Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Marie Antoinette's gift to Maria Feodorovna

Archduke Maximilian Francis of Austria visited Marie Antoinette and her husband on 7 February 1775 at the Château de la Muette.

Gold Snuffbox with a Portrait Miniature of Louis XVI on Ivory by Pierre Noel Violet 1780

It was formerly the custom for French Kings to make important presents to visiting princes,foreign sovereigns and their ambassadors, and indeed to anyone who had rendered them some signal service. It was not only Europeans who benefited from this custom. Gifts were sent to the Grand Turk, the Dey of Algiers, and even the Emperor of China. The most usual present was a gold box, but all the Manufactures Royales were put under contribution. Gobelins tapestries, Sevres porcelain and Savonnerie carpets were all given at one time or another; even furniture and sculpture were presented, though more rarely. The gold boxes have mostly been melted down for cash, but a selection of surviving presents given by Louis XVI & Marie Antoinette have been identified in the sixty-three manuscript registers of Royal gifts which extend from 1640-1789.

George Washington 1799

The signature of the Treaty of Versailles, in 1783, brought and end of the American War of Independence. On that occasion, Louis XVI ordered a series of Beauvais tapestries representing the four parts of the world, as well as two sofas and twelve armchairs to match to be sent to George Washington. It was, of course, out of the question to use old cartoons showing America as a country peopled by plumed savages and exotic animals. Something new was in order, and a refurbished iconography was commissioned to a rather obscure painter by the name of Lebarbier. In the redesigned tapestry a new and young America, that of the recently freed British colonists, holds out a fraternal helping hand to Indian Americans, and in the other hand brandishes the flag of the new republic. This flattering, almost prophetic allegory was not finished till the French Revolution. It was sold in 1795 to pay off a debt of the young French Republic and did not reach America till the 20th century.

Benjamin Franklin Portrait by Joseph Siffred Duplessis

As America's first diplomat to France Benjamin Franklin was leaving office in 1784 to return home to America, French King Louis XVI presented the great diplomat a present of the kind often giving to a departing diplomat. The king had his portrait painted in miniature by Louis Sicardÿ (1746-1825). The portrait was surrounded by 408 diamonds in two concentric rings with a crown at top. Franklin, who offered the gift to the nation to forestall any suspicion of impropriety. With the approval of Congress, and Jefferson's blessing, the portrait was his, and passed as a special line item in his will to his daughter Sarah Bache. Franklin placed a condition upon his bequest .

Portrait miniature giving by King Louis XVI to Benjamin Franklin
The King of France's Picture set with Four hundred and eight Diamonds, I give to my Daughter, Sarah Bache, requesting however that she would not form any of those Diamonds into Ornaments either for herself of Daughters and thereby introduce or countenance the expensive, vain and useless Fashion of wearing Jewels in this Country, and that those immediately connected with the Picture may be preserved with the same.

Franklin was talking about young unmarried lady's in the New world wearing diamonds during the day or all day long. In Europe married lady's only wore diamonds at evening events, such as opera, dinner, dance etc as the rosecut diamonds of the 18th century were meant to be seen in candlelight. So it's nothing new today to see woman in America with diamonds on during the day and unmarried, as this was a problem going back to the 18th century. This was considered trashy in Europe and not of good taste. Sarah complied. But once in her hands, she removed the outer ring of diamonds to sell to finance a planned excursion to Europe. Some people have suggested that Sarah justified her action by arguing that while Benjamin disapproved of jewelry, he approved education, and if nothing else, travel is educational.

Sarah Franklin Bache (1743–1808). Daughter of Benjamin Franklin

Over the years the portrait was passed down thru the generations with each taking its toll on the diamonds will into the mid 20th century. When the miniature was presented to APS in 1959 only the inner ring and a single diamond remained.

Maria Feodorovna

In September 1781, under the pseudonyms of "the Count and Countess Severny," the heir to the Russian throne Paul and his wife Maria Feodorovna set off on a journey that lasted fourteen months and took them to Poland, Austria, Italy, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. Paris made a special impression on the couple. Madame Vigee Le Brun wrote in her memoirs about Maria's husband Paul. “Paul was exceedingly ugly,” “A flat nose, and a very large mouth furnished with very long teeth, made him look like a death's head.” Maria Feodorovna was tall, fair, fresh, buxom and rosy cheeked with a sunny disposition. Maria cultivated the arts with great enthusiasm, not disdaining even needlework.She was skilled in watercolor, she also knew engraving, designed cameos, and created objects of ivory and amber, which she often presented as gifts. She was a gifted musician, and was a renowned specialist in horticulture, with a lifelong passion for flowers and plants.

