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The Splendor Of Russian Enamels
( Article orginally published April 1945 )
The French traveler, Theophile Gautier, visiting Russia in the nineteenth century made it a point to see Russia in the winter time. In the account that he wrote are many fascinating descriptions of the races on the frozen Neva, and the amusements of the capital in winter.
When he went to visit an elegant Russian apartment and had passed the ante-chamber in which the guests left the fur-lined pelisses and galoches, that were an essential part of the winter costume, he found the interior blooming like a tropical garden. There were flowers everywhere, despite the frigid temperature outside; magnolias, camelias, orchids, and other exotic plants were thriving as though in a hot house. "It is as though by this profusion of bloom the eye were seeking to console itself for the interminable whiteness of winter. The longing to see something that is not white must become a sort of agony in a land where the earth is covered with snow for more than six months of the year. They have not even the satisfaction of looking at the green painted roofs, for they do not change their white shirts till springtime. If their apartments were not transformed into gardens, they would think that green had disappeared forever from the world." Thus writes Gautier and it seems as though in this remark we can see immediately why the Russians were so fond of enamels and why the art which had persisted from the time of its Byzantine origin in the Middle Ages should have flourished again in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
The Russians loved color and they not only decorated the interiors of their churches and houses with color but painted the outside as well and whenever the color grew dingy with time it liance so that even always glistened in in Russian architecture is something which we in the west can visualize only with difficulty. Gautier, in describing Moscow, speaks of the blue cupolas of the houses sprinkled with color, and bulb-shaped was restored to its original brilvery old buildings and paintings a new dress. The effect of color bell-towers covered with brass. A church facade would be painted with brilliant red and a nearby chapel in regal blue which the winter ice scattered with silver. In this environment of color it was essential that even the smaller objects should be colorful, perhaps even more intense in color, the smaller they were. The translucent enamels of the late nineteenth century are closer to jewels, when they are illuminated from within, than any other substance we know of. Such enamels were made by Ovchinikov who was the court enameler to Tzar Aleksandr III. It was through the influence of Aleksandr that there was a great Renaissance leading to the revival of the ancient Muskovite style in art and dress. This came as a reaction to the pronounced western influence which was so strong in the late eighteenth century and the early part of the nineteenth when architecture and decorative arts adopted so many classic forms from France and Italy. The reaction which occurred in the reign of Aleksandr coincided with the increase of territorial gains in Asia and while the arts do not show an intentional imitation of Oriental forms, all that was intrinsically related to the Orient as the result of the contact of former centuries came again into expression. The Byzantine, Arabian, Hindu and Chinese influence had long ago been merged in the Muscovite style. The splendor and beauty of the enamels which came into existence in the reigns of Aleksandr II and III and Nikolai II reveal only the persistent undercurrent of the Oriental in Russian art while showing a highly developed national expression.
The art of enameling in Russia is of very ancient lineage, going back to the period of the Byzantine empire with which Russia was in contact and from whom she received Christianity. Actual examples of antique Russian enamels exist from as early as the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries but these pieces are not so fine as Byzantine work and show a decadence of the art. The colors are muddy and dull. In the sixteenth century more colors were added and a greater variety of tones were used, with white, red and torquoise blue predominating. From then on the art reached a high point of development. Although the method is related to the cloisonne technique of the Orient, it is not the same. The metal is partly raised above the surface and there are other technical differences. The metal outlines of the design form pockets to be filled with the opaque enamel and the surface of the latter is sometimes slightly hollowed, while in cloisonne it is entirely flat.
The jewel chest by Ovchinikov, No. l, which is part of the collection of Russian enamels belonging to the Hammer Galleries, is a beautiful example of opaque inlay with a leaf and blossom pattern in green, black, light blue and white enamel and the addition of transparent pink enamel. The use of transparent enamels with opaque is another distinction from the Oriental cloisonne which uses only opaque. This jewel chest is a perfect example of the revival of the seventeenth century style favored by Aleksandr III. The farm of the top of the chest is taken from the shape of the Russian izba or peasant hut. The transparent enamels shown in Fig. 2, are also by Ovchinikov. These pieces come from the Imperial collection of Nikolai II. This workmanship consists of filigree in which the interstices are filled in with the transparent enamel and as there is no background metal, the light is permitted to shine through and illumine the designs throughout. Sapphire blue, ruby red, azure and cerulean blue, topaz, emerald and chartreuse green are combined in a colorful mosaic. The occasional introduction of white opaque enamel adds an effective contrast. It is said that actual jewels were used in compounding some of these enamels.
It is interesting to compare these works by Ovchinikov with a few of. the antique Russian enamels in the Hammer collection. The inkwell and charka shown in the lower half of Fig. 3 are both seventeenth century pieces. Both are much more restrained in color than the work of Ovchinikov. The charka, a form not unlike the Scotch quaich or the French ecuelle, is distinctively Russian. The bowl of the charka is of stone--with a band of opaque, green, blue and black enamel set in a hinged frame. The inkwell is a rare form, is rectangular in shape with large apertures for ink and shot., and five small central openings to use as quill rests. It is of brass with yellow, blue, black and white enamels in a floral pattern around the sides. The tray which is shown directly above them was made about 1750 in the reign of the Empress Elizabeth. This has a white enamel background inlaid with raised silver and varicolored enamel patterns around the central figure of the doubleheaded eagle of the Empire.
The charming enamel teaset illustrated in Fig. 4 is of silver-gilt decorated with opaque ultramarine, torquoise and azure blue, white and translucent red enamel. These were made in Moscow by A. Klim in 1894 and they show the return to Russian motifs on basic forms which show the influence of the West.
Moscow was long known as a great center for the production of enamels. Also, Rostov, which specialized in small painted enamels featuring religious subjects. It is to be hoped that in these regions which have now been so greatly affected by the war. the traditional craft of Old Russia will again flourish.