Russian Artistic Movements 18th Century Imperial Russian Jewellery 18th–19th Centuries

Imperial Russian Jewellery 18th–19th Centuries

For most of the eighteenth and part of the nineteenth century, Russian art was dominated by three main styles – Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassicism. Each trend personified the aesthetic ideals and tastes of a certain period. One style replaced another, gradually increasing its circle of followers.

Yet the old style did not immediately surrender its position. It continued to evoke interest for many years, existing in parallel to and often interacting with the new movement. It is impossible to give preference to any one trend; each is fine in its own way. In each style, talented masters strove for technical perfection, bringing to life the inspiration of the original artistic concept.

Although the majority of silversmiths were based in Moscow and St Petersburg, many outstanding masters also worked in the provinces. In 1700, Peter the Great passed a law requiring Russian masters to stamp their initials on their output. Unfortunately, even when the object is a great work of art, the names behind many monograms are no longer known.

The Baroque style – from the Italian word barocco, meaning bizarre or whimsical – emerged in Italy in the late sixteenth century. The style soon spread across the whole of Western Europe in the seventeenth century, acquiring its own specific national features in each different country. Baroque reached Russia in the last quarter of the seventeenth century, influencing architecture, icon-painting, wooden fretwork and jewellery.

The first works of Russian silverware in the Baroque style date from the early 1680s. They were created by the masters of the Gold and Silver Chambers in the Moscow Kremlin. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the new trend initially flourished at the Russian court, which was familiar with works of European jewellery and engraving. The Kremlin masters included many foreign subjects who were already acquainted with the new movement.

One of the earliest examples of Russian Baroque was a silver chalice commissioned by Tsar Feodor III for the palace chapel – the Church of the Crucifixion of Christ – in 1681. The bell-shaped cup is decorated with engraved cartouches of a typical Baroque pattern. The relief heads of cherubim on the base are included in an ornamental design unusual for Russia, known as knorpel, from the German word for cartilage or gristle.

Although the master was clearly familiar with the new style, this work is only a first timid attempt to borrow individual elements of European Baroque. By the end of the century, however, Baroque ornamentation – bunches of fruit hanging on ribbons, winding acanthus shoots, tulips and volutes – had became firmly established in Moscow silverware, remaining the main decorative style until the mid-eighteenth century. Moscow masters generally imitated works of German silverware, of which there was a large amount in the Russian capital at this time.

Such cities as Augsburg, Hamburg and Nuremberg were the leading centres of silverware production in Western Europe in the seventeenth century. Works of German silverware were brought to Russia as presents from foreign ambassadors to the tsars. They were also bought by Russians travelling abroad or acquired from foreign traders in Russia.

Many German and Swedish masters lived in Moscow in the first half of the eighteenth century, continuing to work in their own traditional manners. Russian silversmiths copied works that took their fancy, particularly small glasses, goblets, tankards and plates. When working on large objects, Russian masters usually departed from the original, altering the composition, adding decorative details and modelling the relief in their own way.

The influence of West European and Russian engraving can be seen in the decor of religious silverware. Russian masters reproduced images encountered in prints on patens, plates, Gospel covers, chalices and tabernacles, employing such techniques as engraving, niello and embossing. Only a few Russian masters, however, had a command of the niello technique in the first half of the eighteenth century.

In the early eighteenth century, Russian art experienced a surge of interest in portraiture, which was also reflected in works of silverware. The lack of a proper training, however, limited the possibilities of the silversmiths. Jewellers generally employed enamel-painted portraits, which they simply mounted in pectoral badges, snuff-boxes and other objects. Portraits of the tsar in precious settings were awarded as official decorations to courtiers, generals and bishops. Embossed and engraved portraits were also reproduced on goblets, tankards, tots and decorative kovshs.

Symbols and allegories were popular during the Baroque period. Interest in the hidden meanings of images continued throughout the entire eighteenth century. In 1705, Peter the Great published a book entitled Symbols and Emblems in Russian in Amsterdam. The book contained over eight hundred drawings of emblems, each accompanied by an inscription explaining its meaning. Later republished, Symbols and Emblems provided rich material for the decoration of silverware, particularly presents. The images on the objects often expressed friendly wishes or confessions of love.

