Nicholas & Alexandra, a Romanov Romance

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Pictured above: Pair of porcelain medallions of …

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Tags: Romanov Russian Russian History

ALVR Blog: Fabergé and the Red Cross, an Enduring Symbol

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Our hearts go out to everyone during this difficult time, and we hope you are all staying safe and healthy. We look forward to welcoming you back into our gallery when this is all behind us. Until then, we intend to brighten your day with highlights from our collection on social media and the ALVR blog. 

main view, Enamel and diamond Red Cross brooch by Faberge

Recently, the US Navy hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, arrived in New York Harbor. The sight of this massive white ship emblazoned with red crosses is a powerful symbol of hope in this trying time and reminds us of other periods of history when this emblem held particular significance. One Fabergé piece in our collection tells the story of such a time: a Red Cross brooch made at the time of the Great War.

This brooch features a red guilloché enamel cross against a white ground. It was likely awarded to an aristocratic lady in appreciation for her contributions to the war effort. That the brooch is encircled with diamonds suggests it was made for someone of particular importance.

At the onset of WWI, Russia was in great need of nurses. This need was so great, that the year-long training period was condensed to two months. In patriotic fervor, women from all classes answered the call to become sestry miloserdiya, sisters of mercy, as nurses were called in Russia. These volunteers included the wives and daughters of government officials, teachers and other professionals, and aristocratic ladies.  At the helm were the Romanov women. 

The Russian Red Cross was established in 1867 by Emperor Alexander II. Initially called the Society for Care of the Sick and Wounded, in 1879, it was renamed the Russian Society of the Red Cross. At the time of the Great War, it was led by Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, who had been president of the Russian Red Cross since the beginning of her husband’s reign. When her son Nicholas ascended the throne, she refused to cede her presidency to Alexandra, but did eventually permit her to contribute in her own way. Alexandra and her two eldest daughters, Olga and Tatiana, volunteered to become nurses. In their new role, they became known as Sister Romanova, numbers 1, 2, and 3. While the two younger daughters were too young to train, Grand Duchesses Maria and Anastasia offered their support as hospital visitors. 

In addition to caring for the wounded, Alexandra opened numerous supply depots that produced medical dressings and also collected and distributed non-perishable food, clothing, pharmaceutical supplies, and other items. Palaces and other buildings were converted for caring for the wounded. By the end of 1914, she was patron of 85 hospitals throughout Petrograd. 

Alexandra and her daughters traded their royal finery for nurse’s uniforms in an effort to bridge the gap between themselves and their subjects. At this time, Fabergé’s artistic output also reflected austerity efforts, producing simpler pieces, and eventually, offering his workshops for making munitions. Though simple in design, this Fabergé Red Cross brooch makes a strong statement, recalling a time when people came together to overcome difficult circumstances. 

In accordance with wartime austerity measures, the Red Cross eggs made for Dowager Empress Maria and Empress Alexandra are also simply designed. Maria’s egg, now in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, contains five portraits of Romanov women in Red Cross uniforms: Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna, Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna, and Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna. Alexandra’s egg, now in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, contains portraits of Alexandra, Olga, and Tatiana in their nurses uniforms. The egg opens to reveal a triptych, with the central panel depicting the ‘Harrowing of Hell,’ flanked by Olga and Tatiana’s namesake saints.

The Red Cross has long been a reassuring image of protection and benevolence, a symbol of hope and care, today and yesterday. We thank all our healthcare heroes working on the frontlines of this pandemic.

ЗА ВАШЕ ЗДОРОВЬЕ! (to our health!): A Little History of Vodka

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Imperial Russian Green Glass Vodka Bottle Elizabeth Bem

This blog post raises a glass to Russia’s favorite spirit: vodka. Derived from the Slavonic word for water, voda, the beverage certainly lives up to the vitality implied by this etymology. Throughout Russian history, vodka has been so culturally and economically vital that it’s no wonder it’s been called, “the elixir of life, the living water.”

One decanter in ALVR’s collection is adorned in such a way that speaks to vodka’s significance in Russian history and culture. It was designed around the year 1900 by Elizabeth Bem (1843-1914), an artist most well-known for her popular postcard designs and children’s book illustrations. Her works of glass are just as highly regarded and she received significant recognition for them at many world’s fairs.

Elizabeth Bem Wikipedia

Elizabeth Bem, Wikimedia Commons, ca. 1900

Imperial Russian Green Glass Vodka Bottle Elizabeth Bem

Made of green glass and adorned with dancing devils and Russian drinking maxims, this decanter certainly suits our motto, Where the Unusual is Usual! The maxims translate as follows:

Oh, Vine!
My sweet friend!
Go down my throat!
It’s so wonderful, my sunshine!

Hello, shot glasses!
How do you do?
Waiting for me?
Drink-drink, and devil you’ll see!

First of all – I do not drink;
Second – I do not like it,
And third – I have had a drink already!

Got drunk, broke in fight!
Woke up, got a fix,
And friends again!

