HISTORY OF THE VASES
I: SHIPMENT TO RUSSIA
Though the earliest history of these vases is not yet known, they are documented to have spent more than a century embellishing the most important Imperial residences of the Russian Czars. The original garniture to which this pair belongs was composed of three vases that were delivered to Russia on the 18th of February 1799 by Bartélemy Defarge (or De Farge) to the order of the architect Vincenzo Brenna. In 1798 the Emperor had lifted a ban on all imports from France for a special order of bronzes to be imported into the country for furnishing his palaces. Six foreign merchants including Defarge were involved in acquisition for the Russian ruler of more than 500 exceptional ormolu objets d'art. Most of these were bought on the French market. (for further discussion on this extraordinary transaction and some of the imported pieces see I. Zeck, "Bronzes d'ameublement et meubles français achetés par Paul Ier pour le château Saint-Michael de Saint-Pétersbourg en 1798-1799", Bulletin de La Soci\\aeté de l'Histoire de L'Art Français, 1994, pp. 141-157) There were altogether twelve shipments to the Russian court and this pair of vases was part of the seventh shipment that included 41 objects valued at 52,750 rubles.
Intended to furnish St. Michael Castle, the garniture was then recorded as "trois vases casolettes en porcelaine de Sève gros bleu forme ovale avec roulements, gorge et pieds très riches en bronze ciselé et doré au mat, soc en marbre griot d'Italie, ces trois pièces font une garniture complette et emballés dans la console....1600 (roubles)".(RGDA, f. 1239, op. 3, d. 61772, l. 29, 30, Original bill in French for 41 objects) The registrar Ivan Belskoi, who supervised all incoming objects for the Castle, recorded them once more in his ledger "No. 238, 239, 240. Three oval porcelain vases with lids, painted in cobalt, with handles and other kinds of embelishments from cast bronze gilt and chased on pedestals of Italian bright-red marble. One is 10 1/2 v[ershkov] high, and two of 8 v[ershkov]. The price 1600 rubles. (RGDA, f. 1239, op. 3, d. 61730, 1.27).
RII: ST. MICHAEL CASTLE
In October of 1800 the garniture was placed in the State Bedroom of Empress Maria Feodorovna. On the 1st of February 1801 Paul I moved into St. Michael's Castle from the Winter Palace with his family. At the beginning of April of 1801, after Paul I's assasination, Count Ivan Andreevich Tisenhausen, the head Valet of the Emperor's Cabinet, ordered Belskoi to draw up an inventory of all the property that was located in the three floors of the Castle. To each inventoried object "...was attached on a ribbon a label which was also stamped with the same number that was given to the object in the written inventory." (RGIA, f. 468, op. 32, d. 1252, l. 1, 1 ob.). The garniture was recorded at that time as "No. 130, 131, 132. Three oval porcelain vases with lids, painted in cobalt, with handles and other cast embelishments, gilt and matted, on pedestals of Italian red marble. On them are placed canvas covers." (RGIA, f. 468, op. 32, d. 1251, 1. 33 ob.)
III: THE HERMITAGE
Already in November of 1802 the set was transported to the storage rooms of the Cabinet of His Imperial Majesty under the supervision of the Court Advisor Dmitrii Popov. Shortly thereafter during a gradual dispersal of objects from storage rooms of the Cabinet between the Hermitage and other palaces, the garniture was moved to the Hermitage. At this time the vases were again recorded by the courtier Ivan Lukin and as other objects from St. Michail Castle retained their original inventory marks assigned to them by Belskoi. From the "Inventory of the objects that were located in the Hermitage", it is known that the set was placed in the Grand Hall on the "...cabinets of mahogany brought there by David Rontgen in 1784...smaller oval porcelain vases with lids painted in cobalt, 3 of which the handles, pedestals and other embelishements are of gilt bronze, on square pedestals of Italian dark-red marble also with bronzes. 3. No. 130, 131, and 132, from the Cabinet."(Archive FE, op. U1, letr. K, d.1,. 1, 187 ob).
In 1851 Nicolas I ordered the ormolu of the vases to be restored in the English Shop "Nicols and Plinke". Thereafter he ordered the set to be moved to Gatchina Palace for the decoration of the Arsenal Square rooms. In 1862 the garniture was marked again during an inventory of the palace. However, the earlier marks of Belskoi were evidently erased. The set was then divided: the central, larger vase found its way into the cabinet of Empress Maria Aleksandrovna "No. 1252. Oval Vase with vessel of blue porcelain with embelishment in light bronze with lid on square pedestal of brown marble, also set in light bronze." (RGIA, f. 491, op. 3, d. 1337, l. 121, ob. 122). The pair of vases decorated the cabinet of the Grand Duchess Catherine Mihailovna (Meklenberg-Strelitz), daughter of Grand Duke Michael and grand-daughter of Paul I, in the second floor of the Arsenal Square, "No. 3267. Vases of blue porcelain in the likeness of an urn, set in gilt bronze, with lids and with two scrolled handles from gilt bronze on the same feet set in to square pedestals of dark red marble and also embelished in gilt bronze, 2." The number 3267 appears on both of the Christie's vases.
