Amethyst, pearl, and diamond bishop’s pendant cross.
Probably Russian, 19th century
Length: 7-1/2 inches
Amethyst, pearl, and diamond bishop’s pendant cross.
Probably Russian, 19th century
Length: 7-1/2 inches
On April 26, 1687, the famed diarist Samuel Pepys noted that the Duchess of Newcastle wore “many black patches because of pimples about her mouth.” She likely carried them in a patch box, or boite á mouches. Such boxes were often made of gold, tortoise shell, silver, or ivory and fitted with a mirror, adhesive, brush, and compartments for patches. Some feature additional compartments for cosmetics like rouge or kohl.
Made of silk, leather, or taffeta, patches became popular face and body accessories beginning in the 16th century. They came in a range of shapes, including geometric forms, stars, and different phases of the moon. Some were even more whimsical, like the shapes of animals and insects. One theory behind the trend is a superstition of moles and their placement, which were admired as marks of beauty.
Donned by both women and men, patches served to accentuate the whiteness of one’s skin and to conceal blemishes. Their placement was a flirtatious language of gestures, as different positions suggested different types of flirtation. A patch near the lips was called the ‘coquette,’ on the forehead, the ‘assassin,’ the ‘roguish’ on the nose, the ‘impassioned’ near the eye and, on the cheek, the ‘gallant.’ Which one are you?
With mid-century jewelry, the use of platinum was prevalent once again. Designs were often abstract free-form designs using a combination of yellow gold and platinum. Pieces were often pavéd with small diamonds covering much of the piece. This was the period in which Schlumberger was producing his finest pieces for Tiffany & Co.
How greatly tea is used in England by every class of society, we all know… But greatly as tea is used in England, it is still in Russia more common. From the palaces of the great and wealthy nobles, down to the wretched hovels of the poor peasants, tea is the universal beverage. – James F. Cobb
James F. Cobb noted the significance of tea in Russian culture in his 1867 article “Russian Tea-houses and Tea-drinkers” for the English publication Chatterbox. While Mr. Cobb noted that British tea culture has its own interesting history and customs, Russian culture is steeped in its own rich tea traditions.
Russian tea’s status as a national beverage was slow to brew. When it was first introduced in the seventeenth century, Russians were skeptical. This early tea was very different from the tea drunk today. The tea was in a brick form, which was smashed and mixed with grain and butter, and then consumed as both a meal and beverage.
In the eighteenth century, during the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1796), tea consumption increased slightly, but it remained expensive and rare, confining its consumption to the Russian aristocracy who used it primarily for medicinal purposes.
It was not until late in the nineteenth century that tea became a national beverage consumed by all classes. By this time, the cost of tea had decreased by half, and thus more widely accessible. Also by this time, Russian tea, and its customs and material culture, became associated with national identity thanks to the work of the country’s most revered writers. Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Checkov wrote about tea as a part of everyday life, celebrating the samovar in particular as a symbol of Russianness.
Some scholars speculate that the samovar is actually an English invention, as both the English and Dutch made the earliest vessels for brewing tea and coffee in the late seventeenth century. The first samovar likely came to Russia in the early eighteenth century, taken by Peter the Great as one of many aspects of western culture he hoped to emulate to modernize Russia. The technology of the samovar better suited a Russian home, which was heated with a large stove, instead of an open fireplace to easily boil water. It is not the samovar itself that makes Russian tea. Rather, the samovar dispenses boiled water for diluting the concentrated tea, which is brewed in a small teapot, or zavarka, as shown in the introductory illustration.
By the turn-of-the-century, the invented tradition of Russian tea was an integral part of Russian identity. For Russians, the day began and ended with tea. In the morning it was enjoyed with sweet buns, plain rolls, or bread with butter and maybe a little cheese. A few hours after dinner was vecherny tchai, or evening tea consumed with various cold cuts, cheeses, small cakes and candied fruits.
Tea was enjoyed inside and out of the home. In the nineteenth century men congregated in teahouses according to their class – ones for wealthy merchants and others for their carriage drivers. The gendering of Russian tea culture was delineated by these establishments and also by objects. Men drank their tea from a glass set in an elaborately ornamented metal holder, like the one picture below, while women drank their tea from a cup.
Regardless of how much Russian tea customs are the product of nineteenth-century nationalism, beautiful works of art, like the tea glass holder and teapots illustrated in this post, attest to the significance of tea in Russian culture, past and present…even if that past is not so long ago.