Imperial Russian Green Glass Vodka Decanter Elizabeth Bem_snake detailAlso of note is a green serpent in an orange box in the upper left corner of the decanter. “Zelyony zmei,” or, the’ green serpent,’ is a Russian nickname for vodka that references both drunken visions and the coils of the pipes involved in distillation. The coil, or ‘serpent’ had to be especially made, making vodka more expensive to produce than beer, mead, or kvas. It’s believed that the image of the coil within poorly distilled muddy-green vodka inspired the ‘green serpent’ metaphor. Bem appears to play on this reference with both the addition of a serpent and the green hue of the glass.

Vodka’s fiscal benefits were first realized in the sixteenth century during the reign of Ivan IV (“The Terrible” 1533-1584). In the 1540s Ivan opened a few kabaks, or taverns, with the intention of using the profits to fill the state treasury.  And so began a state monopoly on vodka production. Subsequent rulers introduced various laws to control vodka’s production and consumption. Peter the Great (rumored to drink up to half a gallon of vodka a day) created liquor licenses to constrain home-brewing, only to later rescind such restrictions. Catherine the Great limited production to the aristocracy, which helped improve vodka’s quality and fill the state treasury. Vodka’s fiscal contrition continued to rise and by the nineteenth century it became the single most important source of government revenue.

That an inebriated public was easier to rule did not go unnoticed. In fact, some historians attribute Russian sobriety to the Romanov downfall. In 1914, Czar Nicholas II was so troubled by rampant drunkenness that he made alcohol illegal. The revolution can’t be attributed to Russian sobriety alone, but lifting the drunken spell certainly must have helped. Prohibition lasted until 1925, coincidentally, when the Bolsheviks began to run low on funds.

Why do Russians drink so much? For one, alcohol consumption has always been linked to Russian spiritual and social life. From the many events on the closely intertwined church and agricultural calendars to a long list of other holidays, there has always been an excuse to raise a glass…or drain a bottle. Russia’s long cold winters also play a role. After all, vodka warms both body and soul! Russians also believe vodka has medicinal qualities. Truly an “elixir of life,” there is nothing vodka can’t cure.

Economically, socially, culturally… even medicinally, this special Russian “water” has been vital to Russia’s existence. So here’s to life, vodka, and ЗА ВАШЕ ЗДОРОВЬЕ! (to our health)!

For more ALVR blog posts click here

Sources:
“Elisabeth Boehm” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elisabeth_Boehm (accessed 12/28/17)
David Christian. ‘Living Water’ : Vodka and Russian Society on the Eve of EmancipationOxford University Press, 1990.
David Christian. “The Green Serpent: Vodka, Marx and Primitive Accumulation” in Eat History: Food and Drink in Australia and Beyond. Cambridge, 2013.
Martin McKee, “Alcohol in Russia” Alcohol and Alcoholism. Volume 34, Issue 6, 1 November 1999, Pages 824–829. Oxford Journals https://academic.oup.com/alcalc/article/34/6/824/192703 (accessed 12/28/17)
Claire Suddath, “Russians and Vodka” Time January 5, 2010
http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1951620,00.html (accessed 12/28/17)
Edwin Trommelen. Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka. Russian Life Books, 2012.

The Irony of Fabergé Eggs: Mourning Jewelry for Alexander III

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Faberge gunmetal and gold pendants
Memento mori miniature egg and shield pendants with monogram of Alexander III
Gunmetal and gold
By Fabergé, St. Petersburg, workmaster M. Perchin
Egg: 2 x 1.2 cm; shield:  3.2 x 1.8 cmFaberge gunmetal and gold shield pendant reverse

These two miniature gunmetal and gold pendants memorialize Tsar Alexander III (1845 -1894). Appropriately somber in tone, the egg lacks ornament but for Alexander’s monogram and crown. The similarly adorned matching shield pendant bears his monogram and crown on the obverse with his date and time of death on the reverse: 2:15 am, October 20, 1894.

Gunmetal’s dark hue aptly signifies mourning and its sturdy nature make it a fitting tribute to the great autocrat.

An alloy of copper, tin, and zinc, gunmetal is a resilient material, valued for its ability to withstand heavy loads and resistance to corrosion. These qualities match Alexander III’s character and strength of body. The Victorian journalist and biographer Charles Lowe described Alexander III as the man with the iron mask, referring to his reserved public persona, but the Tsar was a man of iron in many ways.

The assassination of his father, the great reformer Alexander II, significantly impacted the course of his reign. Hardened by the consequences of his father’s leniency, Alexander III ruled with an iron fist and staunchly defended autocracy. Described as “herculean” and the “Russian Samson,” the six foot four burly Tsar was an imposing, strong man. He could bend, and then re-straighten, iron fire pokers, crush silver rubles in his fingers, and tear double packs of cards in half, and he often performed these marvels for the amusement of his children and assembled guests.