Maria Feodorovna

During there visit French Queen Marie Antoinette presented Marie Feodorovna with a Neoclassical Sèvres porcelain service de toilette in porcelaine de France, as the set was called then. The Toilet set of porcelain was considered some of the most beautiful porcelain made at Sèvres during the Louis XVI period. The set comprises over sixty pieces of "jewelled Sevres" painted in gold over underglaze lapis lazuli blue ground with classical subjects in gold gilt, and having applied solid gold mounted decorations of the utmost delicacy, with tiny drops of colored enamels fused onto the surface to imitate precious stones. This technique was considered at the time to be the last word in the art of porcelain decoration. Of superb craftsmanship is the oval mirror adorned with the white figures of the Three Graces in biscuit porcelain. Models for these sculptures and for the playing amorini on the pair of porcelain jewelry boxes were made by Louis Simon Boizot, director of sculpture at the Sevres factory. There was even a tongue scraper. The gold and bronze decorations are the work of Jean Claude Duplessis, goldsmith to the French court, and the jewelling was done by the enameller Joseph Cotteau, the inventor of this technique. This masterpiece which won world-wide fame, cost the royal exchequer 75,000 livres, about a million in today's money, and no other set like it was made ever since.

Neoclassical Sèvres porcelain service de toilette in porcelaine de France

Neoclassical Sèvres porcelain service de toilette in porcelaine de France

 Detail of Sèvres porcelain service de toilette

 Detail of Sèvres porcelain service de toilette

 Detail of Sèvres porcelain service de toilette

During their travels they saw the palaces and French gardens of Versailles and Chantilly, which strongly influenced the future appearance of Pavlovsk Park. They ordered more sets of porcelain and purchased statues, busts, paintings, furniture and paintings, all for Pavlovsk Palace. When visiting the famous Sevres factory, they acquired various porcelain goods for the astronomical sum of 300,000 livres. While they traveled, they kept in contact almost daily with Kuchelbecker, the supervisor of construction at Pavlovsk, sending back and forth drawings, plans and notes on the smallest details.

Fireplace in the State Bedroom

Paul and Maria Feodorovna returned in November 1782, and they continued to fill Pavlovsk with art objects. A shipment of antique marbles, statues, busts, urns, and pottery discovered and purchased at Pompei, arrived in 1783. Sixteen sets of furniture, over two hundred pieces, were ordered from Paris between 1783 and 1785 for the State Rooms. In 1784, twelve Hubert Robert landscapes were commissioned for Pavlovsk. The couple purchased ninety-six clocks from Europe. The Imperial Glass factory, made special chandeliers for each room.

Catherine ll the Great

Catherine the Great died in 1796, and Paul became Emperor of Russia. The reign of Emperor Paul did not last long. Paul was murdered by members of his court in 1801, and his son Alexander became Emperor. Pavlovsk Palace became the residence of the Empress Maria Feodorovna, Maria Feodorovna died on October 24, 1828, fourteen days after her sixty-seventh birthday. She left the house to her younger son, Michael, and specified that none of the furniture should be taken away. After Michael's death, it went to the second son of Nicholas I, Constantine Nikolayevich. It then passed to his widow and then their eldest son, Constantine Constantinvich. Her descendants respected the will, and turned the house into a family museum, just as it was when she died.

Maria Feodorovna in mourning early 19th century


Although this famous Sèvres toilet set has been preserved Emperor Paul & Maria's Pavlovsk Palace did not far as well. The German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 took the Soviet government by surprise. The morning after the attack, the curators of Pavlovsk, under the direction of museum curator Anatoliy Kuchumov, began to pack as many of art objects as possible, starting with the Sevres porcelain toilet set given by Louis XVI to Maria Feodorovna and Paul in 1780. Ninety-six hours after the announcement of the beginning of the war, the first thirty-four crates were being carried from the palace by horse-drawn cart. Boards were put over the windows, and sand on the floor of the Palace. The thirty curators often worked by candlelight, and by July there were air raids. The paintings, chandeliers, crystal, porcellain, baes of jasper and rhodonite, rare furniture, and works of ivory and amber were packed and sent first. They worked with great care - each piece of furniture had to be carefully dismantled, porcelain vases had to be separated from the bases, and delicate clocks had to have their casing and mechanisms separated and packed separately, with diagrams on how to put them back together. One piece of each set of furniture was saved, and the others left behind. The Roman and Greek antiquities were too heavy and delicate to move, so they were taken to the basements, placed as close together as possible, and then hidden by a brick wall.

