Friday, March 7, 2014

Catherine the Great's treasures are stateside

Marjorie Merriweather Post and her  husband bought masses of mind-boggling booty after the Tsar was overthrown, eventually amassing the most comprehensive collection of Russian imperial art outside of that country. Much of it had belonged to or had been created at the behest of one of the most stupendous art patrons who ever lived: Catherine the Great.
Round Box with Catherine II as Minerva. Paris, 1781–82. Gold, verre eglomisé (gilded glass).
There's an exhibit going on showcasing some of the splendiferous loot at Post's Hillwood Estate in Washington DC, which is also a museum. Featured are objects Catherine commissioned for her own use or for courtiers as gifts. The exhibition presents a range of of dazzling and masterful artworks that exemplify both medieval Byzantine culture and the Western, neoclassical style that was the hallmark of the Enlightenment.
The most magnificent piece is a gold chalice that Catherine commissioned as part of a communion set in 1791. It was made in St. Petersburg by Iver Windfeldt Buch of gold, diamonds, chalcedony, bloodstone, nephrite, carnelian, and cast glass.
This tea set was produced at the Imperial Porcelain Factory as a gift from Catherine II to her favorite, Count Grigorii Grigor’evich Orlov, who took part in the coup to place her on the throne in 1762. It features oval medallions decorated with Orlov’s initials, “GGO,” in Cyrillic letters; gold and silver banners and ribbons; and lid handles with romancing cherubs.
You can view more on Hillwood's website. The site also gives more background on Post, an heiress and businesswoman who transformed the Post Cereal Company into General Foods. In the 1930s, she accompanied her third husband, Joseph E. Davies, to the Soviet Union, where he served as ambassador. At that time the Soviet government was selling treasures it had seized from the church, the imperial family, and the aristocracy to finance its industrialization plan. So the couple bought incredible amounts of imperial porcelain, church vestments and icons, and many other objets d'art, essentially for peanuts.
You can read more about Catherine II in Robert K. Massie's award-winning biography, which I wrote about enthusiastically in this previous post (with excerpts). It's called Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, and we have it in both hardback and paper.
(Images courtesy of Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens)

1 comment:

  1. I've been to the Merriweather house and that collection is divine!!! Nothing beats seeing it up close.