Mid-century sapphire and diamond floral clip earrings, set in platinum.
English, ca. 1950
Length: 1 inch
These earrings appear in our clip on earrings video on our videos page.
Beautiful craftsmanship and technological wonder unite through the invention of a group of electric novelty jewels. Among these rare jewels is a gold and enamel skull stickpin with a hinged jaw and rose-cut diamond eyes.
This early electrical wonder was invented by the creative French engineer Gustave Trouvé and made in Paris in 1867 by Auguste-Germain Cadet-Picard. Trouvé trained as a watchmaker and opened his own workshop in 1863. His many inventions included a miniature hermetically sealed battery, patented in 1865, enabling him to create his electric jewels.
On seeing these electric jewels at the 1867 Paris Exhibition jeweler Henri Vever described them as ‘jewels of near-terrifying originality’ and the English publisher Henry Vizetelly wrote,
but the most absurd of all, was a small death’s head connected by a wire with a Lilliputian battery carried in the pocket, enabling the death’s head to distend its jaws and close and open them at the wearer’s pleasure, greatly to the bewilderment of anyone not in the secret.
The ‘wearable Lilliputian battery’ would be kept in a gentleman’s breast pocket and attached to the stickpin with invisible wire. He could then bring the stickpin to life by secretly turning the battery sideways or upside down.
The following illustrations explaining the interior mechanics appeared in Georges Barral’s 1891 book, Histoire d’Un Inventeur:
Such stickpins are a marvel in any age, but in the nineteenth century, they were a particularly awe-inspiring application of new technology, as the The Times reported,
The toy is amusing enough. Everybody has seen how bells are rung in all the new hotels in Paris, London, and New York. Instead of pulling the bell making it ring by an exertion of mechanical force, we press a small button in the wall; this is connected by an electric wire with a little alarm, the clapper of which keeps on jingling so long as the button is pressed … This principle a Frenchman has adapted to cravat pins …
Other designs included a monkey in spectacles pulling faces, Harlequin and Columbine dancing a ballet, a hummingbird beating its wings, a soldier beating a drum, a monkey playing a violin, a fluttering butterfly, an electro-spherical doorbell, and a rabbit playing with sticks on a little drum.
Two of the stickpins, as well as a ladies’ hairpin fashioned as a hummingbird with beating wings, were featured in the scientific journal La Nature:
It did not take long for these stickpins to become rare, collectors’ items, as a lack of qualified craftsman limited their production. By 1891, pieces that had originally cost 50 francs were costing between 700 and 1000 francs on the rare occasions that they came up for sale.
The Victoria & Albert Museum has an identical non-working example in their collection. At A La Vieille Russie, ‘where the unusual is usual’®, we are pleased to present the only working one in the world, certainly a jewel that anyone can love to death.
A video of the skull can be found on our Instagram page here.
In mid-nineteenth-century Russia in the town of Vilna, there lived a boy named Mordekhai, but everyone called him Motke. He loved working with his hands, filling makeshift sketchbooks and any available surface with scenes and figures, including walls, tables, and chairs. Even his family’s tavern door was not free of his hand, where he drew a fully armed soldier to frighten away drunkards.
Motke was called leimene hand (clay hands) or leimener geilom (clay statue) for his clumsiness when helping with the family business. Little did anyone know how much these pejorative nicknames prophesized, as those clay hands would one day breathe life not only in clay, but also wood, marble, and bronze. Art history knows him not as Motke or Mordekhai, but Mark Antokolsky (1843-1902), the most famous Russian sculptor of the nineteenth century.
Antokolsky was one of a very few successful Jewish artists in Russia from the nineteenth century. In Russia it was more difficult for Jews to achieve artistic success than in other countries. Artistic pursuits were also not welcomed within the Jewish community. Intellectual training was traditionally revered, unlike art, and all handwork trades, which were looked down upon.
Art was considered frivolous, and figure drawing in particular was taboo. Antokolsky’s parents tried to discourage his artistic inclination, which they regarded as sinful, and his father often beat him for making “idols.” Eventually they relented, and his father arranged for him to apprentice with various artisans. The young sculptor was unhappy with all of them, until he became the pupil of the wood carver Stassel’krout, remaining his apprentice for three years.
His work so impressed the wife of Vilna’s governor-general that she helped him travel to St. Petersburg to receive a stipend from Baron Horace Ginzberg to attend the Imperial Academy of Arts. In 1862 he was the first Jewish student to be accepted at the Imperial Academy of Arts, but only as a volnoslushatel, meaning someone who can attend class but not be put on the official student list.
