Published: February 14, 2012
It is the merest hint, and what a tease! Twelve Russian enameled silver objects from a major collection are on view at the Walters Art Museum, an hors d’oeuvre to the full repast of the 260 Russian enamels bequeathed to the museum by Jane Montgomery Riddell of Washington, D.C. The larger collection is still in the process of being cataloged and will go on view in the spring of 2015, ultimately scheduled to travel. In the meantime, museum visitors are more than pleased with the dozen exquisite items on view.
Riddell, a Washington area arts patron and collector who died last year at 100, gathered her collection with a focus on enamels made by the masters in Moscow during the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. Most major silversmiths, as well as artists from the post-revolution artist collectives who worked in enamels, are represented. She did make one exception to her Moscow rule, however: she favored the exquisite enameled objects made at the St Petersburg workshop of Fedor Rückert for the House of Fabergé.
Her interest in Russian enamels was spurred by her husband, the late Richard J. Riddell, who owned several examples she inherited in 1966. She expanded on the collection, adding choice objets d’art from first-rate artists, patronizing top dealers and agents.
Riddell was steeped in the arts, having studied under Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League in New York, served on the board of the National Symphony and was one of the founders of the Washington Ballet and of the later National Ballet. Far more than a board member, she even painted scenery for the ballet company. She was also a collector of antique valentines and Austrian greeting cards.
Among the stars whose work is on view is Moscow silversmith Pavel Akimovich Ovchinnikov, viewed as one of Russia’s greatest silversmiths and regarded highly for his fine filigree enamel work and cloisonné. He created works for several crowned heads, and in 1882 was appointed purveyor to the imperial court of Russia. Ovchinnikov was also named purveyor to the king of Denmark and his work appears in museums and royal collections. He and his workshop are represented here by three important objects: a silver gilt, filigree and plique-á-jour enamel tankard, a silver gilt and plique-à-jour enamel beaker and a large casket of silver gilt, filigree, painted enamel, granulation and amethysts.
Ovchinnikov’s tankard was based on the drawing of a Seventeenth Century example in the Kremlin Armory and dates from around 1888‱896. It was made with filigree in which the precisely twisted wire, rather than the more commonly used flat strips of metal, protrudes above the silver gilt surface of the vessel to separate the enamels, and which forms part of the design. The technique is a revival of a Seventeenth Century one and was employed frequently by the Russian silversmiths of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. The wires project from the surfaces rather than lying flat as in cloisonné. The bottom of the tankard is decorated with an eagle and floral design in plique-à-jour enamel and appears when the vessel is emptied. The Ovchinnikov workshop was celebrated for its plique-à-jour work, and the tankard is among several examples that typified the techniques used in Seventeenth Century Moscow enamels.
The Ovchinnikov beaker, circa 1908‱917, was made with a cagelike structure supporting the brilliantly colored plique-à-jour enameling. There is no backing and the effect is of richly stained glass. Three medallions set in a red scale pattern contain images of a Kievan princess, a musician and his balalaika and a woman waving a scarf.
The form of a large casket on view made at the Pavel Ovchinnikov workshop alludes to the women’s quarters in a Seventeenth Century palace, a teremok, which was a two-story building with a sloping roof. This casket, of silver gilt, filigree and painted enamel, granulation and amethysts, is decorated with panels of fabulous winged creatures separated by geometric areas of treillage with raised silver dots suggesting roof tiles. The design was drawn from an early Russian manuscript that was illustrated in an 1870 publication.
A silver gilt and filigree kovsh from the Moscow workshop of Ivan Khlebnikov was made around 1908‱917 and it depicts a bird with a human face in a cityscape with buildings and a bridge. Khlebnikov gained international acclaim for his mastery of plique-à-jour with translucent effects.
Another Muscovite master was the imperial assay master Antip Kuzmichev, whose early Twentieth Century silver gilt, plique-à-jour and filigree enamel bowl is on view. The bowl is lobed with swirled panels of opaque filigree enamel floral designs alternating with translucent plique-à-jour enamel. The piece is monogrammed “MLQ,” which indicates that it was made for sale at Tiffany & Co., as was much of Kuzmichev’s work.
A cup and saucer, circa 1893, from the Kuzmichev firm, also marked with an indicator that it was sold through Tiffany, was made to dazzle. Of silver gilt with plique-à-jour enamel, its overlapping arcs filled with translucent enamel evoke Byzantine design traditions.
