For the past 160 years this exquisite and rare pair of palace vases has graced the home of a German Princely family. The fragile porcelain has survived through the centuries in almost perfect condition and now, for the first time ever, it is being offered on the international art market.
Grand palace vases featuring reproductions of paintings are considered to be the finest works produced by the Imperial Porcelain Factory. Such vases were intended as magnificent surrounds for the Old Master works, which decorated their façades, and although the Imperial Porcelain Factory had begun producing them in the time of Alexander I, the heyday of this type of decoration was the reign of Nicholas I (fig.1.). During this time the best examples of palace vases were produced, remarkable not only for their grand size but also for the particular finesse in execution of ornamental elements.
The offered vases, decorated with scaled-down versions of paintings by the Dutch Old Master Jacob van Loo (1614-1670), are exceptional examples of their type. Their form, known as fuseau (spindle) or bandeau, was one of two used at the time for vases painted with copies of two-dimensional works. The term bandeau refers to the main body, which resembles a wide ring and sits atop a second crater-shaped section.
The ormolu bands, which visually link the collar, shoulders, base and foot, are also an important element in the overall appearance of the vases. Imperial Factory had a workshop dedicated to production of bronze bands and the gilt-bronze plinths supporting the pair. The vases' imperial grandeur manifests itself not only in their scale, but also in the quality of their decoration. The use of both matte and gloss gilt, elaborately ciselé with ornamental eagles flanking the lyre in two colours, lends them a special opulence. The relief work on the base, neck and feet gives the vases a distinctly classical appearance, which is further complemented by the elegant form of the handles, which are finely moulded with acanthus leaves and pine cones.
Jacob van Loo (Vanloo) was a Flemish painter who is considered one of the Dutch Masters of the 17th century. He is best known for his conversational groupings such as the one reproduced on the offered pair, his use of a subtle colour palette and his nudes. Although very little is known about van Loo's early history due to the destruction of the city archives in Sluis during World War II, it is believed that he received his early artistic training from his father who was also a painter. In 1642, van Loo moved to Amsterdam, where his contemporaries included Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Bartholomeus van der Helst. In 1660 van Loo was forced to flee the city after fatally stabbing someone during an inn brawl. He was sentenced to death in absentia which forever prevented his return to Holland. The last ten years of his life van Loo spent in Paris where he was admitted to the Académie de peinture et de sculpture. Van Loo worked in the Baroque style, which was very popular throughout Europe during this period and his influence can be seen in art of many Flemish painters, including Johannes Vermeer. Jacob Van Loo was the founder of the van Loo family of painters, and one of his sons Louis Abraham and two grandsons Jean-Baptiste and Charles-Andre followed in his footsteps and became painters.
The originals by van Loo were amongst the earliest acquisitions by Catherine the Great for the Hermitage collection (Permissive Old Woman – inv. No. ГЭ 1091 and Musical Party – inv. No. ГЭ 1092) (fig.2.). The works were conceived as a pair and both are included in a hand-written catalogue of the Hermitage picture gallery compiled by E. Minikh in 1773-1785 (N1725.Jacques Van Loo. Un Concert de Musique; N 1726; Jacques Van Loo. L'intérieur d'une Chambre). Minikh described the paintings in great detail, discussed their artistic merits and in addition he gave a brief biography of the artist. According to him "[The Musical Party] peint par le père du premier Vanloo qui est venu s'établir en France et d'un bel effet. Les caractères y sont bien exprimés, les draperies bien dessinés: il est d'un bon Сolorie et d'un prеcieux (?) fini. Sur toile H.1ar.1v.: L. 14 3/4 v. Pend. du N1726.
Prior to copying the originals, the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory had to file a request stating which works they would like to reproduce. Unfortunately the archives have not survived in their entirety to this date and nowadays it is impossible to establish when such a letter was presented to the Hermitage. Nonetheless, the compositions and the quality of execution of both originals by van Loo fit perfectly the criteria for choosing the paintings to be reproduced on porcelain. In the 1797 catalogue of the Hermitage picture gallery, both works are mentioned as decorating the interiors of the Office of Her Imperial Majesty Elizaveta Alexeevna (1779-1826), wife of Alexander I of Russia.
The keen interest of Emperor Nicholas I in the production of the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory resulted in the highest artistic and technical achievements in the medium during his reign, culminating in the Gold Medal at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. The decision to add Limoges clay to the paste, despite Empress Elizabeth's proclamation a century earlier that Russian porcelain should be entirely "of Russian earth", in addition to advances in firing techniques and the development of new paints, contributed greatly to the success of Imperial porcelain, in particular monumental palace vases such as these, which are not only a stunning size, but are also decorated to standards of refinement rarely seen in the decorative arts.
