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Nicholas and Alexandra
The State Hermitage is numbered among the very greatest museums, and is rightly called a treasure-house of world art. The museum contains a priceless and varied collection of humankind's artistic and cultural creations, from ancient times to the present day. Works by artists from western Europe, America and the Far Fast stand alongside a vast collection of Russian works of art. The latter have provided several major exhibitions celebrating different periods of Russia's cultural history. Significant among these was the exhibition dedicated to the era of Catherine the Great, which was shown in three major American cities between 1991 and 1993 — Memphis, Los Angeles and Dallas — and then at the State Hermitage in 1993.
`Nicholas and Alexandra', a major new exhibition about the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, and his wife, Alexandra Feodorovna, will also be displayed in several cities in the United States. It celebrates a period of Russia's past no less tragic than it was artistically significant: the turn of the twentieth century. The exhibition does not attempt to cover all the various aspects of Russian history and culture of this time. Its theme is limited to an account of the life of the last emperor, his family and his circle. It tells the story of the relationship between Nicholas and Alexandra and their tragic deaths, and illustrates various aspects of society at one of the most splendid imperial courts in Europe.
The exhibition's organisers have attempted to portray the life of Nicholas II and his court from two different standpoints. First, the exhibition highlights the enormous human and social tragedy of Nicholas, Alexandra and their family: their loneliness after the birth of their haemophiliac son, whose incurable illness they tried to hide for so long; and their failure to understand the social conditions of the country, which led to such a dramatic and tragic conclusion. Second, the exhibition illustrates the traditional ceremony and magnificence of the imperial court, the brilliance of its parades and receptions and the luxury of its court balls.
Thus, for example, in January 1915, not long before the end of the tsar's reign, the French ambassador to Russia, Maurice Paléologue, attended a New Year's reception for the diplomatic corps at Tsarskoe Selo. He wrote, `The ceremony was as magnificent as ever: a display of wealth, splendour, majesty and brilliance for which the Russian court has no equal.' Yet almost at the same time, Nicholas wrote in a letter to his wife, `I feel very strong, but very lonely.' `I was in the woods today — how quiet it was; you could forget everything — all this unpleasantness and human vanity ...'
This fascinating period of history, on the cusp of two centuries, is superbly illustrated through the Hermitage's works of art. The richness of the museum's collection from this era has provided more than 500 pieces for the exhibition; prominent among them are the works of Russian artists and foreign artists living in Russia, but the exhibition also includes works by European and Oriental masters presented to the Russian tsar as gifts to decorate various royal residences. This wealth of objects is hardly surprising, since the buildings of the State Hermitage include the Winter Palace — formerly the main residence of the Russian emperors — where the finest works commissioned for the court were kept.
The State Archive of the Russian Federation, as one of the organisers of the exhibition, has provided around 240 exhibits including unknown and previously unpublished documents, photographs and drawings of members of the royal family, as well as letters between Nicholas and Alexandra. These archive documents provide a wonderful chronicle not only of the whole period, but also of the daily life of the tsar's family, culminating in detailed accounts of their tragic deaths.
The State Palace Museum at Tsarskoe Selo has also participated in this exhibition. It is well known that Tsarskoe Selo was the last and favourite residence of Nicholas II and his family, and provided a temporary refuge after the tsar's abdication. It was here, especially after the 1905 revolution, that they spent the majority of their time. Here, too, as at the State Hermitage, the private possessions of the imperial family have been preserved to the present day, alongside numerous works of art from the period.
It should be noted that most of the exhibits have spent several decades in storage and have been on public display only once before — at an exhibition at the Hermitage in 1994, also entitled `Nicholas and Alexandra'. The current exhibition in the United States provides a unique opportunity, therefore, to enjoy this remarkable period in Russian culture; like the Golden Age of Catherine the Great, the early twentieth century was known as the Silver Age of Russian poetry and literature, and the term has subsequently come to be applied to all aspects of Russian art at the turn of the century.
