PRINT November 1964

Fabergé: the High Art of Luxury

TO SURVEY ANY COMPREHENSIVE selection of the decorative objects produced by the House of Fabergé between 1870 and 1915 is to become enraptured with a veritable wonderland of elfin-miniature creations of dazzling brilliance and opulence. Here are to be found, in lavish profusion, varicolored alloys of gold, as well as precious and semi-precious gems combined with enamels and glazes in a facile diversity of techniques to produce a rich spectrum of subtle translucent colors.

The House of Fabergé was founded at St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1842 by Gustav Fabergé, and had acquired only a modest prestige as a fashionable manufacturer of expensive but conventional jewelry when Peter Carl Fabergé, eldest son of Gustav Fabergé, succeeded his father as director of the firm in 1870. Almost immediately upon assuming management Carl Fabergé decided on a momentous change of policy: to abandon the manufacture of ordinary jewelry and to concentrate on the production of the exquisite novelties and objets d’art which were to bring him fame. For the young Fabergé, an imaginative scholar-artisan, this decision was probably a creative necessity. It was also a remarkably shrewd stroke of business acumen, for St. Petersburg was the social center of a fabulously wealthy nobility in whom the ennui of surfeit had created a constant demand for even the most trifling novelties, diversions and distractions.

An inventory of the unique objets de luxe produced by the firm during the forty-five years prior to its dissolution—baubles, in a sense, most of which represent many man hours of the combined skills of highly specialized mastercraftsmen—would be staggeringly voluminous. The 171 items making up the exhibition of Fabergé’s works organized by the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco comprise only a small, but fairly representative selection from this prodigious output. However, as breathtaking as are some of the exhibits so carefully assembled by the de Young from 31 widely scattered public and private collections in the United States and Europe, it by no means includes the most spectacular pieces. The most significant items omitted from the de Young’s exhibition are examples of the ingenious mechanical devices and automata which combined the skills of the enameler, the lapidarist, the goldsmith and the horologist. One of these, a clock in the form of an Easter egg in the French Sevres manner, from the top of which a gorgeous enamel cockerel emerges hourly to flap his wings and crow the time, is in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Landsdell Christie of New York. The de Young selection would have been strengthened a little had it included a few such choice items from the Christie collection which was exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C. 1961) and at the Metropolitan Museum (New York 1962). It is surprising not to find the names of these enthusiastic and avid specialists in “objets de Fabergé” among the many New York contributors to the West’s first major exhibition of Fabergé artifacts. However, the de Young’s contributors were able to make up a fairly strong representation of miniature period furniture, cigarette cases, cane handles, carved animals, and the like, as well as two classes of objects upon which the Fabergé atelier lavished particular skill: artificial flowers and the Imperial Easter eggs.

The most unrestrainedly jubilant feast day of the Russian Orthodox church is Easter, the celebration of which begins at midnight with festive church services resounding with exaltant choral polyphony and lasting well into Easter dawn, after which friends and acquaintances embrace, kissing one another on both cheeks with the traditional greeting “Christos Voskress!” (Christ is Risen) and its response “Vahyeestyeno Voskress!” (Truly Risen). They then frequently exchange the little hard-boiled eggs with colored shells that have been blessed by the priest. Among the most colorful folk arts of Russia and the Ukraine was the painting of these traditional presentation Easter eggs with elaborate decorative motifs. When Tsar Alexander III, three years after his accession to the throne, appointed the House of Fabergé official goldsmiths to the Imperial Court, the appointment was accompanied with a standing commission to make annually a magnificent jeweled egg of unique design to be the Emperor’s presentation Easter egg for the Tsarina Maria Feoderovna. This standing commission was continued and augmented by Nicholas II, who required two eggs, one for his mother the Dowager Empress and one for the Tsarina Alexandra Feoderovna. Consequently Fabergé produced some 58 of these Imperial Easter eggs. Fabergé was explicitly given a free hand in the matter of design and choice of precious materials, it being made clear that no expense need be spared. These eggs were usually bisected in some plane, in such a way as to open by an elaborate clasp-and-hinge device, exposing a hollowed or partly hollowed interior of rich design containing one or more delicately wrought miniature objects, such as the egg with nested crown and ruby illustrated here. The Christie collection contains an egg which opens to reveal a similar yoke-like inner lid, which in turn opens to reveal a hollow golden hen, which encloses the ultimate surprise, a minuscule photograph frame mounted on an ornate miniature golden easel.