The significant technical advances in the firing of porcelain and the production of paints made at the time resulted in increases in both the quality and consequently in the popularity of objects such as present pair. A new, expanded palette, which included lead-based fluxes and oxide tints, meant a wider variety of colours and shades, making almost any tone possible. The skill of the artists at the Imperial Factory who specialised in figure painting was highly regarded throughout Europe.
Among the best porcelain painters were Nesterov and V. Yelashevsky, who copied Van Loo's originals on the offered vases. Their signed work decorates a number of grand ornamental vases in present-day museum collections. Painting an intricate scene onto porcelain was a lengthy and complex process which could take up to six months or longer; before painting onto the vase, the factory artist first had to visit the Hermitage and copy the picture onto canvas. He would then adapt the image to the curve of the body before tracing the outline onto porcelain. Unfortunately, relatively little is known about porcelain artists working at the Factory during this period. V. Yelashevsky was active in the second third of the 19th century and is considered to be one of the most talented porcelain artists. For many years he headed the painting workshop, and himself specialised in ornamental and landscape painting. Pavel Nesterov, the artist of the Musical Party, specialised in the painting of figures and was one of the best masters in this genre in the reign of Nicholas I.
Traditionally works of such grandeur and importance were destined for presentation and therefore the choice of painting for reproduction was often determined by the emperor's personal preferences. In Russia, the term 'presentation' referred to the tradition of showing the Imperial Family the best works from the factories during the celebrations of Easter and Christmas. During Nicholas I's reign, the ceremony took place in the Winter Palace by special order of the Minister of the Imperial Court: 'objects from the Porcelain and Glass Factories are to be arranged in the Concert Hall for presentation' (Russian State Historical Archive). Such large palace vases were typically intended for the emperor and empress and were used to decorate their private rooms as well as state chambers (fig.3.).
On occasion, large vases such as these were presented by the emperor as important gifts for foreign rulers. For example, the list of 'porcelain objects made on the special request of his Majesty and presented at Easter' from 1841 includes 'for the Count Paskevich of Erivan, King of Warsaw' 'the largest size of bandeau vase with handles, featuring a depiction of the Taking of Akhaltsikhe and decoration on gold', which cost 4000 roubles. In 1843, Archduke Mecklenburg-Shverinsky was given a pair of 'large bandeau vases with pictures taken from paintings in the Hermitage and decorated with gold on green, set in bronze', which were valued at 1750 roubles each; in 1849, 'two bandeau-form porcelain vases with landscapes and decoration on green, costing, with a bronze base, 5300 roubles in silver' were sent to the Prince of Württemberg (Russian State Historical Archive, fund 468, op. 10 d. 239) (fig. 4., 5. & 6.).
Porcelain vases were also an essential part of dowries of Grand Duchesses (fig.7.) and it is possible that the offered pair were presented to Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna on occasion of her marriage in 1846 to Crown Prince Charles Frederick, later King Charles I of Württemberg (1823-1891). In accordance with tradition prior to being sent to her new home, the dowry was first exhibited in three rooms of the Winter Palace for everyone to see. Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna remembers seeing dowry of her elder sister Maria Nikolaevna: 'Exhibited in one room, there are endless rows of porcelain, glass, silver ware, table cloths and napkins, in a word, the entire range of table setting. In another room, there are various silver and gold boxes and toilette sets, underclothing, furs, laces, dresses. In the third room, there are altogether twelve Russian Court dresses, the wedding dress, Sunday dresses as well as dresses for special occasions together with their matching jewellery consisting of necklaces with sapphires and emeralds and other jewellery items made of turquoise and rubies' (N. Zorin, Wedding Rituals in Russia, Moscow, 2001).
Height: 149cm, 4ft 10in.
Probably presented by Emperor Nicholas I to his daughter Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna (1822-1892), later Queen of Württemburg, who married, in 1846, Crown Prince Charles Frederick, later King Charles I of Württemberg (1823-1891); otherwise possibly presented to King William I of Württemberg (1781-1864) or to his daughter, Princess Catherine of Württemberg (1821-1898), who married, in 1845, Prince Frederick of Württemberg (1808-1870)
King William II of Württemberg (1848-1921)
Princess Pauline of Württemberg (1877-1965)
Thence by descent