BY EMMANUEL DUCAMP
THE PRODUCTION OF RUSSIAN BRONZES IN THE LATE 18TH CENTURY
It is widely believed that Russian palaces were, at the end of 18th and early 19th Century, exclusively designed by foreign architects and predominantly furnished with objets d'art and furniture straight out of the ateliers of Western Europe.
Although Catherine II's thirst for Western and principally French decorative arts is well-established, as illustrated by her many commissions for seats from the menuisier Jacob, silver services from the Parisian silversmith Roettiers and silks from the Lyon- based workshops of Pernon, it would certainly be a cliché to believe that all Imperial and Russian aristocratic residences were fully furnished with imported objets d'art. First, this would mean disregarding the difficulties and significant costs involved in the transport of such pieces from Western Europe all the way to St. Petersburg, but more importantly this would mean ignoring the economic consequences which such acquisitions would have entailed, as much as the measures taken on a local level precisely to prevent such imports. Russian authorities realized very early on that such an engouement for foreign objets d'art not only caused an outflow of capital from Russia but also significantly hindered future prospects for local craftsmen, to such an extent that the authorities decided to implement strict measures in order to make the import of these foreign commodities even more difficult.
They first levied customs duty on all objets de luxe, going as far as disallowing the Imperial Cabinet itself from commissioning foreign bronzes décoratifs (including chandeliers) and forcing them instead to order these from the Imperial bronze manufactory created in 1778. Russian master craftsmen not being able to successfully emulate their Parisian counterparts overnight meant that foreign objects continued to be imported into Russia, either illegally or - under specific circumstances - upon the explicit authorisation from the Tsar himself.
When Paul I undertook the design and decoration of his new city residence, the château Michel, between 1798 and 1801, he commissioned the architects Vassili Bajenov and Vincenzo Brenna, precisely with the intention to turn it into one the most beautifully furnished châteaux in all Europe. To that end, he ordered the very best furniture and decorative arts from Brenna, abolishing all applicable customs duty long enough to allow for the import of one the most important collections of French bronzes décoratifs, mainly comprising clocks, candelabra and firedogs, and now in the Hermitage Museum and at Pavlovsk.
Many a private collector took advantage of this 'tax-free' period, among whom count Alexandre Sergueievich Stroganov and prince Nikolai Borissovich Yusopov. Meanwhile, local workshops developed further (between the years 1795 and 1805) and became more and more able to match the production of their Parisian counterparts, notably at the behest of count Stroganov, president of the Académie des Arts under the reign of Paul I. Responsible for the construction of the Kazan cathedral, Count Stroganov promoted the use of local craftsmen and was also, as president of the Académie, in charge of supervising the production of vases made of Russian hardstones by the Imperial manufactures of Peterhof and Ekaterinburg. In such capacity, he was able to promote within the Académie the creation of a workshop tailored specifically to the manufacture of bronze mounts of exceptional quality, designed to be mounted on the various coloured hardstones. The running of this atelier was first allocated to a master craftsman of French origin - Pierre Agi - but as Agi was about to be replaced by yet another Frenchman, Gerard Jacques, the latter's modèles were seized by customs officials as he arrived in St. Petersburg, customs duty having by then been re-instated. It is within that same period that the Russian capital flourished, giving way to the production of bronzes décoratifs of a significantly higher quality than in the past but also of a very distinctive style. Amongst the most talented artists were local masters such as Andreï Schreiber and Friedrich Bergenfeldt.
CHANDELIERS OF AN UNPRECEDENTED GENRE
Although Tsar Paul I commissioned French ormolu objets d'art to furnish the chteau Michel, it is important to note that the majority of the chandeliers destined to be hung in the château were in fact commissioned from local masters such as Johann Fischer or Johann Zekh. Of a type called 'ékatérinien', in French (after Catherine II's first name) these flourished in the later years of her reign (1790-1795) and combined gilt bronze and cut-crystals as well as stems made of beautiful coloured glass such as ruby red, blue or occasionally green. Distinctively elegant - and visually light and airy - they were however only manufactured for a very short period of time until circa 1800. It is at such time that chandeliers marrying both patinated and gilt bronze, such as that offered here, first appeared.
Recent research led by Igor Sychev, curator for Russian bronzes décoratifs at the Hermitage Museum, has revealed significant information regarding the production of these objets d'art in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth Century. Celebrated bronzesmiths such as Andreï Schreiber or Ivan Bauman seem to have executed works of art of a rather classical style, as did their French counterparts, such as patinated bronze chandeliers à l'antique, modelled as large classical urns surmounted by oil lamp finials.
It was however the bronzier Friedrich Bergenfeldt who took a more avant-garde approach, opting for a more imaginative style when designing lighting fixtures. The superb gilt and patinated bronze chandelier supplied by Bergenfeldt and recorded in an inventory of the Winter Palace drawn in 1811 (illustrated here) is now in the 'cabinet de la lanterne' of Empress Maria Feodorovna at Pavlovsk. It is made of a principal corps in patinated bronze on which ormolu palmettes, friezes and acanthus scrolls have been applied. The Pavlovsk chandelier features masks of Diana above which rest classical urns headed by oil lamps with bird heads' finials, and further surmounted by flame-shaped nozzles.
The esprit of the chandelier offered here reflects a similarly 'unfettered' style both in terms of design and execution, enhanced by a rich ornemental and decorative scheme. As on the Pavlovsk example, this chandelier features flamed nozzles surmounting oil lamps in the goût antique, resting on female busts. The central dish is applied with interspersed stylised palmettes and delightful cross-armed tritons or mermen made of gilt-bronze, reminiscent of the marine motifs and allegories which were so dear to Bergenfeldt and which can also be found on similarly gilt and patinated bronze vases now in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, or at Monplaisir in Peterhof. What is perhaps the most distinctive element on the present chandelier is the use of standing male and female figures made of patinated bronze, surmounting the central dish and holding curved stems terminating in candle-branches. The central shaft also recalls the elements of a fountain with its flared horn-shaped motifs.
This impressive chandelier presents yet another remarkable feature: an ingenious structure consisting in the use of two tiers of delicate chains conferring an overall 'lightness' to what would otherwise have been a somewhat heftier bronze object. Such a construction or structural support can also be found on a gilt and patinated bronze chandelier of the same period, now in the collections of the Hermitage Museum (illustrated in I. Sychev, Russian lighting fixtures of the Classicist period 1760-1830,[translated from the Russian] P.V.B.R. St Petersburg, 2003, p. 101).
Bergenfeldt's production was very much favoured by the most distinguished patrons and celebrated connoisseurs of his time which included Empress Maria Feodorovna, Count Stroganov, Prince Yusopov as well as the Imperial Cabinet, responsible for the administration of all Imperial residences and palaces. Although Bergenfeldt ceased to produce bronze objets d'art in 1807, he nevertheless remained responsible for the restoration and general 'maintenance' of the gilt and patinated bronze objets de luxe in the Imperial palaces until his death in 1822.
As with the production of chandeliers in the 'ékatérinien' style, the Russian manufacture of gilt and patinated bronze chandeliers was rather limited in time, therefore making the present chandelier all the more rare and compelling. From 1815 onwards, St. Petersburg master craftsmen adopted a rather different style for the production of lighting fixtures, producing almost exclusively chandeliers made solely of gilt bronze, undoubtedly drawing their inspiration from their French contemporaries. The fact that many Russian aristocrats stayed in Paris as part of the Russian occupation forces, and therefore their proximity to these Parisian objets d'art, but also the repeal in 1819 of customs duty on all produits de luxe imported into Russia, played a decisive role in ensuring that Parisian artistic influence then prevailed.