Fabergé: The Imperial Jeweller
The Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria, marked the 90th anniversary of the Austro-Russian Cultural Seasons (2013-2015) and the 525th anniversary of the first diplomatic contacts between Moscow and Vienna, by dedicating an extensive exhibition from February 18 to May 18, 2014, to showcase the works of Carl Fabergé, the period’s leading and most influential Russian jeweller, and the decorative arts in Imperial Russia at the turn of the 20th century. Curated by Paulus Rainer of Vienna and Tatjana Muntian of Moscow, the collections were loaned from two of Moscow’s largest museums – the Moscow Kremlin and the Fersman Mineralogical Museum.
The House of Fabergé crafted the most outstanding jewellery pieces – a combination of imagination and expert craftsmanship using the best of materials. This is particularly true for objects created for members of the Imperial Russian family after 1885, the year Fabergé received a Royal Warrant.
In 1872, Peter Carl Fabergé took over the company from his father, and began to restore historical gold and silver artefacts in the Hermitage Museum, and to assist in the new installation of the Imperial Treasury. This careful study of historical jewellery and goldsmith work may be the reason why the family firm evolved from a jeweller to a company celebrated for their objets d’art. In addition to these artefacts, Fabergé is well-known for the Imperial Easter eggs that Peter Carl Fabergé and his craftsmen created for the Russian Imperial family – one of the reasons why he was known as the “Cellini of the North”.
FABERGÉ EASTER EGGS
Fabergé created his first Easter egg in 1885 for the wife of Emperor Alexander II, Empress Maria Feodorovna (born Princess Dagmar of Denmark). It was
inspired by an early 18th century Easter egg now in the Danish Royal collection. Two similar baroque eggs have also survived, one of them in the Kunstkammer in Vienna. These golden eggs contain an enamelled hen in a nest made of brilliants. The hen, in turn, contains a crown that holds a ring.
Fabergé created a gold egg covered in white enamel enclosing a hen, a crown and a small ruby egg. Emperor Alexander III and his wife, Empress Maria Feodorovna, loved the “Jewelled Hen” egg, and each Easter they commissioned a new egg from Fabergé. So at the start of each Holy Week, the owner of the House of Fabergé would present his Imperial patrons with a new egg, surprising them again and again with unusual subject matters and his virtuosity. Following the death of Emperor Alexander III, his son and heir, Emperor Nicholas II, ordered two eggs each year: one for the Dowager-Empress, Maria Feodorovna, and one for his wife, Alexandra Feodorovna. Each egg had to be different from its predecessor, surpassing it in terms of inventiveness, composition and unusual design. In all, Fabergé created around 50 Easter eggs for the Imperial family, 42 of which have survived.
The exhibition included four eggs: the “Memory of Azov” egg of 1891, the “Trans-Siberian Railway” egg, which contains a miniature working model of a train of the Trans-Siberian Railway (1900), the large “The Moscow Kremlin” egg, and the “Constellation” egg, which features the
Tsarevich’s star sign; this was the last egg ever begun by Fabergé but events in the course of the Great War and the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in February 1917 prevented its completion. This egg featuring the star sign of the doomed Crown Prince is a poignant symbol of the fall of the House of Romanov.
Imperial Memorabilia & Hardstone Carving
In addition to the four Easter eggs by Fabergé, the exhibition showcased personal objects that belonged to members of the Russian Imperial family. Among them were precious objects for everyday use such as cigarette cases, objects to be placed on a writing desk, seals and fans. However, a particular focus of this exhibition is on a section of the decorative arts-production that flourished at this exalted level only in Russia: hardstone carving.
Thus the exhibition draws a line from the Russian to other imperial collections, especially the Kunstkammer Vienna. Hardstone carving was much admired
and collected in Kunstkammer by the 16th and 17th century princely connoisseurs; however, this genre retained its popularity only in Russia, and the objects produced in the Imperial-Russian manufactories at Petergof and Yekaterinburg in the 19th century were greatly admired all over the world. Peter Carl Fabergé opened his own stonecutting workshop at St. Petersburg. It produced precious vessels but also animal figures cut from semi-precious stones that were popular presents at court and in society, the choice of animal reflecting the recipient’s appearance or character.
Over 30 of these small hardstone sculptures depicting animals, plants or people were on show in the exhibition; they were produced either in the Imperial stone carving workshops or by the house of Fabergé.
ENAMELS & JEWELERY
Another section of the show focuses on Fabergé’s enamel work, celebrated for its
virtuosity, and the firm’s sumptuous jewellery. Only a handful of the latter has survived in Russia; most were broken or reworked, and many of the precious stones reset. A rare exception is the hoard of magnificent pieces of jewellery discovered by chance in the 1990s during rebuilding work in a Moscow house. We now know that they were hidden by one of the directors of the holding company C. Fabergé; this is how they survived the turmoil of the 20th century. These rare artefacts were on show in the exhibition, together with other magnificent examples of Russian goldsmith work.
The exhibition documented that Fabergé’s fame was buttressed not only by his Easter eggs but also by his wide range of fine goldsmith work, making him Russia’s leading jeweller at the turn of the 20th century.