A combination of such luck and talent laid the foundation for Antokolsky’s success. Starting in the 1860s, a relaxation of restrictive laws, among other factors, made it easier for Jews to acquire artistic training in Moscow and St. Petersburg. At last, artistic portrayals of Russian-Jewish life would no longer be confined to the ethnographic domain, as Jews appropriated their own image.
Antokolsky had one foot in the Russian and European art world and another in the Pale of Settlement, which was a world in and of itself. Though he deviated from tradition in pursuit of art, he would not sacrifice his strong Jewish identity for success. He remained observant by not working on the Sabbath and enthusiastically attended High Holiday services. His Jewish heritage inspired much of his work. In 1864 he received a silver medal for his wood carving Jewish Tailor. This honor was a significant turning point in the representation of Jews in art, as this was the first time in Russian sculpture that an image of a Jew was presented in a dignified manner and not conforming to stereotypes. The prominent art critic Vladimir Stasov praised the work, saying it represented “a launching of the new and true sculpture,” also remarking, “Before Antokolsky, not a single sculptor in the whole of Europe had endeavored to portray scenes of Jewish national life and to become an explorer of these innovative landscapes.”
One Jewish subject depicted by Antokolsky is the seventeenth century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). This portrait, on view here at A La Vieille Russie, was part of a project called the Friends of Mankind, a group of historical and biblical figures Antokolsky admired for their devotion to truth and kindness. Ever devoted to historical accuracy, Antokolsky meticulously researched his subjects and Spinoza was no exception. He pieced together every little biographical detail he could find and was frustrated with the discrepancies encountered in many portraits. He also went on a trip to Amsterdam to “peep in the environment where Spinoza came from and to breathe in the air there.”
Antokolsky felt a strong inner bond between Spinoza and himself, as Spinoza’s dual identity paralleled his own: they both challenged tradition, becoming outsiders within and outside of their communities. A descendent of marranos (Jews who converted during the Spanish Inquisition but practiced Judaism secretly or later returned to it), Spinoza was raised in a deeply religious household and educated to become a rabbi. However, he became drawn to secular subjects, particularly philosophy, and began to question aspects of his faith. Accused of betraying Judaism and becoming an atheist, he was excommunicated in 1656 at 24 years old, and later exiled from Amsterdam. Although he never abandoned Judaism and changed religions, his unconventional views were threatening to a Jewish community still recovering from the Spanish Inquisition and concerned with reviving and maintaining traditions.
Antokolsky’s portraits of important figures in Russian history are also highly regarded, two of which are for sale here at A La Vieille Russie. One such portrait is a ceramic bust of Ivan the Terrible. Ivan was produced in a variety of media, including marble, plaster, and silver. Majolica was a rare medium for Antokolsky. Originally executed in bronze in 1871, the portrait won Antokolsky many honors, and he became famous overnight. To become so renowned in one’s own lifetime is a significant accomplishment for any artist, and accompanying this instant fame was a gold medal and the title of Academician. The portrait impressed Tsar Alexander II so much that he commissioned a copy for the Hermitage, now in the Russian State Museum. As with all his works, Antokolsky meticulously researched Ivan’s life and character, also spending four months in the Kremlin Armory studying designs for the throne and costume.
Another notable historical portrait in our collection is a bronze of Nestor the Chronicler, the eleventh century Kievan monk credited as the author of Primary Chronicle, or Tale of Bygone Years, the only written record of Russia’s early history. Antokolsky thoroughly read the Chronicle as he worked on the portrait, and the plain wooden table, clothing, and other features reflect his loyalty to historical accuracy. The first version of Nestor was made in bronze in 1890 and was over five feet tall. It was originally in the Hermitage and moved to the Russian Museum in 1897.
Due to a combination of health problems and anti-Semitic aggression, Antokolsky moved abroad, first to Rome in 1871 and then Paris in 1877, but his heart remained in Russia and he returned periodically. He continued to receive honors, including a gold medal at the 1878 Exposition Universelle, and again in 1900. In 1893 he was named a full member of the Imperial Academy of Arts. He died at the age of sixty-one in 1902, at last returning to the land of his birth, and is buried in St. Petersburg. The young clay hands who once left his mark on his family home, grew up to leave his mark on the world.
