Exhibition Hopping – Part II

Fabulous Fabergé, Jeweller to the Czars – Musee de Beaux-Arts de Montreal  

As I mentioned in a previous post this exhibition, which ends October 5, is a marvel on several levels.  The objects – most from the Lillian Thomas Pratt Collection in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts – are remarkable in both imagination, design and workmanship.  And Hubert Le Gall’s exhibition design is an ingenuous, imaginative and witty evocation of the bibelots and kickshaw of Imperial Russia that doesn’t ignore the darker side of history.

The first room reflects the strong Orthodox believes of Russia and her Imperial Family. Traditional Easter eggs are on display, But what Easter eggs: suspended or cupped miniatures made from or encrusted with gemstones from the semiprecious to diamonds. A golden iconostasis-like wall houses icons, precious both for their religious significance and the artistry in their creation.

This miniature Easter egg pendent is only one of a glorious series in the first room of the exhibition. It was created in the Fabergé workrooms around 1900 using enamel with gold accents.

The Iverskaya Mother of God was particularly venerated in Russia and many legends grew up around the healing powers of the icon. The Virgin has a scar on her cheek inflicted by a soldier sent to destroy the original icon. The Fabergé setting for this copy is mounted on silver gilt and accented withe silver, garnets, sapphires, topaz, zircon, diamonds and pearls.

Citrine, gold, silver, enamel and a circle of diamonds create this extraordinary egg pendant from the Fabergé workshop.

The shadows of the second room evokes the symbols and history of the Romanov dynasty. The cases hold personal items that were meant for everyday use but still intended to show the wealth and standing of the Imperial court. Designer Hubert Le Gall’s concept captured many of the contrasting aspects of Fabergé’s relationship with the Imperial Family and the beau monde of the period.

Today Fabergé is chiefly thought of as the maker of the elaborate Easter Eggs that were presented by the Csar to his wife each Easter from 1885 until 1917.  It was a tradition began by Alexander III who presented Maria Feodorovna with the Imperial Hen Egg in 1885.  After his father’s death Nicholas II  continued the custom and every Easter presented one to his wife Alexandra as well as to his mother the Dowager Empress.  Of the fifty-two Imperial Eggs created by the Fabergé workshop five are in the Lillian Thomas Pratt collection.  Each of the exhibition rooms features one of the five; the most elaborate being the Peter the Great that is displayed in the second room.

The Imperial Peter the Great Easter Egg was presented to Empress Alexandra Feodorovna by Czar Nicholas II in 1903. It was created to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the founding of Saint Petersburg. Workmaster Mikhail Perkhin used gold, platinum, silver gilt, diamonds, rubies, enamel, watercolour, ivory, rock crystal, gilt bronze and sapphires in its creation.

The Egg features watercolour portraits of Peter the Great and Tzar Nicolas II and of the first wooden structure built in Saint Petersburg and the Hermitage – all surrounded by elaborate (and perhaps subconscious) reminders that the city was built on a swamp. When opened a miniature of Falconet’s The Bronze Horseman raises out of the shell – the Thunder Stone is carved from an unfinished sapphire.

The story of how Lillian Thomas Pratt came to acquire this  treasure has become legend and as with many legends it’s a bit difficult to separate the truth from the elaboration.  The story was that she outbid many richer women and then proceeded to pay for it clandestinely out of her household money so her husband wouldn’t find out is colourful if apocryphal.  Mrs Pratt’s wealth was modest when compared with many of the other collectors but her husband John Lee Pratt  supported her passion for Fabergé and Russian objects.  She did indeed outbid several people for the Egg and paid À la Vieille Russie the $108,534.00 it cost in thirty-three monthly installments.  I’m not sure if – as another version has it – she paid for many of her purchases using her Lord and Taylor’s credit card but it is highly possible.

This attractive hare in silver and gold with garnet eyes is a pitcher created in the Fabergé Moscow workshop sometime before 1899.

These remarkable parasol handles were the work of two of Fabergé’s renowned workmasters: Mikhail Perkhin (left) and Erik Kollin (right).

