The first tapestries copied still lifes and landscapes. Once students mastered the depiction of objects and flora, they moved on to rendering human subjects, which required greater technical skill. Copies of paintings from the Hermitage would later materialise. Tapestry portraits became popular, though the high costs meant the finished articles were a luxury even for the Imperial household. In 1764 Catherine the Great made a provision whereby the manufactory received extra funds and access to the best imported textiles available. By 1841, when a copy of Antonio da Correggio’s 1530 painting Nativity (Adoration of the Shepherds, also known as The Holy Night) was produced as a tapestry measuring two by two-and-a-half meters, the factory was at its technical peak but also nearing its death throes. It would cease to operate entirely in 1859.
Correggio’s original painting was a chiaroscuro masterpiece. Currently on display at the Old Masters Picture Gallery in Dresden, the work depicts the birth of Jesus as if light itself were the Holy Child’s creation. Rather than being illuminated from above, Jesus is himself the source of light in a composition engulfed by shadows. The tapestry copy reproduced by Russian craftsmen V. Yakovlev and I. Averianov, currently at St Michael’s Castle, now a branch of the Russian Museum, St Petersburg, is much lighter in its colour palette and atmosphere. The present lot reframes that picture, reinstating some of Correggio’s shadowy textures and re-contextualising the scene from a group celebration that features witnesses, animals and angels to an intimate moment between a mother and her new-born child.
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