11457 A PAIR OF LARGE CROSSBANDED VENEERED NEOCLASSICAL X-FORM ARMCHAIRS WITH PARCEL-GILT AND BRONZED DETAILING POSSIBLY DESIGNED BY ANDREI VORONIKHIN Probably Russian. Early Nineteenth Century.
Of crossbanded bois violette(?) veneer with parcel gilt and bronzing. The upholstered U-form backrest suspended from two curved X-form uprights headed by carved eagle head monopodiae and terminating in lions paw feet. The uprights issuing straight armrests joining a conforming curved X-form shaped seat rail with carved rams head handrests, and also terminating in paw feet.
One chair with white painted inscriptions to the underside:
The other chair with illegible pencil mark to the underside, possibly the number 7.
The present chairs employ a number of features characteristic of the decorative vocabulary of late-eighteenth century Russian painter, designer, and eminent architect, Andrei Voronikhin (1759-1814). Working predominantly in St. Petersburg, Voronikhin was responsible for a great number of highly acclaimed buildings in the Russian Empire and Neoclassical styles such as Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg. He employed a variety of motifs after antiquity, taking great artistic freedoms, particularly with seating. His designs for furniture, many of which were executed by the leading court cabinetmaker Heinrich Gambs, relied “heavily on decorative elements which assume almost a curiosity value”1 and included the uses of carved, ebonized, and gilded woods.
The excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum, as well as Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt, turned 18th century designers’ eyes toward antiquity and they began to incorporate archaeological elements into their work. This is manifested in Voronikhin’s output, as well as the present chairs, through an inventive use of ancient forms and motifs. The X-shape of the chairs was much favored by the ancient Romans and Greeks for use in seating as well as tables. Here, the prominently curved uprights terminate in eagles’ heads. Voronihkin repeated this motif in the bedroom suite of Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, sister of Tsar Alexander I, in 1803. Figure 1 depicts the settee from this suite, today in the Metropolitan museum of Art. Another example of a Russian Empire chair featuring a carved eagle motif can be found in the Hillwood Estate Museum, Washington D.C. (figure 2).
The present chairs may be compared, in character and ingenuity, to the collaboration between Voronihkin and Gambs for the Russian Imperial court, for example, in a pair of malachite top gueridons made as a gift for Queen Louise of Prussia on the order of Tsar Alexander I circa 1803 (figure 3). The profound sweeping of the distinctively narrow legs of the gueridons is coupled with inventive interpretations of classical motifs, such as lion masks in drapery and female busts flanked by bat wings; an innovative spirit echoed in the form of the chairs. Like the gueridons, which bear the heavy weight of marble tops on seemingly impossibly slender exaggerated outswept legs, the present chairs are also superbly engineered, allowing an exceedingly elegant form to withstand the bulk of an often portly aristocracy.
The extreme curvature of the chairs can also be found in a suite designed by Voronikhin circa 1805 for the Empress Maria Fedorovna’s day chamber at Pavlovsk Palace (figure 4), which employs carved lions heads and paws for the armrests and legs, respectively. A drawing attributed to Voronikhin by celebrated Russian curator Anatoly Kutchumov, and preserved in Pavlovsk, illustrates a banquette with curved uprights with eagle head finials and lions paw feet, and provides a recorded design source for furnishings of this distinctive ilk (figure 5).2
The conforming curved seat rails of the present chairs end in ram’s head formed hand rests. The ram’s head, or aegricanes (the Greek technical name), derived from antiquity and was commonly used in the decoration of altars, as it was a sacred and often sacrificed animal. The motif was revived during the Renaissance and again in the 18th century as part of le goût grec, made popular by neoclassical architects such as Robert Adam in England and Charles Delafosse in France, and adopted by Russian designers. A 19th century Karelian birch chair in the collection of the Russian Ethnography Museum, St. Petersburg features rams heads at each end of its curved toprail (figure 6).
The design of the back of the present chairs gives the impression of an emblazoned heraldic cartouche suspended as if a banner from the two eagle’s head beaks. It is, therefore, possible that the original fabric back bore a coat of arms. Furthermore, the chairs were designed to be seen only against a wall, as the rear sides are not veneered. It is an idea that is mainly confined to England that a series of chairs with armorial decorated backs lined the walls of great entrance galleries in noble stately houses, and it is quite likely that the present chairs served a similar function. English design ideas were much in vogue in Russia during the second half of the eighteenth century, in no small part driven by the influence of Catherine the Great’s Scottish architect, Charles Cameron.