Earlier this summer I visited Minneapolis to see the Museum of Russian Art and their fabulous exhibition of porcelain Easter Eggs, which runs through September 20, 2015, sponsored by the Bentson Foundation. Drawn from the collection of Imperial porcelain owned by Raymond Piper, the exhibition includes seventy presentation Easter eggs featuring Russian orthodox saints, traditional Russian geometric patterns, and ornate floral designs. The Easter eggs were produced at the Imperial Porcelain Factory in St. Petersburg during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Commissioned by the Romanov Imperial family, porcelain eggs were a traditional presentation gift to relatives, friends and courtiers at Easter time.
The presentation of porcelain eggs explores the popular tradition of exchanging painted eggs at Eastertide, focusing on the upper social strata of pre-revolutionary Romanov dynasty. The Russian tsars commissioned their porcelain Easter gifts from the Imperial Porcelain, established in 1744, expressly catering to the needs of the Imperial family. Finely painted Easter eggs were presented to those in attendance at the Imperial court following a solemn Easter service.
Alexander I 1801-1825
1802 brought a stellar year for the Imperial Porcelain as they produced 960 eggs for the Easter festivities of Alexander’s court. The oldest of Tsar Paul I’s ten children and raised in a like manner by a doting grandmother, Catherine the Great, calling home the magnificent palace at Tsarskoe Selo. Following the tradition of his ancestors Tsarinas Catherine and Elizabeth, Alexander was a devoted patron of this porcelain. The first egg produced by Imperial in the course of 1749 was under the rule of Elizabeth, a tradition carried on by Paul as the Factory produced 254 eggs for Easter 1799.
Imperial Porcelain prospered during the reign of Nicholas I. Mid-nineteenth century saw the factory begin importing fine clays from Limoges, France, thus improving the quality of porcelain wares significantly. The Factory received awards at international expositions of London, Paris, and Vienna. Their talented artists decorated Easter eggs with miniature reproductions of European masters by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Titian, inspired by the Hermitage collection. Remarkably, the Hermitage was opened to the public in 1852, correspondingly this influence on the Arts in all their forms can be seen immediately. A limited number of eggs were produced in this meticulous fashion each Easter, exclusively for the needs of the Tsar and his family. One of the eggs on display features a copy of Ludovico Carracci’s painting Christ Bearing the Cross from the Hermitage.
Alexander II 1855-1881
The Imperial Porcelain Factory downscaled operations under Alexander II. In spite of the decline, Easter gifts continued to be successful at the Imperial court. New elements of design were popularized featuring images drawn from the natural world, incorporating a wide variety of plants, birds and insects. Designed by August Karl Spiess, (1817-1904) the head of the Imperial’s sculpture workshop, this styling reflects the influence of the distinctive two-colored relief of Wedgewood English pottery. Madonna and Child, on the larger egg, is based on Raphael’s painting ‘Sistine Madonna’
Alexander III 1881-1894
Producing wares for Alexander III, the Imperial Porcelain Factory began a return to prosperity. One of the Tsar’s early decrees states, ‘His Lordship, the Emperor wills that upon the Imperial Porcelain Factory shall be bestowed every advantage, relevant to its technical and artistic needs, so that I may justly be called Imperial and serve as a model to all private manufacturers.’ Whereas, fewer Easter eggs were produced as part of the Tsar’s effort to cut Imperial household spending. Alexander’s order of 1887 states, “For his Lordship the emperor, twenty eggs with the images of saints and fifty regular eggs, decorated and large-sized for Her Ladyship, the Empress, only fifty large eggs with various patterns.”
Nicolas II 1894-1917
After the Easter service of 1896 in the Winter Palace, Nicholas II wrote in his diary, “We went to bed around 4 am, at sunrise. At 11:30 am, the Easter greetings and exchange of kisses began in the Malachite room. Almost five hundred guests received eggs.”
The production of porcelain Easter eggs increased during the reign of Nicholas II. Introducing eggs with the monograms of the Imperial children, the Grand Duke and Grand Duchesses. Easter of 1914 saw the Imperial Porcelain Factory produce 3,991 eggs. In 1916, in the midst of WWI, 15,365 eggs were produced, two thousand bearing the symbol of the Red Cross. To that end, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and her five children visited hospitals presenting eggs to wounded soldiers and officers.
From that view, 1916 brought the Russian Empire its last celebrated Easter, as the following year the former Imperial family found themselves under house arrest in the Alexander Palace. The few attending guests received Easter porcelain eggs “from old supplies,” as Nicholas’ diary stated.
Tucked near the end of the exhibition, the Museum of Russian Art shares a tiny piece of their archive. The front page from the Illustrated London News, Easter weekend edition, April 14, 1914; displaying the chaos following the end of tsarist rule. In consideration of that moment in time, the frivolity of porcelain eggs becomes a questionable extravagance in a dynasty trapped by pomp and circumstance. The photograph at the top shows the Russian Duma, with an empty frame that once displayed a portrait of their tsar. Likewise, the image underneath portrays a crowd burning the spoils of the old regime.
These beautiful eggs are drawn from the collections of Raymond Piper, renowned porcelain collector, whose intimate, moreover, wide ranging exhibition includes eighty nine porcelain Easter eggs dating from the 19th and 20th centuries. The organizers should be commended not only for assembling a superb group of works of art; it is important to realize the wisdom of their decisions on matters such as lighting and wall color; allowing the intended dramatic effect of colors and images on the viewer. An exquisite collection of Soviet era art and Tsarist Russia influences.
My next Museum will be the Minneapolis Institute of Art, including some Frank Lloyd Wright pieces
Cheers to all!