Among the most interesting works of art are the commemorative items belonging to the royal family which decorated the imperial residences in St. Petersburg and at Tsarskoe Selo and Peterhof. Numerous paintings, watercolours, engravings and sculptures, along with a whole range of photographs, provide portraits of the members of the royal family and their circle. They also portray the most important events in the life of Nicholas and Alexandra: their wedding, the coronation, court celebrations, balls and masquerades. In addition, the exhibition provides a dazzling picture of St. Petersburg — at the time the capital of Russia and one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Among the exhibits are formal portraits of Alexander III, Nicholas II, Alexandra Feodorovna and several other members of the family. They tell the story of a little-known period in the history of Russian art. Of particular interest are the works of such artists as I. N. Kramskoi, B. M. Kustodiev, K. E. and A. V. Makovsky, N. E. Sverchkov, N. M. Bogdanov-Belsky and — a particular favourite at court — E. K. Liphart. Among the lesser-known artists on display are N. Bekker, N. K. Bodarevsky, A. A. Karelin, I. A. Tiurin, A. M. Leontovsky and F. S. Zhuravlev. Equally interesting are the works of the Austrian artist H. von Angeli and the Dane, L. Tuksen, who were commissioned by the court to paint several portraits and scenes from the life of the royal family, such as the coronation and the wedding of Nicholas II (nos. 27, 28). Also included are the marvellous sculptures (nos. 130-133) by M. M. Antokolsky, L. A. Bernstamm and M. A. Chizhov, which provide a complete picture of the development of Russian sculpture at the turn of the twentieth century.
The vast watercolour panorama by P. Y. Piasetsky, The Coronation of Nicholas II (no. 62), has never before been exhibited in full, either in Russia or abroad. This exhibition provides the first ever opportunity to view its total length of 58 metres, comprising various views of Moscow as well as the coronation celebrations of 1896, beginning with Nicholas II's triumphal entry into the city and ending with the military parade on Khodynka Field. Here, too, is a scene of the public holiday on Khodynka Field that took place on 18 May 1896 and which ended so tragically when over a thousand people were crushed to death as they waited for the traditional presentation of royal gifts. This last event is also represented in various photographs from the time (nos. 469-71).
The exhibition includes the wonderful etched portraits of the imperial family by M. V. Rundaltsov (nos. 76-81), whose works are some of the forgotten masterpieces of Russian graphic art of the turn of the century. No less interesting is the portrait in pastels of Grigory Rasputin (no. 61), painted by E. N. Klokacheva, which seems visually to confirm all the oral accounts of the famous staretz, or monk.
Nicholas II was extremely interested in photography, and took endless pictures of his family, which he and his family personally stuck into albums. A large number of these are preserved in the State Archive of the Russian Federation, and three of the albums are included here (nos. 520, 521, 534). The exhibition also includes photographs by such well-known photographers as K. Bergamasco, C. de Hahn, I. G. Nostitz and K. Schultz; their portraits of the royal family and contemporary events provide a photographic account of the reign of Nicholas II.
The world of applied and decorative art is also richly represented, for all the finest craftsmen, factories and firms were commissioned by the royal court for decorating the various royal palaces. Suppliers to the Imperial Court included the Imperial Porcelain and Glass factories and the famous stone-carving factories at Peterhof, Ekaterinburg and Kolyvan, as well as the illustrious jewellery firms of Fabergé, Ovchinnikov and Khlebnikov. These masterpieces of applied art include gold and silver articles with precious stones, as well as Fabergés wonderful miniature copy of the imperial regalia (no. 208). The exhibition contains porcelain and glass both from St. Petersburg manufactories, including vases decorated with Russian semi-precious stones (malachite, lapis lazuli, marble and various types of jasper and porphyry), and from a number of leading western European makers.
The Russian Orthodox Church played an important role in the life of the state, and this is reflected in the richness of vestments ornamented with gold embroidery and pearl brocade, as well as religious articles made of gold and silver, such as icons in frames, bible covers, patens and folding icon cases.
The royal family's opulent wardrobe was kept at the Hermitage and at Tsarskoe Selo. The exhibition includes various regimental uniforms belonging to Nicholas II and his son Alexei, and court dresses and ball gowns that belonged to the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, Alexandra Feodorovna and the tsar's daughters. The dresses and uniforms of court officials, including those of ladies-in-waiting, maids of honour, senators, chamberlains, court guards, servants and footmen, provide a colourful array of court apparel. The costumes that belonged to the Tsarevich Alexei are particularly touching, while some of the most interesting costumes are those that were preserved from the famous last masked ball held in the Winter Palace in 1903 (nos. 372-6, 394).