Detail of painted wall decoration

On September 16, the last soldiers left, and the Germans occupied Pavlovsk Palace, which was still occupied by a group of elderly women guardians.The Germans occupied Pavlovsk palace for two and a half years. Officers were quartered in the salons on the first floor, and the ballroom was made into a garage for cars and motorcycles. Barracks were located in the north wing and a hospital in the south wing. German soldiers, Dutch soldiers and Spanish soldiers in special units of the German army occupied the buildings in the Park. The sculpture and furniture that remained in the house and all the books of the Rossi Library were taken to Germany. The statue of Emperor Paul in the courtyard was used as a telephone pole. Fortunately the Germans did not discover the antiquities hidden behind the brick wall in the basement. Pavlovsk was liberated on January 24, 1944. When the Soviet troops arrived, the Palace had already been burning for three days. The main building of the Palace was a hollow shell, without a roof or floors. The north wall had fallen. Most of the parquet floors of the palace had been used as firewood; a few pieces were found in unburned portions of the palace near the stoves. Of the over one hundred thousand trees that had been in the park before the War, seventy thousand had been cut down or destroyed by the shelling. All the decorative bridges in the park had been blown up. Eight hundred bunkers had been dug in the park. The Rose Pavilion was gone; the Germans had used the materials to construct a fortified dugout.

Ruins of Pavlovsk Palace interior in 1944.

During most of the 2th half of the 20th century the palace was reconstructed and restored back to the period of Paul and Maria. Photographs and early plans of the palace were brought together to help with the restoration. As soon as the war ended, a search began for treasures stolen from the Palace. Curators collected pieces of furniture, fabric, the legs of tables and pieces of doors and gilded cornices from the German fortifications around the Palace. In the buildings which had been German headquarters, they found chairs , marble statues and rolled-up paintings from the Palace. They found other furniture and objects as far away as Riga, Tallinn, and in Konigsberg, in Germany.

Cupid in Pavlovsk Palace

The chief of the restoration, Feodor Oleinik, was insistent that all the restoration be faithful to the original work: "Pay attention and do not use later details," he demanded. "Only the original variant, only that done by Cameron, Brenna, Vornykhin, or Rossi." Old techniques of artisans of the eighteenth century, such as painting false marble and gilding furniture, had to be relearned and applied. A silk workshop was opened in Moscow to recreate the original woven fabrics for wall coverings and upholstery, copying the texture, color and thread counts of the originals. In forty rooms of the Palace, painted decoration on the walls and ceilings had to be precisely recreated in the original colors and designs. A Master painter and six helpers recreated the original trompe l'oeil ceilings and wall paintings. The Sèvres toilet set is now in the apartment of the Tzarina at Pavlosk Palace, exactly the same spot it was originally brought to.
Sèvres porcelain service de toilette


  1. Fabulous post, I can't imagine what went into all those pots and jars!! You did amazing research... I am in love with those curators. Bless them!

  2. Thank you. Lot's of makeup, hair cream and powder went into the jars and pots.

  3. Her Serenity Highness Princess Ekaterina Ioannovna Romanov of Russia was born in Pavlovsk in 1912, she was a daughter of Prince Ioan (John) Konstantinovich of Russia and Princess Elena Petrovna Karageorgevic of Serbia. Grand Daughter of Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich the last owner of Pavlovsk and Grand Duchess Elizaveta Makrevievna, née Princess of Saxe Meiningen. Her father was murdered in Alapayevsk, the Urals on July 17, 1918 alongside with his two brothers Igor Konstantinovich and Konstantin Konstantinovich Prince of Russia, the Grand Duke Sergei Mijailovich Romanov of Russia, Grand Duchess Saint Elizaveta Fyodorovna of Russia, née Princess of Hesse Darmstadt und bei Rhein (Empress Alexandra'sister) and the young poet Prince Vladimir Pavlovich Paley, morganatic son of Grand Duke Pavel Aleksandrovich, uncle of Tsar Nicholas II. Princess Ekaterina left Russia with her mother, grandmother and others after the assassination of her father, uncles, aunt and 14 Romanov more. She married an Roman aristocrat Marquese Faracce della Foresta and left Europe, when the Red Army advanced in Germany and found refuge in Argentina, she lived a very low profile life, but was always invited in the Russian émigrés millieu and the Argentine high society. She moved to Montevideo, Uruguay and passed away when she was 96 years old.