Purchase, Friends of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Gifts, 1998
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 553
The art of bone-carving in Russia is inseparably linked with the remote northern whaling city of Arkhangel'sk. Lack of academic training and his humble position in a customs office were not impediments to the most widely recognized Arkhangel'sk bone carver, Nikolai Stepanovich Vereshchagin, whose vases were commissioned as ambassadorial gifts of state and for the personal collection of Czar Alexander I. The oval body of each of these examples in the Neoclassical style is decorated with an ajouré (pierced) decoration, four circular medallions in relief, and a finial surmounted by the figure of Atlas. The design of the energetically curving floral stalks resembles ornament found in seventeenth-century Russian book illustrations, and the Four Elements–one in each medallion–were inspired either by the "Frankish" prints circulating in Russia since the seventeenth century or by images from the "Book of Symbols and Emblems" commissioned by Peter the Great in 1703 in Amsterdam. This elegant pair of vases is a particularly fine example of the work of Vereshchagin. "The noble and calm simplicity" of their form and the exquisite carving blend well with some stiffness in the rendering of the human bodies, which only adds to this artwork an air of soft, intimate charm.