Many households would display sets of demitasse spoons bearing the hallmark of Fabergé; this set in silver, silver gilt and enamel were made between 1908-1917.

I found the silver and gold Kovsh of the Worthy Knights even more remarkable than the Imperial Easter Eggs. The enormous drinking vessel honoured the bogatyri or mythical medieval warriors who founded the first empire of the Csars.

Though the Imperial Easter Eggs may be the most famous pieces it should not be forgotten that Fabergé created all manner of objects – practical and ornamental.  Many of the pieces that came out of his workshop on Bolshaia Morskaia were available to even people with modest incomes.  And the House was famous for its enamels and silverware as well as its work in precious and semi-precious stones.

Meant to reflect the Faberge workrooms the curved tables – modeled on the worktables at the studio – allowed a closer look at some of the trifles created to amuse and astound the Court and impress visitors. A few of the items are from other jewellers but reflect the influence of Carl Fabergé‘s workshop on the art of jewellry making throughout Europe.

What can I say – even if the Romanov’s sometimes when over the top with blinge they had good taste in dogs.  Many of the little knickknacks created for them and their family indicate that the dachshund was a favoured family animal.

This French bell pull was created in the Cartier studios around 1915; crafted in silver, gold, silver gilt, ivory, smoky quartz, enamel, rubies, garnets and pearls it shows the Fabergé influence at work in France.

Made of smokey agate with ruby eyes this little fellow is said to have graced a mantel in the apartments of the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna in the Antichkov Palace.

Nose to the ground, tracking a prey this little dachshund is crafted in agate again the eyes being inset rubies. The exact provenance is unknown as the object is unmarked. Despite his questionable pedigree he’s still a very attractive little lad.


The fourth room is the darkest on many levels – it is crowded with memories of the Romanov family: framed portraits, the Red Cross Egg and personal items.  And lurking in the background is the unrest, the poverty, the vast inequalities of life in Csarist Russia.

The Imperial Red Cross Easter Egg was given to the Dowager Empress in 1915 in recognition of her work as president of the Russian Red Cross. It contained portraits of members of her family who served in the Red Cross tending the War wounded and dying in the hospital established by the Empress in the Alexander Palace.

Workmaster Mikhail Perkhin‘s created numerous frames for the Imperial photographs. This star frame in gold, silver, enamel and seed pearls holds a portrait of the second daughter, the Grand Duchess Tatiana. It was taken by the Csar and Empress to Yekaterinburg and is the only thing that is known to have survived the events of 1918.

It has a rather chilling effect after all the light and sparkle of the geegawgery of the previous displays.  However it puts a personal face on the people for who much of these extravagances were created.  It gives the impression of a family that for all their faults and foibles cared for each other.  And it leads to final Fabergé piece in the exhibition: the Star Frame.  This is the only object taken into exile by Nicolas and Alexandra that is known to have survived.

The room in the basement of the Ipatiev House where the Imperial Family was ruthlessly butchered on July 17, 1918. It had become a clandestine pilgrimage site so was demolished in 1977. In July 2003 the Church on the Blood was consecrated on the site.

As you leave the exhibition there is one final image: the room where the family was assassinated in Yekaterinburg. History records that the jewels hidden in the corsets of the Empress and Grand Duchesses acted as body armour with bullets ricocheting but not penetrating; in the end the death squad used bayonets and gun butts.  It is not known as fact but can be assumed that some of the jewellery that prolonged their death agonies came from the workshops of Carl Fabergé.

Many of the photographs I have used in this post come from the catalogue for Fabulous Fabergé, Jeweller to the Czars published by the MBAM and VMFA and from the MBAM members publications.  I suggest looking at their website for more objects and fascinating information on the exhibition.  I am only sorry I wasn’t able to get down for a second look – I know I missed things the first time around.

September 27 – 1777: Lancaster, Pennsylvania is the capital of the United States, for one day.

Author: Willym

A senior with the heart of a young'un

2 thoughts on “Exhibition Hopping – Part II”

  1. Thanks for the excellent overview of the exhibit. Wish it were here longer so I could also pay a second visit.


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