The Régence style found its way to Russia in the 1730s and 1740s. Named after the regency of Philip of Orleans in France (1715–23), this style was characterised by ornamental designs of narrow intertwining ribbons. There are relatively few surviving works of Russian silverware in the Régence style. Although the simple embossed or engraved lace-like patterns were accessible to a large number of masters, the result was a simple-looking object not always treasured by its owner. Attempting to make a work look more elegant, silversmiths often added cast details, enamel compartments and precious and semi-precious stones.

In the 1730s, stylised shells and curved volutes began to be increasingly employed in the decoration of silverware, often supplemented by small flowers. These developments reflected the invasion of the new Rococo style (the term is derived from the French word rocaille for a decorative motif in the shape of a shell).

Russian masters needed time to fully master the logics of the construction of Rococo ornamentation, combining the individual elements to form an uninterrupted asymmetric pattern with an inclined axis of composition and its own rhythm. Even in works made by very talented masters between the 1730s and the 1750s, the shells and volutes are not properly linked up. They are arranged symmetrically, floating on the surface of the object or timidly wedged inside rich Baroque ornamentation. When they eventually assimilated the principles of Rococo decor, however, Russian silversmiths created many unique works of art.

The Rococo style was particularly popular in St Petersburg, where there were more foreign masters than in Moscow. In the 1740s, they created many works of extremely high technical standards. Zacharias Deichman was a famous silversmith from St Petersburg who worked in the Rococo style.

In the second quarter of the eighteenth century, Moscow silversmiths were often invited to St Petersburg to work on commissions for the new imperial palaces. Such trips contributed to the spread of Rococo to Moscow, where it remained popular until almost the end of the eighteenth century, competing with Neoclassicism. The 1760s and 1770s were the golden age of the style in Moscow.

In Baroque silverware, the main decorative elements and composition were executed in extremely high relief. The Rococo style was different. The intricate relief work was modelled with a series of rises and falls and various forms of chasing, creating a detailed pattern of circles, ovals and stars. Part of the ornamentation was matt; the other was polished until it shone. The Rococo masters often applied gilt, only not all over the work, but just in certain places. Such techniques heightened the play of light and shade, making the object more decorative.

Secular and religious works alike paid tribute to the new style. Sometimes this was confined to a single shell or a couple of volutes inside a Baroque pattern. At other times, it took the form of a bewildering array of different designs – large relief patterns or small elegant ones stealing across the surface. The forms of works were often unsettled, divided into unequal sections by curved vertical ribs. Russian silversmiths produced such diverse works in the Rococo style as icon and Gospel covers, chalices, panagias, crosses, snuff-boxes and many other decorative and utilitarian objects.

Bouquets and vases of flowers were popular motifs in Rococo ornamentation. Bouquet holders – nosegays of precious stones attached to women’s gowns – competed with the real flowers adorning dresses at court balls. The unsurpassed master of this form of decoration was Jérémie Pauzié, a French Huguenot jeweller from Switzerland who worked in St Petersburg.

In the late 1770s, Moscow masters began to include elements of the new Neoclassical style – hanging garlands and wreaths – in Rococo decor. The forms gravitated towards symmetry, the rocaille volutes increased in size and the polished surface occupied a larger space.

Rococo reached the Russian provinces later than in Moscow and St Petersburg, enjoying its peak of popularity in the 1770s and 1780s. The silversmiths of Veliky Ustyug, Kaluga, Yaroslavl and Tobolsk quickly assimilated the new style. Masters from Veliky Ustyug were particularly famed for their niello works. The rocaille ornamentation on their snuff boxes, perfume flasks, crosses, goblets and chalices usually provided the frame for a composition on a definite subject. The most widespread themes were gallant or pastoral scenes – popular subjects in the Rococo period – illustrations to works of literature and biblical compositions.

