The State Hermitage Museum is currently holding the exhibition Furniture for a Body’s Every Whim… The Age of Historicism in Russia devoted to the development of the furniture-maker’s art between the 1820s and 1890s, when in Russia, following Europe’s lead, the single all-embracing style that was Classicism gave way to an enthusiasm for the art of different countries and peoples from the past – the age of Historicism.
In Russia, the era spanned the reigns of three emperors: Nicholas I, Alexander II and Alexander III. Among them, it was undoubtedly Nicholas I who had the strongest influence on the formation of a romantic perception of history.
Drawing inspiration exclusively from Greco-Roman Antiquity, which had for more than 60 years supplied artists’ creative palette, began to seem dry and boring. New crazes took Russian cultural life by storm: in art a host of different styles appeared that people at the time gave convenient labels: “Neo-Grecian”, “Renaissance”, “Second Rococo”, “Gothic Revival”, “Moresque”, “Neo-Pompeian” and so on.
The fascination with the past that found striking expression in high society life in “historical” masquerades, was perhaps reflected strongest of all in works of decorative and applied art. Here furniture, as the chief element within people’s material environment, played an important role. In the words of one of the characters in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, “There were many sofas and couches, settees, tables, large and small. There were pictures on the walls, vases and lamps on the tables, masses of flowers…”
Tastes in the age of Historicism tended towards variety in shapes and decorative motifs. This also applied to the materials chosen for the finishing of furniture: besides the customary mahogany and “natural look” poplar, they might use stained “black poplar”, amaranth (purpleheart), walnut, lemonwood or curly grey maple, supplemented here and there with silvered and gilded elements. Capturing the distinctive features of the legacy of the past, while at the same time seeking to surpass their predecessors, the craftsmen invented new technologies and materials.
The vast range of designs and decorative techniques that the age of Historicism produced defies straightforward description. The names of some pieces of furniture have long since become obsolete or are today used for entirely different objects. And when we are reading our favourite works from that period, we often fail to realize that by mentioning, say, a “bergère” or “Gambs armchairs” an author immediately indicated his characters’ standard of living, their tastes and financial circumstances.
Much of daily life in the 19th century is today hidden from us by the veil of the intervening years. Raising that veil and, most importantly, showing the sort of settings in which the dramatic events described by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Goncharov and Turgenev would have taken place is one of the main tasks of the exhibition. Its title “Furniture for a Body’s Every Whim” is a quotation from an 1839 short story by Nikolai Pavlov, who was a very well-known writer in his day. The epithets “whimsical”, “fanciful” and “ornate” were fashionable expressions used particularly often in the age of Historicism, relating to all sorts of things, but always implying especial refinement.
Of exceptional significance are the examples of items that have survived from the authentic furnishings of the Winter Palace – mute witnesses to the life of the imperial family over a period of several decades.
Pieces of furniture from the rooms of the Winter Palace, many of which were recorded in watercolour paintings of the interiors, form a leitmotif that runs through each section of the display devoted to a particular stylistic tendency of the 1820s–90s. Judging by the painted records, besides the traditional sofas, chairs and armchairs, in the Winter Palace there was a great demand for various secretaires, bureaus and writing desks, especially of the sort one would use standing up. They could be found not only in the emperor’s study, but also in practically all the school rooms, the libraries and even the bedrooms. The decoration of the main imperial residence, devised by leading architects was seen by the people of the time as an indicator of fashion, a demonstration of the latest trends in artistic and decorative craftsmanship. Drawings and sketches by gifted architects and designers working on the palace interiors were used for the production of furniture in the workshops of leading St Petersburg manufacturers – the Gambs brothers, Vasily Babkov, Konrad Gut, Adolf Emsen and others, who then included them with minor changes in their own ranges, delighting their customers with items from the furnishing of the palatial halls of “His Majesty the Emperor”. Having furniture similar to the monarch’s was always prestigious, although exact copies were generally avoided.
There are 300 items in the exhibition, the majority of which are being shown for the first time – drawn designs for furniture; engraved depictions of furniture from the showrooms of St Petersburg shops and workshops; watercolours depicting palace interiors and works of decorative and applied art – reflect the most distinctive phenomena of the time from an artistic point of view and with regard to the patterns of daily life.
The exhibition curator is Natalia Yuryevna Guseva, Candidate of Art Studies, deputy head of the State Hermitage’s Department of the History of Russian Culture.
A scholarly illustrated catalogue in Russian “Furniture for a Body’s Every Whim…” The Age of Historicism in Russia (St Petersburg: State Hermitage Publishing House, 2018 – 318 pp., ill.) has been prepared for the exhibition with a foreword by Mikhail Piotrovsky, General Director of the State Hermitage. The catalogue text is by Natalia Guseva.
The exhibition Furniture for a Body’s Every Whim… The Age of Historicism in Russia runs until 11th November 2018, in the the Manege of the Small Hermitage, in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
© State Hermitage Museum. 21 September 2018