Exhibition Catalogue, Paris, 2000, no.22; a pair formerly in the collections of the counts Bobrinski (illustrated in I. Sytchev, ‘Friedrich Bergenfeldt, an Unknown Russian Bronzier’, Russian Jeweler, No 1, 1998, p. 31): and a pair in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence (M. Chiarini & S. Padovani, Gli Appartamenti Reali di Palazzo Pitti, Florence, 1993, p. 229, fig. II.36); the signed example, sold Sotheby's, New York, 24 May 2007, lot 283 ($144,000), and referred to in H. Ottomeyer. P. Pröschel et al., Vergoldete Bronzen, Munich, 1986, p. 365. This latter vase however lacks the sea nymphs supporting shells forming handles which
are such a significant aspect of Voronikhin’s design.
Bergenfeldt was born in 1768 in Westphalia, and like so many German craftsmen, came to Russia to seek his fortune in the 1790s. He worked first in the atelier of the bronzier Yan Aoustin and then with Charles Dreyer. He then seems to have left St. Petersburg, possibly for Paris. He returned to Russia after the death of Paul I in 1801 and established his workshop on the Fontanka Embankment. His advertisements in the local newspapers announce the sale of all manner of bronze ornaments such as, 'vases, candelabra, cassolettes, girandoles, chandeliers, veilleuses etc. in the antique taste and of a quality equal to that of French bronzes'. He collaborated with Heinrich Gambs, supplying many of the gilt-bronzes for Gambs’ furniture much of which was commissioned by the Imperial family. Towards the end of his life, he successfully petitioned the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, with whom Voronikhin had worked so closely at Pavlovsk, for a position restoring and cleaning her bronzes.
This spectacular vase was possibly supplied to Count Mikhail Mikhailovich Speransky (1772-1839), Tsar Alexander I’s most powerful minister who accompanied the Tsar to the Congress of Erfurt in 1808, where he met Napoleon and formulated ideas on a form of democratization of the Tsarist regime, through a series of regional, elected assemblies. Although the dramatic rupture between Russia
and France leading to Napoleon’s invasion precipitated Speransky’s fall from grace through the machinations of other jealous noblemen at court, he was reinstated into public office under Nicholas I in 1816, when he continued his programme of liberal reforms. He was awarded the title of Count in 1839, which his daughter, who married into the Cantacuzène family, was permitted to carry as well through special Imperial decree. The urn descended to her grandson Prince Mikhail Cantacuzène (1875-1955), who in 1899 married Julia Dent Grant, granddaughter of the U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant. Prince Mikhail served with distinction in World War I under Tsar Nicolas II, while his wife wrote a celebrated account of the events leading to the Russian Revolution. It is equally possibly that the vase could have descended either through the Cantacuzène side of the family or through Prince Mikhail’s mother’s family, as according to family history it was in the possession of his mother in the late 19th century in Paris; she subsequently gave the vase to her other son Sergei who then gifted it to his sister-in-law. The Cantacuzènes were a noble Romanian family descended from the Kantakouzenos Emperors of Constantinople, while Prince Mikhail’s mother’s family were French Huguenots who emigrated to Russia in the time of Catherine the Great and owned the estate of Bouromka in modern day Ukraine, where Prince Mikhail was brought up, along with residences in St. Petersburg and a villa in the Crimea.