Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Thoughts on the Art of Faberge

Visiting the Cleveland Museum of Art last week has really gotten me interested in Faberge items. There is a small "room" at the museum devoted entirely to The India Early Minshall Collection of pieces from the House of Faberge. I knew about the Easter Eggs, but didn't realize that Faberge made other jewels. Also, I didn't realize that there were so few eggs. It seemed a little disappointing while there at the size of the collection and the lack of eggs --- only to come home and start reading to find out that The Cleveland Collection is actually a very fine one, and one of the most well-rounded examples of Faberge's work! In fact, Cleveland is even the owner of an Imperial Egg. Unfortunately, that egg was not on display (I wonder why not?), but we were able to see pictures on their online catalogue.

So, this has inspired me to do a little reading, in order to better appreciate the collection that we saw. I ordered in some books from the library and have been reading through those and searching online articles, too. Very interesting. To quote from one of the books: "One surprising fact about Faberge's work is that no design or even finished work from his own hand is known to exist. Our knowledge of what constitutes the Faberge style can be based only on the production of the Faberge workshops."

That statement really surprised me. Still more interesting than that is the fact that, in the heyday of the House of Faberge, more than 500 people were employed there! Above are views of the exterior and interior of the St. Petersburg shop.

Reading about each individual egg reveals that different artist
s (many of them) worked on the different eggs. That was an amazing collection of talent that was hidden under one man's name. What seemed so cool to me is the fact that each Imperial Egg was such a personal gift. These weren't, as so often implied, just lavish trinkets belonging to the Russian Zsars and their Zsarinas that were nothing than mere show of wealth and social status. When you actually read what each egg represents, it is obvious that these were thoughtful gifts. They were also not the most expensive jewels purchased by Nicholas II. They were exactly what they appear to be: the Royal version of an Easter Egg. To spotlight a few of my favorites:

The Mosaic Egg, given to Alexandra by Nicholas II for Easter 1914. This egg is made to resemble Petit Point embroidery, and is now in Queen Elizabeth II's collection. The surprise is a miniature frame with relief portraits of Nicholas and Alexandra's five children in a pink and white cameo-look setting. The back of the frame is enameled with a basket of flowers and framed by the names of the Romanov children.

The Pansy Egg, is carved from green-colored Nephrite set in a silver gilt base decorated in diamonds. This was given by Nicholas II to his Mother, the Dowager Empress for Easter 1899. The egg opens to reveal a folding easel of white enamel. Eleven miniature portraits are hidden by red lids, and when opened reveal images of the Empress's children and grandchildren.

The Lilies of the Valley Egg, was the Easter present for Alexandra in 1898 and is one of the most famous. Not without just cause, either. It is a pink enameled egg, sitting on gold legs, and covered in pearls of all sizes. The surprise in this one is a little set of tiny portraits that "pop" out of the top of the egg when a knob is released. Represented in the paintings are the Tsar and their two oldest daughters, Olga and Tatiana.

The Winter Egg, is the 1913 Easter gift to the Dowager Empress from her son and was the most expensive Easter Egg at 24,700 rubels. Well worth it, in my opinion! The egg itself is made of quartz and platinum and studded with 1,660 diamonds. Not to mention the little surprise: a flower basket, set with 1,378 diamonds, and made of platinum and gold. What a gift.

The Spring Flowers Egg, a gift from Alexander III to his wife somewhere between 1891-1899. This is a simply breath-taking and certainly one of my favorites. The red-enameled egg sits on a stand of gold and green set with diamonds. The jewel-studded flower basket is the hidden surprise, and apparently can be removed from the egg --- if so desired. Interesting tidbit: this is one of the few Faberge Eggs to still have its original case!


Now that you've seen my favorites, back to a few more interesting facts. The eggs made for the Easters during the First World War, were "economy style". They lacked the precious jewels, the ostentatious design and often, the precious metal. Two of the eggs were made with a "Red Cross" theme, and it is one of these gems that is owned by the Cleveland Museum. Can't wait until it's back on display.

One of the most interesting war-time eggs, to me, was The Steel Military Egg. This was a gift from Nicholas to Alexandra for Easter 1916, the last year that the Zsar was in power. The outside of the egg is made of steel, trimmed in gold, and coated in enamel. This impressive example of art is standing on a base of Jade and supported by four legs made of steel artillery shells. The inside of the egg is covered in silk and velvet and houses a steel easel that boasts a miniature watercolor on ivory painting of Nicholas II at the Front. What an ingenious way to deal with wartime shortages.

So, what happened to the Easter Eggs for 1917? Nicholas II had a standing order for two eggs every year --- one for his mother and one for Alexandra. Then, on March 15, Nicholas abdicated as Zsar of All the Russias. Faberge had already completed the egg for the Dowager Empress, so he sent this to the palace and demanded payment from Nicholas. This was The Karelian Birch Egg, and cost 12,500 rubles. This is the only egg made of an organic substance as the primary material. The Grand Duchess never received this egg, and it was lost from 1927 until 2001.

The final Imperial Easter Egg was called The Constellation Egg, and would have been the present for Alexandra. The egg was made of Lapis Lazuli and Crystal and was supposed to have a clock inside. Nothing more was known about this egg until the later 1990s when the design was published. The owner of the "Faberge Museum' in Germany owns what he, and experts, believe to be The Constellation Egg (below left). It is complete except for the angels floating in the clouds that form the base for the egg. Also, in 2001, the Fersman Mineralogical Museum in Russia claims to have found the unfinished egg in their collection (below right). More experts believe that this is the real egg. So, one of them must be it, but it's up to anybody to form their own opinion of which one is genuine. My guess would be that the first one that is in Russia looks more like a prototype, especially since it does not look as much like the drawing. Also, the one at the "Faberge Museum" is almost complete, which makes much more sense since it would have needed to be finished in a few weeks time. But, I'm far from an expert!

So, this is what I've been thinking about lately. I think that there's nothing quite like these eggs, and it kind of appeals to the 'fairy-tale lover' inside of me. The World doesn't produce beauty in art like this anymore. How amazing to be able to get a glimpse of an era that's gone forever.
More later.

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