For greater expressiveness, the silversmiths hollowed, embossed and dotted the background, making it granular and matt. Individual details of the composition – usually architectural images – were polished and gilded. The figures of the people in the foreground were covered in niello. Such time-consuming techniques were only employed on expensive commissions. Masters generally only hollowed and dotted the background around the image. This device was later rejected in favour of smooth niello engraving.

The works of the masters of Tobolsk – the capital of Siberia in the eighteenth century – were technically similar to the niello silverware of Veliky Ustyug. The finest works were made in the 1770s and 1780s for the governor of Tobolsk, Denis Ivanovich Chicherin, who was a frequent customer and a patron of local artists.

The old Russian town of Yaroslavl was traditionally famous as a centre of the applied arts. The seventeenth-century chalices and patens from Yaroslavl are distinguished for their handsome floral patterns and technical mastery. The local silversmiths continued these fine traditions in the eighteenth century. The most famous eighteenth-century silversmith from Yaroslavl was Afanasy Korytov, a brilliant embosser whose creations rival those of his colleagues from Moscow and St Petersburg. Most of his works cover the period from 1761 to 1789.

While Afanasy Korytov was working in Yaroslavl, Maxim Zolotaryov was active in Kaluga. A silversmith and a rich merchant, Zolotarev sold his creations in both his native town and at all national fairs. His son later built a magnificent mansion in the centre of Kaluga (1805–08).

While Moscow and provincial masters were still decorating works in the Rococo style, heeding the tastes of their customers, there was a growing interest in a more austere movement in St Petersburg – Neoclassicism. Emerging in France in the mid-eighteenth century, this new style was an original reaction to the whimsical frivolity of Baroque and Rococo. Neoclassicism was pioneered by Charles-Nicolas Cochin the Younger, who advised jewellers, carvers, embossers and other applied artists to follow simple forms and distinct lines and to not attempt “changing the order of things.”

Excavations of the ancient towns of Herculaneum in 1738 and Pompeii in 1748 stimulated popular interest in the Classical heritage. In France, Neoclassicism became known as the Louis XVI style. In Russia, the movement acquired its own national features, particularly evident in works of jewellery made in Moscow and the interior. Neoclassical masters from St Petersburg tended to adhere more closely to West European works of silverware.

Cameos and intaglios were popular in the Neoclassical period. Cameos are engraved gemstones in which the surrounding material is cut away to create a relief design. Intaglios are the opposite – engraved gems in which figures or other devices are carved into the stone

Cameos and intaglios were both imported and carved in Russia, turning sapphires, emeralds, amethysts and topazes into precious works of art. They were used to decorate snuff boxes and panagias, inserted in signet rings and bracelets and employed as seals or stamps. Johann Caspar Gottlieb Jaeger was particularly celebrated for his intaglio portraits of Catherine the Great on sapphires.

Cameos on precious and hard imitation stones were expensive and only within the means of the very rich. This explains the fashion for cameos on such cheaper materials as mother-of-pearl and seashells or imitation stones made of papier-mâché.

The fashion for cameos on ancient subjects was accompanied by a fresh wave of interest in grisaille – painting done entirely in shades of grey or another neutral greyish colour. Enamellers employed this technique in jewellery, painting miniatures in restrained brown tones on light-blue backgrounds. Such miniatures occur in various works – panagias, chalices and Gospels – combining perfectly with the austere Neoclassical decor. The technical standards of the painting range from the primitive and crude to the highly professional, with subtle draughtsmanship, intelligent compositions and masterly brushwork.

Russian masters did not make the enamel compartments themselves; they bought or commissioned them from professionals. In 1779, the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg opened a special class of miniature painting. This studio later formed the basis for an independent class of enamel painting, where artists received a professional training, helping to establish the academic manner in enamel art.

St Petersburg was not the only centre of painted enamel miniatures in the second half of the eighteenth century. The craft also flourished in Moscow and Rostov the Great, where works were characterised by bright, multi-coloured enamels. Watercolour miniatures painted on thin ivory plates were inserted in medallions, signet rings and snuff boxes.

