E mblematic of the excellency of the Imperial Porcelain Factory’s production, this sumptuous vase – offered in the Russian Works of Art, Fabergé & Icons sale on 4 June – was caught up in between epochs. Although by the date of its creation, it belongs to the times of Alexander II, its lavish style, exquisite craftsmanship and elaborate design demonstrate qualities popularised during the reign of Nicholas I. Emperor Nicolas I, often depicted as a reactionary and conservative monarch, was nevertheless an enthusiastic patron of the arts and in particular of the Imperial Porcelain Factory. Under his reign, technical and artistic advances in porcelain production were greatly encouraged, and it moved the workmanship of Russian artists to the unseen before heights of perfection and grandeur.
Monumental large-scale vases were often commissioned by the Emperor himself, and were intended as gifts for members of the Imperial family or as diplomatic presents for foreign ambassadors and representatives of European powers, in part to promote the Imperial Porcelain Factory in foreign markets. Twice a year, during Easter and Christmas celebrations, the best pieces coming from the kilns of the factory were displayed in the Winter Palace. Following such 'presentations', some of them were selected to decorate private rooms of the Imperial family and state chambers while others would travel abroad where Russian porcelain was highly regarded for its finesse and craftsmanship.
One of the favoured traditions of this period was the incorporation of copied pictures in the porcelain design, together with elements borrowed from architecture and decor of the era. Vases were particularly popular both in the Medici and the bandeau form, with a large central area of the body that allowed them to be treated as a canvas. Factory artists enthusiastically took advantage of this form to display their painterly work. When decorating these massive vases, the accomplished master craftsmen would seek inspiration among the rich plethora of paintings and decorative arts in the Hermitage Museum.
The masterpieces by Spanish, Dutch and Italian Old Masters were transposed on porcelain with the utmost virtuosity, demonstrating the unrivalled level of skill acquired by porcelain painters during this time. The process was lengthy and laborious and could take up to six months or even longer. Unfortunately, relatively little is known about porcelain painters of this period. According to the hierarchies common in the art system of the epoch, they were still considered as craftsmen even though their mastery corresponded to the highest demands of artistry.
This vase exemplifies the final peak of the classical grand traditions in Imperial porcelain. After the ascension of Alexander II to the throne, the commission of large porcelain pieces dwindled, and the personal tastes of Empress Maria Alexandrovna shifted the porcelain trends into new directions. And even though the second half of the 19th century saw the production of new original forms and designs, very few of them matched the splendour and the scale of the style of earlier periods, so characteristically illustrated in the design and execution of the present lot.