Franz Roubaud (Odessa 1856-1928 Munich) Village Merchants: Street of Jarmolinzi in Podolien Oil on canvas: 33.5 x 59 inches (85 x 150 cm) Signed and dated lower left: F. Roubaud 1897
This painting, Village Merchants: Street of Jarmolinzi in Podolien, by Franz Roubaud, depicts a village scene in the Podolia region of Ukraine, which, along with other lands formerly part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, became part of the Russian Empire in the late eighteenth century.
The scene befits the title, showing townspeople peddling wares and conducting business transactions. Nearly half of Podolia’s Jews were involved in commerce. The village’s muddy street and modest buildings beneath a grey sky imply the hardships of everyday life.
As viewers we are removed from the scene, observing from a distance, a perspective that matches the marginalization of Jews in Russian society. Jews were restricted to the periphery of the Russian Empire, in what was called the Pale of Settlement. It was initially created to impose commercial restrictions on Jews and generally to prevent integration with the rest of Russia’s population.
In sum, Jews were outsiders, seen as the “other,” and this perception factored into their artistic representation. In Roubaud’s rendering of this village, he was an outsider looking in. He was not Jewish, the son of a Frenchman living in Russia. Renowned for painting grand, panoramic battle scenes, like A Tale of the Caucasus:
Franz Roubaud (Russian, 1856-1928) A Tale of the Caucasus signed and dated 'F. Roubaud/1907.' (lower right) oil on canvas 56¼ x 77½ in. (142.8 x 197.2 cm.)
Village Merchants stands apart from Roubaud’s oeuvre. In this brief break from the battlefield, Roubaud participates in a tradition of non-Jewish Russian artists depicting Jews in art. Starting in the nineteenth century, Russian artists became interested in Jewish life, illustrating their subjects under an ethnographic, as well as artistic, lens.
Roubaud, 1916 Reproduced from Hans-Peter Bühler, Jäger, Kosaken und polnische Reiter Josef von Brandt, Alfred von Wierusz-Kowalski, Franz Roubaud und der Münchner Polenkreis. (Georg Olms Verlag, 1993), 142
Roubaud began his studies in Odessa, whose significant Jewish population clearly left an impression on the artist. From 1878-1883 he studied at the Royal Bavarian Academy of Arts in Munich, developing his skills particularly under the guidance of the Polish artist Josef von Brandt. Roubaud produced his initial sketch for Jarmolinzi in 1882, which features a close study of the buildings, though devoid of townspeople:
1882 Study, 11.4 x 8.2 in. (29 x 20.8 cm) Reproduced from Hans-Peter Bühler, Jäger, Kosaken und polnische Reiter Josef von Brandt, Alfred von Wierusz-Kowalski, Franz Roubaud und der Münchner Polenkreis. (Georg Olms Verlag, 1993), 134
From the time of this sketch to the painting’s completion in 1897, Russia’s Jews experienced heightened persecution. They were targeted as an easy scapegoat for the 1881 assassination of Alexander II, inciting several pogroms (mob violence) across the Podolia region. This violence, in addition to new economic restrictions enforced by the government, made life increasingly difficult. These factors inspired significant emigration, mostly to North America.
Other aspects of Jewish life have also inspired artistic expression. Contemporaneous with Roubaud’s 1897 painting, the Yiddish author and playwright Sholem Aleichem wrote about life in the Pale of Settlement. In 1894, he penned Tevye and his Daughters and other stories, later inspiring the musical Fiddler on the Roof, which premiered on Broadway in 1964. The musical’s title and original set design were inspired by Marc Chagall. In the final act, Tevye and his family have been expelled from the fictional village Anatevka and flee to more welcoming shores, singing words familiar to many at the turn of the twentieth century, “soon I’ll be a stranger in a strange new place, searching for an old familiar face.”
Roubaud’s painting does not reflect such chaos and vulnerability, but a quiet existence. Jewish life in Russia is a multifaceted subject, and Roubaud’s window is but one view.
The next few blog posts will further examine Jewish subjects in Russian art, as well as Russian Jewish artists. While this post explored Jewish subjects in ethnographic art, our next post will highlight Jewish subjects in Russian art by one of their own, the most famous Russian Jewish artist of the nineteenth century, Mark Antokolsky.
Antique thimbles are trinkets most often of precious materials, as beautiful as they are functional, imbued with both sentimental and intrinsic value. While they originated as sewing implements, over the centuries their decorative features evolved to complement their new functions as fashionable gifts, status symbols, and tokens of affection.
