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A pair of magnificent imperial porcelain vases, imperial porcelain

  • GBR
  • 2013-11-26
About the object
Of bandeau form with cylindrical necks and flared feet, on square gilt-bronze bases, the central panels painted after mid-17th century Dutch or Flemish Old Master genre scenes of musical gatherings, the first depicting The Concert by Anthonie Palamedes, signed lower right in Cyrillic 'Golov', the second with an unidentified picture, signed lower right in Cyrillic 'Meshcheriakov', within ciselé gilt frames, the bodies and rims with raised and gilt neoclassical friezes comprising acanthus, anthemia, rosettes and arches on purple grounds, the sides and backs painted en grisaille with an undulating band of conjoined acanthus swirls on black grounds, the four sections of the bodies joined by gilt-bronze rings cast with further neoclassical ornament, the scroll handles issuing from acanthus leaf brackets and terminating in seed pods, one vase with blue underglaze cipher of Nicholas I and date 1833
Porcelain Production during the Reign of Emperor Nicholas I The first thing always said about the large-scale porcelain vases produced by the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory during the reign of Emperor Nicholas I (r. 1825-1855) is that they represent the pinnacle of porcelain production in Russia.  That this view is often repeated makes it no less worth stating and is especially true of this pair of magnificent vases.  Produced earlier than most examples, incorporating rare decorative elements including the striking purple ground and the monochromatic band of acanthus swirls, and with especially well-executed reproductions of Old Master paintings, these vases rank among the very best, most desirable examples of their type.
Under Nicholas I, who was an enthusiastic patron of the arts and had a particular interest in the production of his porcelain manufactory, technical and artistic advances were encouraged.  Previously, Russian porcelain consisted entirely of Russian clay, following the decree of the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna who founded the Imperial factory in 1744 and insisted that the porcelain produced should be entirely ‘of Russian earth’.  Nicholas I, not remembered by history for progressive views in his political thinking, was broad-minded enough to allow the addition of Limoges clay to the paste.  This allowed for larger, sturdier wares to be fired.  A new, expanded palette, which included lead-based fluxes and oxide tints, meant a wider variety of colours and shades.  There were advances in firing techniques and gilding processes.  Artists imported from the Sèvres manufactory in the previous reign were training and sharing their skills with a new generation of talented painter-decorators.  The rampant building of palaces in St Petersburg and the surrounding area created demand, augmenting the Emperor’s patronage.  Finally, the Emperor let it be known that he had very high expectations of the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory.
The monumental vases produced during this time were often presented to the Emperor himself, either at Easter or New Year; ten vases of various sizes were presented to him at Easter in 1835 alone.  The marriages of his three daughters beginning in 1839 meant vast dowries, which included large vases.  Furnishing the palaces of his four sons provided further impetus for production and presentation.  Other high-ranking Russians were honoured or thanked for their services with porcelain gifts.  Large-scale vases were often given to foreign ambassadors serving in Russia or sent abroad as diplomatic presentation gifts to foreign rulers and dignitaries, in part to promote the Imperial manufactory in foreign markets.  The fact that these vases appeared at the Munich dealer Bernheimer in the late 1920s suggests that they were among the treasures from various Russian palaces and museums exported and sold on the antiques market by the Soviet government during this time, although no documentation in this case has come to light.
The Reproduction of Old Master Paintings onto Porcelain Vases
The reproduction of paintings onto porcelain had begun at the Sèvres manufactory, thereafter spreading to Berlin.  It was first practiced in Russia during the reign of Alexander I and gained momentum during that of Nicholas I, becoming something of a Russian specialty which lasted well into the reign of Alexander II.  ‘Nowhere else in Europe… were so many paintings copied on vases for as long a duration as in Russia.  Russian vases, with their paintings fully framed in tooled gold, took on the aspect of a small-scale moveable picture gallery’ (A. Odom, ‘Paintings on Porcelain Vases at Hillwood’, Antiques, March 2003, p. 134).  Vases became magnificent surrounds on which to display important or popular two-dimensional works of art, an inventive and successful amalgamation of the fine and decorative arts.  Old Master pictures were favoured, in keeping with the Emperor’s taste, though contemporary works, both Russian and European, were also copied.  Works from the Hermitage, the Winter Palace, Peterhof, Tsarskoe Selo and the Academy of Arts provided a wealth of source material for the painter-decorators.