During the reign of Alexander III the cabinet of Grand Duchess Catherine Mihailovna was renamed the Reception Cabinet of Alexander III where, according to the inventory of 1894, these two vases remained. The central vase of the set was displayed in the neighboring Reception Room of Alexander II (GIA, f. 490, op. 3, d. 1224, l. 94, 105). In 1914 the central vase was included in an issue of Staryi Gody devoted to Gatchina Palace and illustrated on its own (see Staryi Gody, July-September, pp. 68-69).
V: THE SOVIET ERA
After the October Revolution of 1917 the set was reunited once again and placed in the wing of Alexander III. Following the Revolution of 1917, the Imperial Palaces were sealed. The new Soviet government paintstakingly inventoried all Imperial property in 1926 when the present set was again marked and received numbers: G15873 and G 15874 and G15875, which now also appear on the Christie's vases. (The written inventory was lost during WWII). From 1928-1932 a series of sales ordered by the Minister of Trade for the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics were conducted at Rudolph Lepke's Kunst-Auktionshaus in Berlin. Numerous works from the Russian Imperial Palaces were offered in these sales. Although the vases do not appear in any of these catalogues, it is likely that they left Russia at this time and were probably sold to a dealer such as Duveen or to a private collector. The central vase escaped this fate. It remained at Gatchina Palace, was evacuated during WWII and is at the present time exhibited in the State Bedroom at Pavlovsk Palace.(ill. Prince Michael of Greece, Imperial Palaces of Russia, 1992, p. 100-101)
THE SÈVRES MODEL
This vase, referred to in the Sèvres archives as a cassolette à monter, belongs to a group recorded in both round and oval versions produced by the factory in the mid 1780s. Three drawings in the Sèvres Archives refer to vases of this general form. The first is a drawing dated 20 April 1784 incorporating a porcelain base and inscribed Vase Casollette pour Etre Monté par M. Tomier (sic Thomire). This is the basis on which the mounts for these vases are attributed to Thomire. Of two later drawings, one dated 1787, which closely resembles the present vases, refers to a Vase Bassignoire 1e demandé par M.Salmon ... ce 10 aoust 1787...pour mettre En Bleu. The third drawing is for an oval version dated from 1786 and is inscribed 'Vase de Monsieur Daguerre oval donné à faire Dapres un Model En bois Le mois 9bre 1786.
Dominique Daguerre appears to have played a key role in the design of these vases as he provided the model for the oval-shaped vases. The round version of the vases was refered to as vase Daguerre rond in 1787. Vases cassolettes mounted in ormolu appear in the Sèvres stocklists from February 19, 1785 until March 30, 1786 at 480 to 2,400 livres each. These were probably of the round shape. In September 1787 Madame de Barry purchases two vases beau bleu montés en bronze for 1,000 livres each.
Vases cassolette cost 120, 408 and 480 livres each in 1787-88. Madame Adélaïde bought three vases in 1787, two at 408 livres each and one at 480 livres, all of which were presumably mounted in ormolu. Described as 2 vases cassolettes 408/816 et 1 vase le milieu 480 l. it is particularly interesting to find three vases of this form conceived as a garniture. The vases costing 120 livres were presumably unmounted.
The style of the ormolu mounts on these two vases dates to circa 1785-90 whereas the more eleborately-cast band of the Pavlovsk vase can be dated somewhat earlier to circa 1785. It is thus likely that originally the vases were not conceived as a garniture.
It is interesting to note that Dominique Daguere continued to mount and sell porcelain vases well into the 1790s. In the inventory compiled after his death in 1796, there is listed "XV. Deux vases d'ornement en porcelain de Sèvres gro bleu form ovale allongée avec pieds, culots, anses et gorges à jour de cuivre doré or moulu prisé trois cents francs". The same inventory also lists: "trois moyens et petits vaes de porcelaine de Sèvres gros bleu non montés prisé vingt quatre francs.".
PIERRE-PHILIPPE THOMIRE (1751-1843)
Pierre-Philippe Thomire, the most celebrated bronzier-ciseleur of the Neoclassic period, was born into a family of ciseleurs. He worked initially for the renowned bronziers Pierre Gouthière (1732-1813) and Jean-Louis Prieur (d.circa 1785-1790), ciseleur-doreur du roi, and quickly established a reputation for finely chased gilt bronzes. Thomire was responsible for designing and fitting ormolu mounts at the Sèvres factory after Duplessis's death in 1783. He also often collaborated with Dominique Daguerre.
