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Author: Rosamond Fuller
( Article orginally published September 1944 by The Compleat Collector)
Evolving from an Asiatic period dominated by boyars of ancient lineage and served by the energies of polyglot races, under the rule of Peter the Great Russia awakened at the turn of the eighteenth century to an awaremess of the civilisation of Western Europe, its industrial progress and cultural attainments. In the determination of the Emperor to secure for his realm as many of the benefits of foreign invention and- productiveness as possible, he was supported by the increasing disdain of Russians for their age-old traditions and their national art with its rich heritage of strong oriental influences. From the time of Peter I all the empresses of Russia but one were foreign-born, an important factor in the development of native resources and artistic expression through the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth. The character of migrants from neighboring countries changed. perceptibly. Journeymen, artists and craftsmen of varying abilities thronged the vast domain, envisioning new fields to try or invited by the sovereigns. Coming principally from Sweden, Germany, Holland, France and England, these peoples blending diverse temperaments and genius gave a direct impetus to a creative national sense and a new and splendid background of art.
Many masters contributed to the birth and development of the imperial porcelain industry. Hunger, previously a Meissen foreman, brought from Stockholm in 1744 by Elisaveta I to direct production under the supervision of Baron Tcherkassov; Rachet and Falconet-modelers; Morot and Svebachpainters; and others of outstanding consequence. But to the exhaustive efforts of Dmitri Vinogradov of Arkhangelskoye who succeeded honrad Hunger and also to certain comparatively obscure Russians who imparted to their works the feeling of their own country are due-the exquisite results which placed Russian porcelain on a high level alongside the products of France and England and were the basis of the success of imperial manufacture. After long years of experimenting to learn the secret of fine paste, so jealously guarded in the Orient and in every country where it was known, the discovery of a hard paste-first of bluish tone, then of pure white-and an excellent glaze were Vinogradov's; and his were the earliest gracious forms heightened by lively colors and gilding harmoniously worked. His choicest creations were the little envelope-shaped porcelain snuffboxes, each with a portrait or delicate painting inside the cover, which had a great vogue in the 1750's. These, believed not to exist today, and all the works of the master were marked with his initial in blue underglaze and, occasionally, with the year. Active from 1747 until his death in 1758, Vinogradov's incessant labors led to the origination of a definite style of porcelain easily recognised by its paste and type of decoration. The industry gained enormously by his perspicacity and talent.
The Russian Imperial Porcelain Factory had been organised in 1744 by the Empress Elisaveta I (1741-1761), daughter of Peter the Great, to operate solely for the Court and members of the imperial family. Objects made during her reign are now of the greatest rarity. Of very simple form, without rococo ornament of any kind and similar to Meissen products of the day, their coloration was vivacious but invariably pale because of the low heat requisite to the preservation of the gilding; their embellishments were usually multicolored floral motifs; either painted directly on the surface or applied in tiny bouquets, and latticed borders. Vinogradov's mark was replaced by the black double-headed eagle symbol of the Empire. Later, a dot within a circle, sometimes the circle with an arrow, or, infrequently, the crossed anchors coat-of-arms of St. Petersburg were employed. A few years after her accession to the throne Ekaterina 11-the Great (1762-1796) greatly enlarged the factory to provide for her formidable requirements and her monograr appeared on every item produced. Thereafter, until the end of the dynasty the only mark employed for the entire output of the imperial manufactory during each reign was the crown and monogram of the Emperor.
Seeking a more direct relationship with the West, Ekaterina invited potters to Russia from Saxony which was the first European center to solve the riddle of porcelain making and she sent students from the Fine Arts Academy to Meissen to acquaint themselves with the forms and designs dear to her youthful remembrance as a princess of Anhalt-Zerbst. She brought the master Regensburg from Vienna, Sculptors Rachette and Falconet and Painters Morot and Svebach from Sevres. In 1779, the sculpture department under the guidance of the gifted Rachette, commenced the creation of two series of figurines, one in color, the other all white, ordered by the Empress to document the national types. This undertaking achieved the most praiseworthy success: the characterizations were superb from both an ethnological and historical viewpoint, the attitudes and costumes sympathetically and skilfully drawn. Some of the individual pieces may be found today in notable private collections although the greater number of these ornaments for the palace banquet tables which have survived destruction and loss are among the museum collections of Russia. Urged to ever greater endeavors by an ambitious sovereign, the Imperial Factory attained its fullest development and earned by its consistently high standards and tremendous output a brilliant place in the annals of porcelain making. A number of handsome dinner services were executed for the Empress' personal use and for her favorites, the one made for Count Gregori Orlov early in her reign being best known. In 1784, the "Arabesque" service comprising 973 pieces and designed in Pompeiian style with cameos and allegorical figures was made for sixty guests and cost 25,000 rubles, the equivalent of $12,500.
The Imperial Porcelain Factory continued to flourish through the brief reign of P'avel I (11796-1801), son of Ekaterina the Great. In this period it excelled in the painting of flowers and fine medallions adapted. from classical sources, and the "Mad Tsar's" interest in its production was marked by numerous commissions for his palaces. The porcelain of Pavei's son and successor, Aleksandr I (1801-1825), in the prevailing taste of the First Empire was singularly graceful, richly colored and embellished. During the sovereignty of Nikolai I (1825-1855) Russia felt the influence of the early Victorian trend in England and this was reflected in the works of the factory which now displayed new versatility of expression while retaining the character of the epoch. A return to the national idiom in the reign of Aleksandr II (1855-1887.) was the result of the monarch's predilection for the traditional art of his realm. This affected not only the Imperial Factory's output but also that of private porcelain manufactories which had come into being in the early nineteenth century and expanded under the patronage of the tsars and the aristocracy. Dinner services were enlivened with gay peasant decorations and simple patterns deriving from the ancient Byzantine premise, as simply colored. There followed the influence of Copenhagen porcelain on that made for the Emperor Aleksandr III (1881-1894) predicated on the fact that the Empress Marie Feodorovna was of Danish birth, and some few examples will be found which display the soft grey-blue and fine pale coloration in monochromatic landscape renderings and fanciful Oriental motifs associated with the Royal Danish ware. The late Tsar Nikolai II (1894-1917) who also admired and used porcelain in this style, though with stronger color, encouraged his artisans to give wide variety to their attempts. The products of his time reflect the characteristics of several of the best earlier periods and also exhibit new tendencies. It was perhaps an increasing scarcity of the first splendid achievements of the factory under Elisaveta Petrovna and Ekaterina II which prompted him to order two new sets of figurines, in color and white like the original series of Catherine the Great, to record, as she had done, something of the national life in his own epoch, and these delightful specimens were reminiscent in almost every particular of the Rachette creations but were modeled on a larger scale.
Administered from the time of its foundation for the exclusive benefit of the imperial family, the Russian Imperial Porcelain Factory remained always the most important of all the ceramic industries that achieved fatne in Russia. But it did not touch all the phases covered by Russian porcelain in the history of that country's art. Two other manufactories of outstanding accomplishment, the houses of Gardner and Popov, and no less than a dozen others of great significance contributed in strong measure to the artistic advancement of the Old Empire and to the unfoldment of beauty for the people of Russia and other lands.