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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.