Russian Art

Three of a Kind: Kovshi

By Sotheby's
Dating back to as far as the 10th century, kovshi were traditional Russian drinking vessels featuring an oval-shaped bowl and a single handle. Originally carved out of wood and resembling a ship, kovshi were used as a receptacle for mead during banquets, where the vessel would have been passed from guest to guest. While wooden kovshi, often painted with bright colours, continued to be popular, the 17th century saw the introduction of metal kovshi. They quickly became the gift of choice from the Imperial family to distinguished citizens, frequently including dedications recalling the addressee’s important deeds.

T he era between the 19th and early 20th centuries represented a golden age for the kovsh, which, by then, had become a decorative rather than functional object. Almost all the great craftsmen of this epoch produced kovshi, experimenting with form, colour, materials and textures and producing an exceptional variety within the scope of this object. Our Russian Works of Art June sale features a vast array of kosvhi, demonstrating each workmaster’s creative approach.

1. Renowned for his talent in cloisonné enamel, Fabergé workmaster Feodor Rückert produced many inventive kovshi in his career. This kovsh exemplifies Rückert’s original style, notorious for the use of twisted silver-gilt cloison borders and masterfully shaded colourful enamels. The shape of this kovsh is minimal, featuring a simple rounded bowl on a spreading foot and a hooked handle. The clean shape allows the intricate patterns of the cloisonné enamel decoration to really stand out. Rückert chose a geometric decorative scheme for this piece, working with shapes recalling natural elements such as flowers and leaves, rendered in a sophisticated colour palette. An exceptional feature of this kovsh is the presence of its original fitted box, which is extremely rare for an object of this size.

2. Based on the ancient ship form, this Fabergé silver kovsh revives Russian traditions on different levels. Kovshi made of silver with gilt sections became very popular during the reign of Peter the Great as gifts to officials and ministers. This kovsh incorporates these elements with a twist, featuring cabochon stones and a bogatyr’s head chased in the prow. This kovsh appears as a celebration of Russian history and evokes the past on one side, through the traditional shape of the kovsh and on the other side, through the incorporation of a bogatyr from Russian epic poems, in the decoration. The chasing on the bowl of the kovsh cleverly imitates the patterns that could be found on cloaks or armour in contemporary representations of bogatyrs. The handle is a further homage to Russian folklore, featuring the chased representation of a harpy or Russian alkonost. The combination of style exemplifies Fabergé’s mastery in mixing decorative elements to create a unique piece.

3. This small kovsh by Khlebnikov is an example of the experimental re-interpretations of kovshi that craftsmen were producing at the turn of the century. This example makes full use of all the kovsh’s artistic possibilities, by moulding the bowl with soft, undulating shapes and the handle with a curious pierced section. Kovshi of the early 20th century display a peak in creativity. While the bowl represented a limit in shape, as it had, to a certain extent, to recall the original function of the object, the handle was interpreted with outmost creative freedom, becoming the decorative centrepiece of the object. Often complemented by enamel decorations, handles would be elongated and tall, with geometric motifs, pierced sections or in some case moulded as realistic or abstracted animals or figures. This kovsh incorporates a sweeping enamel decoration with geometric motifs, demonstrating the combination of Art Deco and Pan-Slavic motifs.

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