The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is proud to announce the presentation, exclusively in Canada, of the largest Fabergé collection outside of Russia from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond. The exhibition Fabulous Fabergé, Jeweller to the Czars, the first exhibition devoted to Fabergé ever presented in Canada, is running from June 14 to October 5, 2014.
The name of Carl Fabergé (1846-1920), the Russian jeweller who created valuable objects for the Czars Alexander III and Nicholas II, became synonymous with elegant craftsmanship in luxurious jewellery. The House of Fabergé was also associated with the last days of the Russian imperial family and a tragic chapter of history at the start of the twentieth century. The exhibition comprises 240 objects from this exceptional collection, including four of the forty-three remaining famous Easter eggs commissioned by the Romanovs.
« “Its eggs are some of the greatest masterpieces ever created by Fabergé, who was, according to connoisseurs, the world’s most famous goldsmith. The museum’s major works include a small hardstone portrait of a sailor from the imperial yacht Zarnitsa, a very rare picture frame in the shape of a column with a portrait of Nicholas II and another in a star shape with a portrait of Grand Duchess Tatiana, second daughter of the last czar, which may well be the last sad trace of the murder of the entire imperial family at Yekaterinburg in 1918. None of these pieces has ever left American soil.” »
- Dr Géza Von Habsburg, curatorial director of the London-based Fabergé Company, world-renowned expert and author of several books on Fabergé
The exhibition also features a wealth of documentation on the history and traditions of Orthodox Russia, on the techniques of the House of Fabergé and those who forged its works, and on the fall of the czarist regime which brought about that of the jeweller. The enamelled picture frames, the gold jewellery encrusted with precious stones, the miniature hardstone animals, the rock-crystal flower vases, the silverware and the icons give a picture of the luxurious lifestyle of the time of the czars in a layout designed by Hubert Le Gall.
Hubert Le Gall, an internationally famous French designer, creator and sculptor of contemporary art has created layouts for many exhibitions including Mélancolie (2005), Design contre design (2007) and Monet (2010) for the Galeries nationales and Masculin-Masculin at the Musée d’Orsay (2013). The MMFA had already invited him to create the layouts for its exhibitions Édouard Vuillard (2003) and Tiffany (2008-2009).
Hubert Le Gall, an internationally famous French designer, creator and sculptor of contemporary art, was born in 1961. A lover of decorative art, he also creates furniture, carpets, lamps and other decorative objects, either one-of-a-kind or in limited series. His furniture is hybrid, neither artwork nor strictly functional but something of both. He enjoys playing with contrasts and skilfully combines a variety of materials: resin, wood and bronze. Many of his pieces have been purchased by the Musée des Arts Décoratifs de Lille Roubaix and the MMFA, (the latter owns his Chest of Drawers Anthémis (1999). Le Gall was recently commissioned by the firm of Odiot in Paris, and has designed interiors for Christian Dior.
An Exhibition Featuring the Imperial Eggs
The galleries are arranged to provide a rich, varied overview of the works produced in Carl Fabergé’s studios, of the jeweller’s popularity with a discriminating clientele that craved luxury and elegance, and of the way his works reflected and embodied Russian ornamental culture and introduced it to modernism. The visit revolves around four imperial Easter eggs from the Lillian Thomas Pratt collection, a bequest to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Extraordinary achievements of art and craftsmanship, executed in precious metals and inlaid with jewels, Fabergé’s imperial eggs still fascinate the general public. Superbly worked, each one concealing a surprise inside, they were mainly created for the Tsars of Russia, who gave them as Easter gifts to member of their family. Only forty-three of them are still extant.
1. The Easter Egg in the Orthodox Tradition
This pink-gold egg is featured in the first gallery, which is dedicated to the Easter egg tradition in Slavic culture and to Orthodox traditions and icons. Miniature egg pendants were given as gifts at Easter. Fabergé produced these popular good luck charms in large numbers. For the imperial family, the egg was transformed into a small jewel-encrusted sculpture containing miniature paintings and surprises.
Delicate and always elegant, the egg was created in a wide variety of models, using many different materials and techniques. This opens up to reveal eight oval frames bordered with pearls tapering from larger to smaller sizes. Each frame holds a miniature on ivory by the court painter Johannes Zehngraf depicting one of the orphanages or schools patronized by Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna. It also hearkens back to a pagan tradition celebrating the beginning of the seasonal cycle in spring and the rebirth of nature, which Christianity was quick to associate with the mystery of Christ’s resurrection at Easter.
Imperial Pelican Easter Egg
Carl Fabergé (1846-1920), 1897, gold, diamonds, enamel, pearls, ivory, watercolor, glass.
Egg: 10.1 x 5.3 cm. Stand: 6.3 x 6.6 cm.