PAUL I AND MARIA FEODOROVNA
Paul I was born Pavel Petrovich son of Catherine II the Great and Peter III in 1754. Though he was her only son he never developed a close relationship with Catherine the Great, who usurped the throne from her husband and her son in 1762 and never allowed Prince Paul to participate in government affairs. In 1776 Paul married Sophia Dorothea of Würtemberg (1759-1828), who became Maria Feodorovna in Russian. In 1782 the couple made a Grand Tour of Europe under a fictitious name of the Comte and Comtesse du Nord spending considerable time in Paris, where they visited cabinet-makers, marchands merciers and the Sèvres porcelain manufactury. They bought and were given a large number of objects some of which came to decorate a number of Imperial palaces.
The couple had eight children, the oldest of whom Alexander succeeded his father in 1801. Paul I was not well-liked during his brief rule, having alienated the nobility and made unfavorable political maneuvres. A group of high-placed officials and nobles conspired against him with Prince Alexander's approval and assasinated the Czar in his bedroom on 12 March, 1801.
Maria Feodorovna, on the other hand was a well-liked, gentle, educated and refined woman with some considerable artistic talents of her own. She was a good draughtswoman, stone-cutter and gem engraver. A number of portraits in stone intaglios and cameos executed by her are now exhibited at Pavlovsk, along with a selection of furniture pieces that Maria Feodorovna contributed in making. Like her husband, she also participated in the decoration of her residences, having brought from her tour of France a distinct taste for French furniture and objects.
ST. MICHAEL'S CASTLE
Michael Castle, considered by many to be St. Petersburg' most romantic Imperial palace, was built between 1797 and 1800 to the orders of Emperor Paul I and intended to be his main residence. The castle was constructed after the plans of one of Russia's most important architects, Vassily Bazhenov (1737-1799) and for the most part realized by the Italian architect Vincenzo Brenna (1745-1820). Paul I himself is known to have been deeply involved in the evolution of the project. Writer August Kotzebu has left for posterity detailed impressions of the intricate and romantic interiors of this castle. He wrote: "the interior of the palace was a true labyrinth of secret staircases and dark hallways, where light burned day and night..." (quoted from J. Bartenev and V. Batazhkova, Russian Interior Decoration in the Nineteenth Century, 1984, p. 20).
Architecturally the castle both looks back to the classicism of the late eighteenth century conceived by Bazhenov and looks forward to the more grandiose and opulent style of the 19th century as realized by Brenna. The Castle was sumptuously decorated to reflect the glory of its aspiring new Czar. As it took only four years to build and decorated the vast residence, furnishings and decorations were borrowed from other older residences such as the Winter Palace as well as ordered in a hurry from abroad. G. Reimers noted in 1801 that "it would take a whole volume to tell of all that is artistically precious in the rooms of St. Michael's castle, such as for example the mantlepieces mounted with bronzes and lazurite and inlaid with excellent mosaic work, tremendous mirrors, splendid chandeliers and lamps, the most fantastic furniture decorated with ormolu, for the most part of French workmanship; all kinds of decorative furnishings: clocks, girandoles, vases and so on...." (ibid, p. 21)
Paul I moved into the castle on the 1st of February 1801 from the Winter Palace. The Czar's apartments were located in North-West part of the Castle while those of the Empress Maria Feodorovna were in North part. Their apartments were however connected by a secret door from the Czar's bedroom.
After the Czar's assasination most of the furnishings were removed from the castle and divided between the Imperial palaces. In 1822 Michael Castle became a home for the Engeneering School. It continued to house various institutions and offices until very recently when in 1991 it became part of the State Russian Museum complex.
The Gatchina Palace, located 30 miles outside St. Petersburg, was purchased by Catherine II and presented to her lover Prince Gregory Orlov along with a park encompassing 1700 acres in 1766. Built originally to the classical design of Antonio Rinaldi (1709-1796), it was later altered and redecorated by Vincenzo Brenna when Paul I inherited the palace in 1783. At his death in 1801 his son Alexander I came to occupy the palace and it continued to serve as the favored residence of the Russian Czars throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
VINCENZO BRENNA (1745-1820)
Vincenzo Brenna was one of the most important architects to have worked in Russia at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. He began his career there as an assistant to Charles Cameron at Pavlovsk which he later took over and completed. He became Court architect to Paul I for whom he largely rebuilt and redecorated Gatchina Palace and then built St. Michael Castle to Bazhenov's design.