Ivory carving from walrus and mammoth tusks has long been a tradition within popular Russian folk art since the Middle Ages, originating in the northern regions but enjoying greater popularity in the second half of the 18th century. Several production centers of ivory carving were known at the time. These included Kholmogory, Archangelsk, Moscow and St. Petersburg. In the second half of the 18th century the best craftsmen migrated to St. Petersburg to practice their skills, producing mostly small items such as caskets, work boxes, toilet boxes and combs. The wealthier clientele also commissioned miniature cabinets, toilet tables and bureau cabinets. The Czars long patronized this specifically Russian craft and numerous pieces are still to be found in Russian museums and Imperial palaces.
Carved ivory objects from the Archangelsk province of this highly sophisticated three-dimensional design and large size are extremely unusual. The present lot is a rare, large-scale example of the finest quality. A closely comparable vase by Vereshchagin, lacking its cover, has been in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg since 1796 (see Decorative Arts in the Hermitage, 1968, no. 248). The lower body on the Hermitage vase is almost identical to that found on the present lot. Another very closely related vase by Vereshchagin with areas of identical carving is illustrated in I. N. Ukhanova, Bone Carvings in Russia in the 18th-19th Century, 1981, p. 94-5.
The profile cameo medallions which decorate the upper portions of these vases are characteristic of the taste of the Russian Court in the late 18th century. Maria Feodorovna's favorite occupation was engraving cameos and intaglios and chose her models from among her family, including Catherine the Great, her husband Grand Duke Pavel Petrovich, and her children. Catherine was particularly fond of cameos and had copies made of her daughter-in-law's works in glass or jasperware. The Russian collections at Pavlovsk include not only numerous cameos from the Hermitage workshop and those by Maria Feodorovna herself, but also furniture and decorative objects which incorporate this particular taste for cameos. (See A.V. Alexeieva et. al., Pavlovsk: The Collections, Paris, 1993, pp. 9-19).