Some of the designs for the Easter eggs were completely original, while others were based on famous Easter eggs and egg baskets in renowned European collections, particularly the “Green Vaults” at Dresden. Carl Fabergé had studied jewelsmithing in Dresden and had later traveled throughout Europe familiarizing himself with every major historic decorative style. He produced a large number of objects that were strict essays within one specific historical and regional decorative convention or another, as well as a considerable variety of eclectic pieces. In keeping with the fashionable pretensions to cosmopolitanism of the Russian nobility, Western European Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, and “Art Nouveau” styles provided his principal sources of decorative motifs. He produced surprisingly few pieces in the popularly traditional “Byzantine-Rococo” manner of 17th century Russia. Such pieces as he designed in the latter style were mainly religious icons and ecclesiastical and emblematic jewelry. A few Easter eggs and other objects for the Imperial family embodied Byzantine motifs after 1913 when the Romanov tercentenary and the Slavophilic leanings of the Tsar revived an archaic Russian nationalism in the various arts. Perhaps one of the most original and unique of Fabergé’s conceptions are the artificial flowers and “sprig bouquets” in which every botanical detail is artfully simulated in shape and color by carefully selected jades, enamels and semi-precious stones, while the stems are usually set in either pink, straw-colored or greenish gold set into rockcrystal facsimiles of partially water-filled tumblers and bowls of classically simple contours.

Among the techniques for which Fabergé artisans were most renowned was the employment of variegated shades of gold known as “quatre-couleur” (i.e. the four principal shadings of gold: white, yellow, pale green and pale red, produced by alloys) and the use of some 140 delicate and elaborate “guilloche” patterns. The latter are patterns etched by mechanical cutting knives into a metal ground in such a way as to be visible through translucent colored enamel glazes. These patterns, involving close-knit and intersecting sequences of wavy lines, whirls and the like, when reflected through the transparent enamel glaze, impart to it a scintillating, iridescent, shimmering quality.

The life of Peter Carl Gustavovich Fabergé spanned the long, turbulent and fateful era of Russian history that was to culminate in the 1917 Revolution. He was born in St. Petersburg May 30, 1846, fifteen years before Alexander II, the most enlightened of Tsars, terminated feudalism in Russia by his famous Ukaz of 1861 liberating the serfs. Fabergé was thirty-five years of age and the head of his firm when the same liberal monarch, who was on the verge of establishing a constitution (which would have limited the powers of the monarchy and established a parliament) was assassinated by a bomb in the courtyard of the Winter Palace in 1881. Alexander II was succeeded by his son, Alexander III, Fabergé’s first royal patron, a bullheaded reactionary who tore up the constitution upon which his father had labored for years and inaugurated an era of censorship, police terrorism and church-state despotism which was to continue in spite of constant harassment by revolutionists and assassinations of members of the royal family until the collapse of the Romanov dynasty in the final years of World War I, three years before Fabergés death at Lucerne, Switzerland in 1920.

At the height of Fabergé’s career as Court goldsmith the Court of Nicholas II was in constant turmoil as a result of the young Tsarevich’s affliction with hemophilia and the personal involvement of the Imperial family with the scandalously dissolute self-styled peasant holy man, Rasputin, who was ultimately murdered out of patriotic motives by Prince Youssoupoff, another eminent Fabergé patron. Yet certainly none of the political and domestic upheavals which beset Fabergé’s royal patrons are reflected in the serenity and charm of the objects of superb craftsmanship and restrained aristocratic taste which the House of Fabergé produced during this era. A. Kenneth Snowman has summarized matters very well in describing the great Fabergé artifacts as “unselfconscious objects of luxury never losing their sense of informality; off-duty pieces which reconcile the wealthy to their wealth in a relaxed, good-natured manner with never a hint of moral accusation to cause discomfiture.” Perhaps in the case of the last Romanovs these trinkets helped to reconcile the wealthy and despotically powerful to their wealth and power all too successfully and unaccusingly; for the weak and ambivalent Nicholas II and his giddy family might have lived out their lives in quiet and comfortable self-sought exile had not the glitter and pomp of luxury with which they had so ubiquitously surrounded themselves imparted such a treacherous illusion of a serene, charmed, invulnerable security.

Palmer D. French