Alexander III

Portrait of Alexander III, oil on canvas, 1886, I.N. Kramskoi (1837-1887), Wikimedia Commons

His great strength famously came of use in 1888 when the Imperial train derailed and Alexander held up the wrecked carriage’s roof on his shoulders while his family escaped. No one at the time could have guessed that this strong body belied growing weakness. In this moment of heroism, the Tsar bruised a kidney, considered to be the root of the nephritis that ultimately killed him. In the words of biographer Charles Lowe, “nobody had any idea that a malignant disease was gnawing at the apparently robust man in the prime of his life.”

Years later after the accident, in 1894, Alexander’s health began to rapidly deteriorate. Diagnosed with terminal kidney disease that year, a heavy cold exacerbated an already weakened condition. His worsening health in September prompted a move to the country palace of Livadia in the Crimea, hoping he would improve in a warmer climate. Unfortunately, his condition worsened.

Alexander III and Maria Feodorovna

Empress Maria Feodorovna with the body of Alexander III (from the album Death of Alexander III in Livonia), Watercolor and pencil on paper, 1895, Mihaly Zichy (1827-1906), Wikimedia Commons

Biographer Charles Lowe wrote of Alexander’s wife,

“The Empress [Maria Feodorovna (1847-1928)]   was almost beside herself with grief, but up to the last minute she nursed her husband with the most devoted care. She took no rest. Day and night she was beside her consort, holding his hand in hers, keeping back her tears with all her strength, and softly whispering words of hope. ‘I have even before my death got to know an angel,’ the Tsar said, pressing her hand to his lips.”

Maria wrote to her mother,

“He was fully conscious until the last moment, speaking and looking at us until he quite calmly fell asleep into eternal life without any great struggle and in my arm!
Oh, but how heart-rending it was! Incredible that one can survive such sorrow and despair, and now the eternal longing and emptiness everywhere where I am! How shall I bear it? And the poor children, how desolated they are, too, and poor sweet Nicky especially, who has to start that burdensome life while still so young. They are so charming with me, all of them, so full of love and warm feelings. Alicky also shows me so much fond sympathy, which really binds her still closer to my heart.”Imperial Gifts with Xenia's waterdcolor album

This egg pendant belonged to Alexander and Maria’s daughter, Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna (1875-1960). It was recorded in her inventory of Easter eggs, a collection of descriptions and watercolor illustrations of Easter eggs and other smaller pieces of jewelry that she acquired between 1880 and 1905, totaling 499 pieces. This inventory page is illustrated in the 2002 exhibition catalogue Treasures of Russia – Imperial Gifts.

Of the mourning pendant, Xenia recorded that she received it from Aunt Michen (Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna the Elder (1854-1920)). Xenia passed the pendant onto her son, Prince Andrei Alexandrovich, who passed it on to his daughter, Princess Olga Andreevna. Accompanying the pendants is a letter from Princess Olga stating their provenance:Princess Olga letter

While eggs are traditionally emblematic of life, this egg pendant embodies grief, a sentiment more connected to the famous Fabergé Easter eggs than their opulence implies. Tsar Alexander III began the Romanov tradition of commissioning the eggs. Wishing to comfort Maria, traumatized by Alexander II’s death, he had the idea to give her an Easter egg in the style of one she liked from her childhood home in Denmark. So pleased with Fabergé’s creation, Alexander and Maria granted him an Imperial Warrant to make an Easter egg every year, in addition to other commissions.

Initially a remedy for grief, Fabergé eggs became annual tokens of affection emblematic of life. To this day, they are forever associated with Romanov splendor. While simple in ornament, these gunmetal and gold egg and shield pendants are no less precious. Together, they are a testament to the loss of a tsar and his lost world.

For all our ALVR Blog posts, please click here.

References:
Fabergé. New York: A La Vieille Russie, 1983.
Lowe, Charles. Alexander III of Russia. New York: Macmillian and Co, 1895.
Ruslands skatte -kejserlige gaver – Treasures of Russia – Imperial Gifts. Kobenhavn : Det Kongelige Solvkammer, 2002.

ALVR at Maastricht/TEFAF reported by Blouin Art Info

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New-York based art and antique gallery A La Vieille Russie (ALVR) is preparing to exhibit a cross-section of its inventory at the world-renowned European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in the Netherlands.

Among the works to be shown will be is a selection of unique pieces by Fabergé including a 19th century presentation charger, a range of jewelry created for the Romanov family, and a collection of miniature hardstone carvings of animals and insects crafted from semi-precious stones.

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Antique Russian Cloisonné Enamel Kovsh

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Antique Russian gilded silver and cloisonné enamel kovsh, in shades of blue and white. The interior of the kovsh is decorated with the double-headed Imperial eagle, a symbol of the Romanov dynasty. The body of the vessel is finished with a crown-like finial.

Moscow, ca. 1890
Length:  3-5/8 inches; height: 2-3/8 inches

$14,000

Russian Antique Cloisonné Enamel Kovsh, interiorAntique Russian Cloisonné Enamel Kovsh, mark