Compared to the Neoclassical output of St Petersburg, the works of Moscow jewellers were more richly ornamented, employing diverse and splendid motifs. Besides embossing, the masters also applied niello engraving on a gilt background. These striking combinations of black and gold were extremely popular and typical of the Moscow silverware of this period.

Russian writer and historian Nikolai Karamzin promoted Sentimentalism in Russian literature in the late eighteenth century. The style soon spread into the fine arts, where it influenced works of Russian jewellery. Decorations bearing locks of hair of loved ones were extremely popular. Medallions, rings, images of burial urns and boxes decorated with portraits of women painted in grey-blue watercolours on ivory plates were also widespread.

Neoclassicism did not only dictate the decoration and subjects of works; it also influenced their forms. Such geometric forms as rectangles, circles, ovals, cylinders, cubes and spheres were popular. Elements of ancient architecture – columns, pilasters, porticoes and rotundas – are often encountered in Neoclassical tabernacles and candelabra.

The golden age of Russian sculpture in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century influenced the development of national silverware. Works were often decorated with such cast sculptural details as figures of angels, people dressed in ancient clothes, animals and birds. The cast figures of animals and people were usually modelled by professional sculptors.

Casting was frequently employed in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, when Russian Neoclassicism was influenced by the Empire style. The Empire style developed in France during the first Empire (1804–14) and corresponded to the Regency style in Britain. During this period, chalices were decorated with the figures of angels and the Evangelists. Candlesticks were adorned with cast swans, deer, rams and sphinxes. The details and edges of objects were ornamented with short, stylised acanthus leaves. Silversmiths used mechanical means of working the material – lamination, stamping and riffling – to lower the cost of works made from precious metals.

Workshops in St Petersburg began to produce a large number of utilitarian objects made from thin-leafed silver, decorated with applied stripes of laminated low-relief ornamentation – sugar bowls, sweet stands, salt cellars, boxes and toilette sets. Images of mythological heroes – dancing nymphs, cupids playing on lyres and chariots pulled by dolphins – adorn the tankards made at the workshop of Peter Andreas Muller. Such works were popular wedding or birthday presents.

Besides ancient mythology, Neoclassical masters were also influenced by Russian history. Works of painting, sculpture and jewellery were inspired by heroic events, famous statesmen and military commanders. Many subjects executed in embossing, engraving, niello and enamel celebrate the victory over Napoleon in 1812.

Neoclassicism remained popular in Russia until the mid-1830s, when it gave way to a resurgence of interest in Rococo. In provincial centres, however, the style continued to flourish until almost the middle of the century. The masters of Veliky Ustyug and Vologda produced masterpieces of Neoclassical silverware decorated with niello. With rare exceptions, Neoclassical works from other provincial centres are less interesting. They merely imitate the produce of Moscow and St Petersburg or are of an inferior technical and artistic standard.

The mechanisation of jewellery production led to a fall in the demand for expensive, hand-made works. Attempting to compete with the mass produce of Moscow and St Petersburg, provincial masters simplified the means of applying the niello, rejecting hollow dotted backgrounds and employing simple patterns. Objects requiring time-consuming technical work were only made by special commission. The silversmiths of Veliky Ustyug were frequently asked to make snuff-boxes, hanging icons and glasses, often decorated with the owner’s monogram or a dedicatory inscription.

Views of towns, maps and plans – sometimes accompanied by statistical data – were popular in Russian silverware in the first third of the nineteenth century. This tendency can be seen in the oeuvres of two outstanding silversmiths from Vologda – Ivan Zuyev and Sakerdon Skripitsyn. Many of their works are now in museum collections, demonstrating their talent for engraving and niello.

Despite experiencing rises and falls throughout the whole of Europe, Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassicism never completely faded away. Throughout the nineteenth and even in the early twentieth century, these three styles continued to inspire jewellers, who came up with new variations on the old designs, forms and compositions. The finest creations of the past also belonged to the present.

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