In the preindustrial era, the significant amount of domestic sewing made thimbles and other sewing implements common household possessions. Over time, they became increasingly valuable. For example, by the sixteenth-century, silver thimbles were listed in wills and other legal documents.
In this period, decorative thimbles became fashionable gifts, a trend believed to be set by Elizabeth I of England (1558-1603) when she gave a gem-set thimble to a lady-in-waiting. For centuries it was customary to include thimbles and other sewing tools in a bride’s trousseau, a tradition that carried into the nineteenth-century. Thimbles given by a lady’s fiancé usually featured inscriptions like ‘A token of regard’ or ‘Forget-me-not.’
Gold Directoire period French thimble with black and white enamel border.
As thimbles became more valuable, they became more decorative. In the fourteenth-century, French goldsmiths began making decorative thimbles. By the sixteenth-century, thimble decoration became more distinctive, consisting of relief designs, foliate scrolls, and mottoes. The finest thimbles were mostly gold. Other materials varied by region. Glass thimbles came from Venice and Bohemia and wooden thimbles came from Germany and Austria.
English 18k gold thimble with with turquoises, pearls, and gold scrolls set in an elegant floral pattern. Mid-nineteenth-century.
The production of porcelain thimbles began in the eighteenth-century by a number of factories, but thimbles from the Meissen factory remain the most revered and sought after by collectors. Porcelain thimbles share common decorative motifs like flowers, birds, silhouettes, landscapes, fishing or hunting scenes, pastoral scenes, harlequinades, and chinoiseries. Rims are often scalloped or crenellated.
Left: English Bilston Battersea thimble with multi-colored floral sprays on a white ground. 1765.
Middle: Meissen porcelain thimble with early pruncing and a wide border of flowers. Mid-eighteenth-century.
Right: Meissen porcelain thimble with chinoiserie decoration. 1735-40.
Gem-set thimbles featured an array of gemstones like moonstone, amethyst, jade, topaz, sardonyx, coral, onyx, turquoise, carnelian, and moss agate. Some were thought to have apotropaic qualities specifically for protecting eyesite, a fair concern for a seamstress. Moss agates protected the eyes, as well as sardonyx, which offered the added bonus of defending witchcraft. Turquoise thwarted eye disease and poison.
English 18k gold thimble set with seven turquoises within a floral scroll decorated border with scalloped edge. Ca. 1840.
Today, thimbles still make excellent gifts and are avidly collected. Also, if one happens to be in search of a protective amulet, by all means, consider a thimble.
After Napoleon’s 1814 defeat, Europe became open to tourism once again. Italy was the most popular destination, where tourists flocked in pursuit of works of art. Souvenir purchases often included copies of masterpieces and also jewelry in the form of cameos, intaglios, and, most notably, miniature mosaics.
A miniature mosaic is a composition of tiny, glass tesserae cut from pieces of glass known as smalti filati. Some tesserae are not glass, but stone. Miniature mosaics are also known as “micromosaics,” a term coined by avid collector Arthur Gilbert. His collection of mosaics, among other treasures, were originally housed at LACMA, but have found a permanent and prominent home in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Making a micromosaic entailed arranging tesserae in mastic or cement on glass panels with tweezers. Once the composition was complete, the gaps within the arrangement were filled with colored wax and the surface polished. Some of the finest miniature mosaics can have as many as 5,000 tesserae per square inch.
Micromosaics date to the eighteenth-century, inspired by the larger, interior mosaics of ancient Rome. They are still made in the Vatican workshops to this day. Earlier micromosaic pieces lacked perspective and revealed visible spaces between tesserae. Later artists achieved more realistic works, like the renowned Antonio Aguatti. His technical improvements made more realistic micromosaics possible and he is considered one of the leading Roman micromosaic artists from the early nineteenth-century. He made the micromosaic mounted in this snuffbox:
Many micromosaics were purchased as panels and mounted into box lids or jewelry upon a traveler’s return home. The most popular motifs were the buildings and ruins of Rome, landscapes, animals (mostly birds), and flowers.
They ranged in scale, from snuff boxes and jewelry, to large tabletops and replicas of full-sized canvas paintings. In fact, when Arthur Gilbert brought his first micromosaic home to show his wife, Rosalinde, she famously thought it was a cracked painting. Little did she know it was the first of many that would amass one of the world’s finest collections.