Russian Works of Art specialist Margo Oganesian with the imperial Russian porcelain vase, offered in the Important Russian Art sale on 26 November at Christies in London

5 minutes with... A monumental imperial Russian vase

Why would this prodigious vase, made made in St Petersburg by Russia’s Imperial Porcelain Factory, be adorned with a portrait of Emperor Franz I of Austria? Specialist Margo Oganesian reveals how she got to the bottom of a mystery with Napoleonic roots

‘It took my breath away,’ says Russian Works of Art specialist Margo Oganesian of the moment she first saw this campana-shapedgilt vase. ‘I had never seen anything of that size or quality outside of a museum before.’

Standing 1.5 metres high and decorated with fine ciselé  gilding, the vase, which will be offered for auction on 26 November in the Important Russian Art  sale at Christie’s in London, is quite a showstopper. ‘But the most striking thing,’ explains Oganesian, ‘is the portrait painted on the body of the vase, which depicts the Austrian Emperor Franz I (1768-1835).’ 

An important and monumental imperial porcelain vase by the Imperial Porcelain Factory, St Petersburg, Period of Nicholas I (1836). Porcelain, 58⅞ in (152 cm). Estimate £800,000-1,200,000. Offered in the Important Russian Art sale on 26 November at Christies in London

An important and monumental imperial porcelain vase by the Imperial Porcelain Factory, St Petersburg, Period of Nicholas I (1836). Porcelain, 58⅞ in (152 cm). Estimate £800,000-1,200,000. Offered in the Important Russian Art sale on 26 November at Christies in London

To try to find out why, our intrigued specialist looked at other known imperial porcelain vases in museum collections around the world. The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg has a vase of a similar size and style, but painted with a portrait of the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm III (1770-1840). It led the specialist to suspect that both vases were connected, in some way, to one of the most dramatic episodes in European history — the Napoleonic Wars.

Napoleon’s catastrophic and bloody campaign against the Russian Empire was an event so seismic that it continues to pervade Russian lore, and has been immortalised most memorably in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. As Oganesian explains, ‘Austria and Prussia became Tsar Alexander’s allies in order to suppress the French. We think the vases were possibly commissioned as gifts for the royal heads of state’.

On the reverse of the vase is the Austrian Imperial crest, a double-headed eagle above a ribbon-tied wreath of oak and laurel

On the reverse of the vase is the Austrian Imperial crest, a double-headed eagle above a ribbon-tied wreath of oak and laurel

Except that the vases date to 1836, by which time both Tsar Alexander I and Franz I were dead. ‘We were a little confused by that, but then following the war Russia, Austria and Prussia formed the Holy Alliance in order to guard the post-war borders of Europe. We think it is possible that the new Tsar, Nicholas I, commissioned the vases to send to Prussia and the new head of state in Austria, Ferdinand I (1793-1875), to commemorate the war and ensure the continuation of good relations.’


Sign up today

The Online Magazine delivers the best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week

Subscribe

For Alexander I (1777-1825), who believed that empire was divinely ordained, the upstart French general turned Emperor Napoleon had shaken this holy order. The alliance between the Prussian, Russian and Austrian empires was formed to collectively suppress any future revolutionary ferment in Europe.


The portrait on the vase of Emperor Franz I of Austria was executed by Alexander Nesterov, the Imperial Porcelain Factory’s finest painter

The portrait on the vase of Emperor Franz I of Austria was executed by Alexander Nesterov, the Imperial Porcelain Factory’s finest painter

The vases are of such exceptional quality that they could be said to reflect this divine faith. ‘Making them would have involved a long and difficult process,’ says Oganesian. ‘The very fine ciselé  gilding, a form of embossing, is incredibly hard to do. The painting of the emperor itself is signed by Alexander Nesterov, who was considered the Imperial Porcelain Factory’s finest painter.’

Nesterov copied the portrait of Franz I from the celebrated Equestrian Portrait of Emperor Franz I (1832), by Johann Peter Krafft, which can be found in the Military Gallery of 1812 in the Hermitage. ‘Copying it to porcelain would have been incredibly tricky,’ says Oganesian, ‘but it is exquisitely done. It is like an old master painting — the brush strokes are exceptional.’