A casket of silver gilt, filigree and translucent enamel on a turquoise guilloché ground was made between 1907 and 1917 at the Eleventh Artel in Moscow. It was decorated with a painted miniature of “The Three Bogatyrs” by Viktor Vasnetsov, whose work was often reproduced on Artel pieces.
A silver gilt, enamel and ivory clock made by Mikhail Evlampievich Perkhin, the chief workmaster of the House of Fabergé, evinces the influence of neoclassicism. Made between 1888 and 1896, it has multiple layers of translucent gray enamel over the silver surface that is engraved with wavelike patterns. Perkhin was the creator of many of the most famous imperial Easter eggs, including the Gatchina Palace example in the Walters’ collections.
A swan-form kovsh by Perkhin in green nephrite with amethysts was made with its head, neck and tail of red and green gold. A partially enameled five-ruble gold coin dated 1898 bears the inscription, “His Imperial Majesty Nicholas II Emperor, Autocrat of Russia, By the Grace of God.”
Riddell focused particularly on the work of Fedor Rückert, an independent master of the Russian Revival or Old Russian style, which contrasted with the rococo and neoclassical styles of Fabergé in St Petersburg.
Fabergé maintained a Moscow branch for which Fedor Rückert made a silver gilt, filigree and en plein enamel casket decorated with a miniature painting. The image depicts a scene from the early Seventeenth Century Russian Time of Troubles of merchant Kuzma Minin exhorting citizens to donate valuables to finance an army to expel the Poles. The event occurred in August 1612 and resulted in the election of Michael Romanov, and the casket may have been made to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty.
Rückert made a silver gilt, painted, filigree and en plein enamel box for the jeweler Josef Abramovich Marshak, who was Fabergé’s principal rival based in Kiev and for whom he occasionally worked. The box is decorated with a matte enamel rendering of Viktor Vasnetsov’s painting “Warrior at the Crossroads.”
A silver gilt, painted and filigree enameled stamp box from the Moscow firm Mariia Semenov was made between 1899 and 1908. Two compartments are separated by a removable insert; the lid is enameled with a green two-kopeck postage stamp and a pink three-kopeck example and the sides are decorated with floral elements on a stippled background.
A presentation box from Tsar Nicholas I in 1839 to hydraulic engineer I.C. Singles was made by the firm of Johann Keibel, who trained Gustav Fabergé, who began the family business in St Petersburg in 1842. It is made of four colors of gold and champlevé enamel
That Riddell chose the Walters as the repository of her collection is attributable to the strength of the museum’s collection of Russian decorative arts. William Thompson Walters was a prodigious collector who, in the course of his business interests, traveled the world acquiring objects. On his return to Baltimore, he opened his home to townspeople interested in seeing his collections. His son Henry C. Walters added to the collections and expanded them into the museum of 22,000 objects, which he left to the city of Baltimore on his death in 1931.
The Walters’ Russian holdings began with founder Henry C. Walters’ visits to the House of Fabergé in St Petersburg around 1900. Walters, who was spending millions on art each year, purchased a number of pieces and was the Russian jeweler’s first American patron. In 1928, he purchased two Fabergé imperial eggs from émigré dealer Alexandre Polovtsov, who had set up shop in Paris. They were the 1901 Gatchina Palace egg and the 1907 Rose Trellis egg and are on permanent view elsewhere at the Walters.
Information about particular Russian enamel masters has been scarce; much information was lost in the revolution of 1917. The task of cataloging the Riddell collection is a juicy undertaking, one at which senior curator emeritus William R. Johnston is at work. Of the project, he says he is “having a whale of a time.” He had shared the task with the late Anne Odom until her untimely death last summer. Odom was the chief curator at Hillwood Museum, the former residence of Marjorie Merriweather Post, who, while living in Russia, gathered an impressive collection of Russian decorative and liturgical arts.
The Walters Art Museum is at 600 North Charles Street. Also on view is “Touch and the Enjoyment of Sculpture: Exploring the Appeal of Renaissance Statuettes,” through April 15; and “Exploring Art of the Ancient Americas: The John Bourne Collection Gift,” through May 20. For information, www.thewalters.org or 410-547-9000.
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