Russia’s turbulent history provoked strong reactions in its artists, who have produced a range of fine works. Alexandra Kindermann of Christie’s takes us through the major recent auctions

Portrait of Aleksandr Nikolaevich Tikhonov by Lurii Pavlovich Annekov

Portrait of Aleksandr Nikolaevich Tikhonov by Lurii Pavlovich Annekov

Portrait of Aleksandr Nikolaevich Tikhonov by Lurii Pavlovich Annekov

Annenkov is perhaps best known for his work as a portraitist, depicting political figures such as Lenin, Trotsky and Lunacharsky, as well influential figures from the arts, including Gorky, Meyerhold, Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak. His unique painterly technique, based on Cubist forms and the vibrant colours associated with the Russian avant-garde, earned him the reputation as one of the most sought-after portrait painters in post-revolutionary Russia. The subject of this painting, Aleksandr

Nikolaevich Tikhonov (1880-1956), was an author, working first as a writer under the pseudonym A. Serebrov, then as a critic, editor and publisher. Together with Maxim Gorky, he organised the Circle of Proletarian Writers in the newspaper Pravda. Tikhonov also co-founded the famous society Dom Isskusstv (House of Arts), a gathering place for writers and artists. Annenkov was a regular there and met many of the people who inspired him to work on a series of portraits. Price realised: £2.26 million.

Pair of monumental two-handled porcelain vases

During the reign of Nicholas I, the Imperial Porcelain Factory produced a remarkable number of vases, many decorated with copies of old master or 19th-Century paintings. The vases, frequently presented by the factory as gifts to the emperor and empress at Christmas and Easter, were used to adorn palaces, mansions and pavilions. This magnificent pair of Imperial Porcelain vases is finely painted by the porcelain artist P. Shchetinin. The first (right) depicts a woodland scene after the Dutch master Jan Both. The second (far right) follows ‘Departure for the Hunt’, by fellow Dutchman Philips Wouwerman, the original of which was acquired in 1772 by Catherine the Great and is still in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. The joints are concealed by gilt bronze bands and the handles are affixed by slots formed by acanthus leaves. Price realised: £2.81 million.

'St Isaac's on a frosty day' by Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky

'St Isaac's on a frosty day' by Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky

‘St Isaac’s on a frosty day’ by Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky

This was the first picture to surpass £1 million barrier in a Russian art sale, setting a new milestone in the development of the market. It offers the extremely rare treatment of an architectural subject by an artist best known for his masterful seascapes, and is an excellent example of Aivazovsky’s mature work. Born in Theodosia on the Black Sea, he showed his ability from an early age and later studied at the St Petersburg Academy of Arts. His first painting, ‘Study of the Air over the Sea’ (1835), was so well received that he was made official artist of the Russian Navy. From there, he quickly established a reputation for his masterful seascapes. St Isaac’s Cathedral, named after the saint on whose name day St Petersburg was founded, was built over a period of 40 years. The cathedral is seen as a symbol of man’s subjugation of nature. The towering dome observed by Aivazovsky is gilded with over 100kg of gold, providing an artificial light source whose rays are diffused by the palpably frosty atmosphere. Price realised: £1.13 million.

‘A Parisian Cafe’ by Ilya Repin

Painted in Paris in 1875, this monumental canvas – arguably Repin’s most important work – attracted a lot of interest in Moscow and Paris where it was exhibited prior to auction in London earlier this year. ‘A Parisian Café’ is quite different from the Russian subjects for which Repin is celebrated, and marks a critical turning point in the young artist’s career. Painted during Repin’s stint as an student in Paris in 1873-76 and exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1875, this was a time of creative consternation for the young painter as he encountered the artistic wonders of Europe and the cosmopolitan lifestyle of the French capital.

'A Parisian Café' by Ilya Repin

'A Parisian Café' by Ilya Repin

Parallels can certainly be drawn between Repin and the Impressionists, in particular the movement’s pioneer Edouard Manet. This painting in fact prefigures many of the group compositions showing people socialising at bars and cafés that would become such an icon of Impressionism: think of Renoir’s ‘Le Moulin de la Galette’ executed in 1876, the year after ‘A Parisian Café’ had been shown at the Salon, or Manet’s ‘Un bar aux Folies Bergères’ from the year after.

‘A Parisian Café’ sold for over £4.5 million, establishing the highest price for a Russian painting offered in a Russian sale by any international auction house. The fact that it had remained in a distinguished private collection since 1916 added to the painting’s importance. Price realised: £4.521 million.

Solomon’s Wall’ by Vasilii Vasilievich Vereshchagin

In the second half of the 19th Century, Vereshchagin was the most well-known Russian artist in the West. He travelled to Syria and Palestine in 1883 to make ethnographic sketches and found himself captivated by the solemn beauty and diverse human types of the Holy Land. From this trip, he created the Palestinian series, from which this fine work comes. Price realised: $3.624 million.

Nicholas II snuffbox marked by Faberge

Nicholas II snuffbox marked by Faberge

Nicholas II snuffbox marked by Faberge

During the reigns of the empresses Elizabeth and Catherine the Great, snuff taking developed into an elaborate social ritual and gave rise to the new art form of luxurious snuffboxes. Nicholas II presented a total of 54 featuring his miniature portrait as gifts. This fine snuffbox, embedded with six costly and brilliant-cut diamonds, was conferred on the Turkish ambassador Turkhan Pasha. The depictions of Nicholas II painted by the court miniaturists showed the emperor at various ages in different regimental uniforms.

Price realised: £937,250.

‘Espagnole’ by Natalia Gontcharova

‘Espagnole’ is a fine fusion of Gontcharova’s work: as well as painting, she designed stage sets, including the celebrated backgrounds for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. The painting appears to relate to her work for two Spanish-themed productions in development on at the time. After a 1916 visit to Spain she was so captivated by Spanish dancers that this subject dominated her later work. An abstract combination of Cubo-Futurist form and structure using details and patterns from a Spanish dancer’s costume, it is one of a series of works that were later dubbed ‘theatrical constructivism’. The painting derives from the period when the outbreak of World War I led to a dramatic shift in the direction of Gontcharova’s art, and to her decision to leave Russia and settle in Paris. Price realised: £6.425 million.

Rothschild Fabergé egg

Rothschild Fabergé egg

Rothschild Faberge egg

This previously unrecorded Fabergé egg was given to Germaine Alice Halphen on her engagement to Baron Edouard de Rothschild in Paris in 1905, a gift from Edouard’s elder sister Béatrice. Comparable in importance and quality to the famous Imperial eggs, a small number were produced by the Fabergé workshops in St Petersburg for select private clients. Only three large Fabergé eggs (of which this is one) incorporate both a clock and an automaton, in this case a bird. The clock will run for eight days giving hourly performances of the bird, which flaps its wings, nods its head and opens its beak. The pipes provide two tones for the birdsong. On the hour, a rack causes the gold filigree lid to open and the gold, enamel and diamond- set cockerel to rise on a filigree platform. Price realised: £8.98 million.

Contact: Christie’s

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This feature is taken from the September/October 2011 edition of SuperYacht World. Click here to buy the issue for your iPad