The process of copying a painting onto porcelain was laborious and complicated and could take up to six months to complete.  Often the paintings were first copied onto canvas, assisting the porcelain painter in manipulating the perspective to avoid distortion on the final curved surface.  Paintings were either brought to the factory for copying, or the painter-decorators worked in a room at the Hermitage specially reserved for the purpose.  Remarkable precision was achieved, artistic liberties discouraged.
The painting reproduced onto one of the present vases is The Concert by Dutch Golden Age painter Anthonie Palamedes (1601-1673).  It presents an interior view of well-heeled music enthusiasts seated at a table and discussing a musical manuscript; a lute rests nearby, whilst a couple in the back are engaged in their own, presumably more private conversation; a manservant pours a drink.  Archival records discovered by Dr Ekaterina Khmelnitskaya, curator of Russian porcelain at the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, confirm that The Concert was sent from the Hermitage to the Imperial Porcelain Factory for copying in 1832.  The painting remains in the collection of the Hermitage today (inv. no. 897).
In contrast, the other vase is painted with an outdoor scene of less well-to-do subjects, also seated at a table, one of whom is playing the cello, another looking directly at the viewer; a man and woman converse over manuscripts; another woman examines a glass.  The source painting of this second vase is unknown; it is certainly not in the collection of the Hermitage today.  It is not usual for a source painting to be unidentified.  As many of the copied pictures were sent to provincial collections in the 19th century or sold off in the 1920s and 30s, the porcelain reproduction is often all that remains as a historical record.  It is suggested here that this painting may be the work of Gillis van Tilborch (c1625-c1678), a Flemish Baroque genre painter who specialised in group portraits.  There are similarities with his work Boors Eating Drinking and Smoking Outside a Cottage (1657), notably the depiction of the architecture, and his The Lounge Bar (1657), notably his treatment of the ceramic ewer on the floor in front of the table.  Another possible author of the original painting is David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690), under whom van Tilborch may have studied.  Of course, the original painting may have been another work by Palamedes, as naturally pendant vases were often made with reproductions of two works by the same artist, but this scene appears inconsistent with his known oeuvre.
The Painter-Decorators Semyon Golov and Vasili Meshcheriakov
Semyon Golov (c1783-1849) was first employed by the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory in 1814, having studied in the factory school under A. Adam, and became a master in 1819.  He specialised in the copying of historical works and figure painting.  His contemporary, Vasili Meshcheriakov (born 1781), also studied under Adam and became an illustrator in 1804, a painter in 1808, and master in 1819; he was dismissed in 1846.  Both artists are regarded as the most gifted copyists of their generation.
The painting of the present pair of vases is one of several known collaborations of Golov and Meshcheriakov, with each painting one of a pair of vases.  This was common practice at the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory; two artists working simultaneously on a pair would allow for orders to be filled faster.  The closest comparables to the present lot painted by Golov and Meshcheriakov are the pair in the Hermitage, dated 1831.  These blue-ground vases, of the same form and size as those of the present lot, were presented to the Emperor at Easter in 1831 (one illustrated, N. von Wolf, ed. V. Znamenov, Imperatorskii farforovyi zavod, 1744-1904, 2008, p. 319).  Perhaps their earliest collaboration occurred during the reign of Alexander I; the pair of vases painted with a Russian dance and peasant wedding are dated 1815-1825 (illustrated, ibid, p. 490).  Another pair is dated to the late 1820s and painted with allegories of Music and The Arts in the collection at Pavlosk (illustrated, ibid, p. 257); yet another pair of smaller vases is at Peterhof and dated 1826 (illustrated, ibid, p. 491).  A pair of campana-form vases, like those of the present lot dated 1833, are painted with two Dutch genre scenes, one of which is The Oyster Eaters by Gabriel Metsu, the other of an unidentified painting of a music lesson (see Christie’s London, 12 June 1997, lot 92).  A pair of vases painted after works by Angelica Kaufmann can be dated circa 1825-1830 (see Figure XX; one vase sold, Sotheby’s Geneva, 26 November 1982, lot 283; the other vase sold, Sotheby’s Geneva, 1 May 1985, lot 557).  Another pair of small vases, painted after or in the manner of Kaufmann and dated circa 1830, also bears both Golov’s and Meshcheriakov’s signatures (see Figure XX; sold, Sotheby’s New York, 16 April 2007, lot 112).

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