Fabergé firm, Mikhail Perkhin (workmaster). Miniatures: Johannnes Zehngraf. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Bequest of Lillian Thomas Pratt. Photo Katherine Wetzel © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Miniatures (left to right):
The Elisavetinskii Institute, St. Petersburg (1808), Nikolaevskii Orphanage, St. Petersburg (1837), Ekaterininski Institute, St. Petersburg (1798), The Pavlovskii Institute, St. Petersburg (1853), Smol’nyi Institute, St. Petersburg (1764), The Patriotic Institute, St. Petersburg (1827), Kseniinski Institute, St. Petersburg (1894), Nikolaevskii Orphanage, Moscow (1837)
2. In the Beginning, the Thousand-Year Empire of the Czars
This second gallery explores Fabergé’s production in the context of imperial Russia. He often alludes to the founders of the czars’ empire in his work, in the form of specific references to Peter the Great or Catherine the Great. Fabergé also explored medieval Slavic ornamental traditions, as illustrated by his production of cloisonné enamel decorations, exhibited with other similar objects produced by independent craftsmen or competitors.
Czar Nicholas II gave the Imperial Peter the Great Easter Egg to Czarina Alexandra Feodorovna in 1903 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the founding of Saint Petersburg. On one side is the miniature portrait of Peter the Great and a depiction of his modest log cabin, the city’s first building. On the other side is a portrait of Nicholas II with a miniature painting of the Winter Palace, the official residence of the imperial family. The egg features a miniature replica of the famous equestrian statue of Peter the Great executed by Falconet in 1782 at the request of Catherine the Great.
Imperial Peter the Great Easter Egg
Carl Fabergé (1846-1920), 1903. Egg: gold, platinum, silver gilt, diamonds, rubies, enamel, watercolor, ivory, rock crystal. Surprise: gilt bronze, sapphire
Egg: 12 x 7.9 cm. Surprise: 4,7 x 6,9 cm. Stand: 7,7 x 6,9 cm.
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Bequest of Lillian Thomas Pratt. Photo Katherine Wetzel © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
3. In the Workshops and the Boutique of the House of Fabergé
With this spectacular egg as its focal point, the third gallery – half studio and half boutique – focusses on Fabergé’s process of producing objets d’art, from their manufacture in the workshops to their presentation in shops to attract wealthy customers in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kiev, Odessa and London. It explains the variety of techniques, styles and precious and semi-precious materials used to create the objects and highlights the originality of the forms, subjects and typologies. Comical bestiaries, delicate little flowers, elegant accessories and desk objects reveal the tastes of Fabergé’s clientele at the turn of the twentieth century.
This egg consists of six sections of lapis lazuli decorated in gold with two-headed eagles, winged caryatids, hanging canopies, strap work, floral baskets and sprays disguising the joints. It is set in a base of a large solitaire, and a thin, flat tabular diamond covers the Cyrillic monogram AF (for Alexandra Feodorovna) and the date 1912. Inside the egg is a two-sided portrait of the Cesarevich Alexei at the age of eight painted on ivory, inlaid in a support in the shape of a two-headed eagle encrusted with diamonds, resting on a lapis-lazuli pedestal.
Also presented here is a selection of “Fauxbergés” – iconic fakes created to fool buyers – and works created by other jewellers who were Fabergé’s contemporaries, notably Cartier, to illustrate the rivalry among European designers in the production of luxury items.
Imperial Cesarevich Easter Egg
Carl Fabergé (1846-1920), Fabergé firm, Henrik Wigstrom (workmaster), 1912. Egg: Lapis lazuli, gold, diamonds. Surprise: platinum, lapis lazuli, diamonds, rock crystal, watercolor , ivory.
Egg: 12.3 x 9 cm. Surprise: 9.5 x 6 cm. Stand: 6.6 x 10.4 cm
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Bequest of Lillian Thomas Pratt. Photo Katherine Wetzel © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
4. Fabergé, Jeweller to the Last Czars
The fourth and final gallery is dedicated to Fabergé’s role in the intimate daily lives of the Romanovs during the reign of the last czar, Nicholas II, his wife, Alexandra, and their children, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, and Cesarevich Alexei. Works whose imperial provenance has been certified are presented here in an architectural setting that con- veys the Romanovs’ isolation from the turbulent currents of history, a sort of “golden cage.” These works reveal a united, loving family but one that was probably too far removed from the taste for politics and the real aspirations of Russian society of their time. They evoke the 1910s, the childhood of the Grand Duchesses and the Cesarevich, the atmosphere in the imperial palaces, as well as the first rumblings of revolution and the outbreak of World War I – a conflict that would propel the Romanovs to their tragic destiny, driven from power and then executed together, along with their physician and servants, one July morning in 1918.
A gift from Nicholas II to his mother, Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, this egg pays tribute to the Empress’s presidency of the Russian Red Cross during World War I. The egg contains a hinged folding screen holding portraits of her daughter-in-law, Empress Alexandra, her two elder daughters, Olga and Tatiana, and two other close relatives, all wearing the habit of the Sisters of Mercy.