A wonderful selection of ball gowns and accoutrements used by Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and her ladies-in-waiting at various events in the Winter Palace and other royal residences is set out at the exhibition to recreate an imaginary scene from a ball. However, it was not only the ladies that presented a dazzling spectacle on such occasions; the men, too, were a sight to behold, especially those in military, parade or ball uniforms, brightly coloured with gold and silver embroidery, and with an abundance of ribbons and diamond-studded medals. Many of these uniforms are shown here. It is worth noting that almost all the members of the royal family had military rank, and Nicholas himself was a colonel. Unfortunately, the jewellery, that decorated ladies' dresses and gentlemen's uniforms has not been preserved, but it is easy to imagine the magnificent effect they would have created, and which so impressed foreigners at court receptions and balls.
Fine examples of furniture from the royal palaces are represented by such pieces as the small lady's table made from several different types of wood (no. 274). The work of the famous court supplier N. F. Svirsky, it probably belonged to Empress Maria Feodorovna, Nicholas II's mother. The exhibition recreates various parts of the private rooms of Nicholas and Alexandra, including Alexandra's study with her desk (no. 275), and her sitting-room with a sofa (no. 282) designed specially for the Lower Dacha at Peterhof by the famous architect F. Melzer. The music room has also been recreated with the grand piano (no. 285) decorated by E. K. Liphart, which was commissioned by Nicholas II as a present for his wife (Alexandra Feodorovna is known to have played the piano and sung well). Two other pieces are particularly notable: the throne (no. 273) commissioned by Paul I at the end of the eighteenth century; and a carriage (no. 284) commissioned by Catherine the Great, also from the eighteenth century. It was in this carriage that Alexandra Feodorovna travelled to the coronation in Moscow in 1896.
Various gifts presented to the imperial court by the governments of western Europe and the Far East include the marvellous china service (no. 235) made at the Berlin Porcelain Factory as a wedding present from Emperor Wilhelm II to Nicholas II; and tapestries from the famous series The Seasons (no. 303), woven at the Gobelins Manufactory in 1910-13 and presented by President Poincaré of France during his visit to Russia in 1914. Artefacts acquired by Nicholas II in 1890-1, when, as tsarevich, he made a journey to India, China, Japan, Siam and other neighbouring countries, are especially interesting.
Finally, many original documents and contemporary photographs tell the tragic story of the events of the night of 17 July 1918 when, by order of the Bolshevik Government, the whole of the tsar's family was shot in Ekaterinburg (nos. 579-639).
The turn of the twentieth century, the final chapter in the history of the Russian autocracy, is a period still in the historian's domain. Gradually, as more and more archive material is uncovered, it is becoming possible to reexamine individual events of the time, although any conclusive assessment of the period and its leading figures remains the work of the future.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that while the fate of the last Russian emperor was tragic, his reign was also one of the most tragic and bloody in Russian history. It began in 1894, when, with the unexpected death of his father Alexander III, Nicholas became emperor. His coronation is associated with the terrible events on Khodynka Field, or `Bloody Saturday' as it became known (see pp. 286-7), after which Nicholas himself became known as `Bloody' Nicholas'. It ended with the savage murder of his family on 17 July, 1918 at the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg.
In 1917 the historian S. P. Melgunov wrote, `The reign of Nicholas II is undoubtedly one of the most bloody in history. Khodynka, two blood-soaked wars, two revolutions, and in between disorder and pogroms ending with merciless revenge carried out under the slogans: "Take no prisoners"; "Do not pity your leaders".'
Nor should we forget `Bloody Sunday' in 1905, when thousands of unarmed protesters were shot on their way to a meeting with the tsar in the Winter Palace; or the terrible execution of workers on the river Lena in 1912. These and other tragic events towards the end of Nicholas's reign undoubtedly led to the collapse of autocracy and drove Russia into what historians have called the `cycle of unending woes'.
Although Nicholas II was at once a tragic and fateful figure for Russia, numerous memoirs and archive materials describe him as an educated man who was pleasant to talk to: `I believe him to be the most charming man in Europe,' wrote one of his contemporaries. He was a man of modest habits in his private life, deeply religious, but entirely unsuited to the office thrust upon him after the death of his father Alexander III.
