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Selected Highlights

Celebrating Saint Petersburg

June 11, 2003–January 25, 2004

Celebrating the three hundredth anniversary of the founding of Saint Petersburg, the exhibition features the Metropolitan Museum's principal holdings of Russian and European art, spanning the period from about 1700 through the early twentieth century, that were either made in the imperial Russian capital or found in former Saint Petersburg collections. The selection of approximately sixty-five objects includes exquisitely crafted furniture, gold, silver, porcelain, and other luxury items of Russian as well as French, English, and German manufacture. Highlights of the display are the spectacular bust of Alexander Menshikov, the first governor of Saint Petersburg, a recently rediscovered ewer and basin from the "Golden Service" of Catherine I (r. 1725–27), and the newly acquired Imperial Tula steel table from Pavlovsk Palace. The exhibition inaugurates the Metropolitan's new European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Special Exhibitions Gallery.

Named for its founder, Peter the Great, the city of Saint Petersburg was established in 1703 as a manifestation in stone of Peter's dream of the new "Westernization" and cultural flowering of Russia. Peter imported the most accomplished architects, artists, and craftsmen from all over Europe to design and beautify the new capital—and to impart their skills to their Russian counterparts. Picturesquely sited on the banks of the Neva River and its delta islands, Saint Petersburg became known as the "Venice of the North." The glittering array of palaces and elegant townhouses rising along its waterways and boulevards provided the original setting for many of the objects featured in the exhibition.

Among the first works encountered in the exhibition is the spectacular bust (anonymous, ca. 1703–4) of Prince Alexander Menshikov, Peter's closest friend and chief military commander, appointed by the czar in 1703 as first governor general of Saint Petersburg. A flamboyant and powerful personality, he is depicted wearing an extravagantly curled wig and armor decorated with images of the great heroes of antiquity, alluding to his dual roles of courtier and conqueror. (The Menshikov Palace, one of imperial Saint Petersburg's most impressive residences and its first stone building, still stands and is a popular tourist attraction.)

The exhibition also includes a silver gilt ewer and basin only recently identified as coming from the famed "English Service," ordered in 1726 from a group of important London silversmiths by Empress Catherine I, the short-reigning widow and successor of Peter the Great. Items produced in the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory, established in Saint Petersburg in 1744, include a delicate rococo covered cup and saucer from a tea service made about 1760 for Empress Elizabeth I, as well as an outstanding group of figurines, ordered by Catherine II (the Great), representing nations contained within the vast Russian empire. A magnificent Parisian neoclassical-style tureen, made about 1770–71 by Jacques Nicolas Roettiers, exemplifies the imperial Russian taste for all things French. Originally it formed part of an enormous silver service of more than three thousand items commissioned by Catherine the Great for her favorite, Count Gregory Orloff.

French furniture was also greatly in demand among the Russian elite. From Pavlovsk Palace, the magnificent residence built for Catherine the Great's son, Czar Paul I, comes a secretary of about 1776, mounted with Sèvres porcelain plaques and attributed to the famed Parisian cabinetmaker Martin Carlin. The Russian admiration for the intellectual as well as artistic culture of France is documented by Jean-Antoine Houdon's portrait bust of the great French philosophe Voltaire. Count Alexander Stroganoff acquired it for his renowned art collection in Saint Petersburg. The marble bust is dated 1778, the same year that Voltaire's entire library was purchased by Catherine the Great and brought to Saint Petersburg.

One of the most important objects on view is a splendid ornamental table—recently acquired by the Metropolitan—that was made about 1780–85 for the imperial family at the Imperial Armory in Tula, south of Moscow. Encrusted with faceted cut-steel beading, its diamond-like sparkle and fairytale appearance make it the ultimate embodiment of eighteenth-century Russian decorative arts. Also exemplifying the exquisite refinement and inventiveness of Russian craftsmen is a pair of vases (ca. 1795–1800) made of walrus and elephant ivory by Nikolai Stepanovich Vereshchagin. Designed to hold potpourri, the vases feature intricately carved and pierced lids, which would have allowed the perfume to escape slowly. One of the most ingenious items on view is an eighteenth-century snuffbox made from the shell of a green turban snail, fitted with silver mounts and niello decoration.

Featured works of the nineteenth century include a brilliantly conceived porcelain table, commissioned in 1834 from the Royal Porcelain Manufactory in Berlin by the Prussian King Frederick William III as a gift for the Grand Duchess Helena Pavlovna of Russia. The latter's legendary salon was one of the political and cultural centers of Saint Petersburg. Also on view are watches and a selection of silver, gold, and platinum objets-de-vertu by a variety of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian silversmiths and jewelers.