Imperial Red Cross Easter Egg with Portraits
Carl Fabergé (1846-1920), Fabergé firm, Henrik Wigstrom (workmaster), 1915. Egg: gold, silver gilt, enamel, velvet. Surprise: mother-of-pearl, watercolor, ivory, glass
Egg: 7.6 x 6 cm. Miniatures: 4.9 x 19 x 0.6 cm. Stand: 5,87 x 7,46
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Bequest of Lillian Thomas Pratt. Photo Katherine Wetzel © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
The House of Fabergé
Carl Fabergé: the tragic story of an incomparable jeweller
Carl Fabergé was born in 1846. Born of a Huguenot family who had fled the France of Louis XIV for Russia, a man of boundless imagination, multiple talents and a keen business instinct, Carl Fabergé (1846-1920) became the jeweller and goldsmith to the imperial court of Russia, creating for the nobility innumerable exquisite pieces of jewellery and precious objects, including the legendary series of sumptuous and ingenious imperial eggs. His international reputation soon attracted a clientele of other royal families, aristocrats, magnates and the artistic elite of Paris, Moscow, Saint Petersburg and London.
To understand the aura of luxury and refinement that surrounds these objects, we must learn about Fabergé’s tireless quest for perfection and his astute marketing strategies. In the back rooms of the elegant salons of the firm in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, hundreds of goldsmiths, enamellers, stone carvers and lapidaries recruited from among the most skilled in Russia worked at creating unique pieces of extraordinary complexity, almost impossible to imitate.
Honours accumulated in rapid succession between 1883 and 1910: the title of Supplier by Special Appointment to the Imperial Court and the first commission of an imperial Easter egg (1885); a Gold Medal hors concours at the Universal Exposition in Paris (1900); and the titles of Jeweller to the Court and Manufacturing Councillor (1910). This continuous string of recognitions in Russia and abroad was paralleled by the opening of branches in Moscow (1887), Odessa (1901), London (1903) and Kiev (1906-1910).
Highlights marking Fabergé’s exceptional career include the 1896 coronation ceremonies, for which he supplied many of the finest gifts; the 1903 imperial costume ball and the jewels that he created for Czarina Alexandra Feodorovna, wife of Nicholas II, and no doubt many other courtiers; and the 1913 Romanov Tercentenary celebration, which, with its large number of orders, was the culminating and last major event of Romanov rule.
In 1914, Russia entered World War I, and many of Fabergé’s craftsmen were enlisted. The firm itself was obliged to produce base-metal objects and hand grenades. Fabergé, forestalling the ominous end, converted the business into a joint stockholding company in 1916. In 1917 the Russian Revolution put an abrupt end to the reign of the Romanovs and the House of Fabergé. The Bolsheviks seized their workshops and also all the treasures they contained. Finally, in 1920, he fled, handing the keys of his premises to a member of the city’s Hermitage Museum.
Within forty years of its humble beginnings, Carl Fabergé’s firm had eclipsed all local competition, acquiring world fame. The great craftsman died in Switzerland as a refugee in 1920, some say of a broken heart. Today, he is arguably the most famous jeweller of all time. The prestige of the firm, synonymous with luxury and expertise, declined in the course of the 20th century. 2013 saw the opening of an impressive Fabergé Museum in Saint Petersburg in the Shuvalov Palace by a Russian magnate who had purchased the entire Forbes collection among others.
Edited by Dr. Géza von Habsburg, Fabergé Revealed at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is a major 422-page catalogue that presents the exhaustive collection from Richmond with some 600 photographs. In addition to entries on Fabergé’s works, “Fauxbergés” and other contemporary Russian decorative arts objects, it contains essays by experts that provide new information on the jeweller, his techniques and his creations.
Available at the Museum’s Boutique-Bookstore
To coincide with this exhibition, the MMFA has published, in collaboration with the French magazine L’Objet d’art , a special issue on the exhibition featuring the main works in the collection and an interview with Dr. Géza von Habsburg.It also includes a history of the House of Fabergé, with illustrations of all the imperial Easter eggs, and examines the mystique of Fabergé today. Featuring 96 pages and 120 illustrations, it is available in English and French.
Available at the Museum’s Boutique-Bookstore
Acknowledgements and Curatorial Staff
The exhibition is organized by Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, in collaboration with the MMFA. It was unveiled at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 2011 and circulated to the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, in 2013 by its director Alex Nyerges, with the assistance of Robin Nicholson, Deputy Director for Art and Education at the VMFA, and Barry Shifman, Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Decorative Arts, 1890 to the Present at the VMFA. In Montreal, the exhibition curators are Diane Charbonneau and Sylvain Cordier, under the direction of Nathalie Bondil.