Nicholas himself understood his predicament from the very beginning. On 31 December 1894, after his accession to the throne, he noted in his diary: `... the very worst thing has happened to me, the very thing I have been dreading all my life.' These words echo those of the Old Testament, `For the horrible thing that I feared has befallen me: that which I dreaded has come to pass.' Nicholas II's sister, Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, recalled after the Revolution how the young emperor had sobbed on the death of his father, repeating that he `didn't know what would become of us all, that he was completely unprepared to rule'. `And this was entirely my father's fault,' Olga Alexandrovna continued, `for he never allowed the heir to participate in affairs of state ... And what a terrible price was paid for this mistake.'
The same theme runs through the memoirs of Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, who, as the emperor's uncle and childhood friend, knew the man's character well. Alexander Mikhailovich believed that Alexander III's death was a terrible catastrophe, as a result of which `a sixth of the world's surface' was entrusted `into the trembling hands of a confused young man'. Later he wrote that the new tsar had all the qualities required of an ordinary citizen, but which were fatal in a monarch. `If Nicholas II had been born amongst mere mortals, he would have lived a contented life, encouraged by his superiors and respected by his equals. He was an ideal family man whose word was his bond ... It was not his fault that fate forged from these positive characteristics a bloody instrument of destruction ...'
The French ambassador Maurice Paléologue, who had many meetings with the tsar over several years towards the end of his reign, was an astute observer of the imperial court: `I don't know who it was who said that Caesar had every vice but not a single defect. Nicholas II had not a single vice, but the very worst defect for an autocratic monarch — lack of personality. His will was either ignored, misled or suppressed ...'
Gentle by nature, weak-willed and lacking in self-confidence, Nicholas II often changed his decisions and decrees. He did not even have the necessary authority within the extended imperial family; throughout his reign his relationship with the grand dukes and their families gradually deteriorated. As a family man beyond reproach, he preferred the company of his wife and children to affairs of state. He was burdened less by solitude than by his duties as monarch, his official receptions and public appearances. Thus, for example, in February 1917 he wrote to his wife from General Headquarters: `My mind is at rest here — no ministers and no tiresome questions? These were the words of the commander-in-chief — a monarch who was responsible for the conduct of the war and the welfare of the state.
Furthermore, as was noted by many of those who knew him, Nicholas was a fatalist, who seemed mystically resigned to his fate. `He is weak,' said Maria Pavlovna, wife of Nicholas's uncle Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, and one of the most influential women at court. `He is a fatalist. When things go wrong, instead of making a decision one way or another, he convinces himself that it is what God has decreed, and so submits himself to God's will!'
`Nicholas II, Tsar of All Rus, supreme commander of fifteen million Russian soldiers, with all the zeal of a supine peasant, chose as his motto "God's Will Be Done,"' wrote Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich in his memoirs. `"Nicky, who taught you to yield to God's will in this way? You call it Christianity, but it sounds more like Mohammedan fatalism." "Everything is willed by God," replied Nicky deliberately. "I was born on 6 May, the day dedicated to Job the Long-Suffering. I am ready to accept my fate." These were his final words. Words of warning had no effect on him whatsoever. He went to his death believing that it was God's will — influenced by the example of Job in the Bible: "There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil." In everything he did Nicholas II pursued this ideal ... he forgot that he was a monarch.'
The appraisal of Nicholas by the publisher A. Surovin, although caustic, is nonetheless astute: `Alexander III reined in a Russian thoroughbred. Nicholas II harnessed a nag. He rides around but has no idea where he's going. Perhaps one day he might end up somewhere!'
Excerpted from Nicholas & Alexandra by . Copyright © 1998 by The State Hermitage Museum. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Diamonds and Philosophy||10|
|Archives of the Imperial Family||11|
|Map of Europe in 1913||12|
|Nicholas and Alexandra||14|
|The Private Rooms of the Imperial Family in the Winter Palace||22|
|The State Hermitage Museum||27|
|Watercolours, Drawings and Engravings||64|
|Orders and Medals||110|
|Porcelain and Faience||146|
|Wood and Other Materials||162|
|Banners and Standards||182|
|The Forbes Collection||228|
|Photographs in the State Archive of the Russian Federation||230|
|The State Archive of the Russian Federation||239|
|Affairs of State||332|
|The Final Months||366|
|Bibliography & Exhibitions||400|