The rich and exotic detail of Konstantin Makovsky's monumental paintings are the focus of a special exhibition opening at Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens this winter. Konstantin Makovsky: The Tsar's Painter, on view at Hillwood from February 13 to June 12, 2016, will be the first exhibition in America to focus on one of the most ambitious paintings from Makovsky's renowned boyar bride series and the path it traveled from late imperial St. Petersburg, to Paris during the Belle Epoque, to America during the Gilded Age.
Konstantin Makovsky was 44 years old and one of the highest paid artists in Russia in 1883 when he painted A Boyar Wedding Feast. He had achieved fame as a portraitist and salon painter and he was living the life of a celebrity artist when the coronation of Alexander III continued a new national patriotism rooted in the history of the tsar's Romanov ancestors. This renewed engagement with national history included a fascination with the settings, characters, and customs of the boyars, the old Russian elite of the 1600s. In its intricate detail, A Boyar Wedding Feast created an intimate connection with the men and women of the boyar class and was celebrated for its magical ability to blur the line between the present and imagined past. In addition to this monumental painting as the centerpiece, The Tsar's Painter will bring focus to objects and details depicted in the work with groupings of 17th-century objects of boyar life, such as intricately embroidered garments, pearl-studded kokoshniks, and gleaming silver, enamel, and ivory objects from Hillwood's collection, supplemented with loans from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Walters Art Museum, and other lenders.
"Since entering the collection as a gift from Hillwood founder Marjorie Merriweather Post's friend and esteemed collector and philanthropist C. Michael Paul in 1968, A Boyar Wedding Feast has long been one of the most beloved pieces at Hillwood, but has never before been the centerpiece of in-depth scholarship," explained Hillwood's executive director, Kate Markert. "By presenting this painting along with related selections from our unparalleled collection of Russian art, we are able to finally dive more deeply into the story behind Makovsky's great works and his fascination with the Russian past." The exhibition is presented in concert with the publication, Konstantin Makovsky: The Tsar's Painter in America and Paris, a research project that was originally conceived and undertaken by the late Anne Odom, former curator emerita at Hillwood, and taken up by her friend and colleague, Wendy Salmond.
A Boyar Wedding Feast was the first among Makovsky's three monumental canvases focusing on boyar wedding traditions. It was not meant to represent a specific moment in time, but rather to represent key moments of a boyar wedding feast, as understood from historical sources and with a theatrical tableau vivant as its model. The painting highlights a pivotal moment in the feast when a stuffed swan is presented to the wedding couple shortly before they leave. The scene is rich with embroidered costumes, an array of authentic boyar antiques, and the faces of some of Makovsky's famous friends and clients. Makovsky unveiled the picture in St. Petersburg in a carefully controlled public exhibition setting in which the picture appeared under gaslight at one end of a darkened room. For the next two years, the artist attempted to sell the work by organizing private exhibitions in St. Petersburg, Paris, and London. After it won the medal of honor at the Antwerp Universal Exhibition in 1885, it was purchased by New York jeweler Charles Schumann, whose novel promotion helped foster the painting's popularity and spark international enthusiasm for boyar culture.
"Though less widely recognized today, the work of Konstantin Makovsky had tremendous influence on the art and culture of his time," said Dr. Wilfried Zeisler, associate curator of 19th-century art at Hillwood and curator of the exhibition. "By putting A Boyar Wedding Feast at the center, this exhibition offers a new perspective into the art and cultural history of Russia both in the 1600s and the late 19th century, while offering the first in-depth exploration of the socio-political context for Makovsky's work and its enthusiastic reception by American audiences in the Gilded Age."
The special exhibition will be on display in the mansion, with both the pavilion and dining room transformed to bring Russian art and culture dramatically to life. In the pavilion, A Boyar Wedding Feast will take center stage.
Continuing the tableau vivant motif, details from the painting will be brought to life as the culture and traditions of Russian weddings and boyar life are explored through groupings of 17th-century objects. An intricately carved jewelry chest, reflecting a similar piece depicted in the painting, is evidence of the skilled use of walrus ivory that was popular for centuries in Russia. Many of the objects painted in Makovsky's works are precious silver objects adorned with enamel. Several pieces on display call attention to these exquisitely detailed works. Large tulips, poppies, and sunflowers enameled in bright yellow, red, and blue distinguish a silver gilt and enamel bowl crafted in the town of Solvychedgodsk, seat of the Stroganov family, in the late 17th century. Painted enamels such as this were introduced to Russia from Western Europe during the 1600s. A buffet lined with silver and silver gilt beakers, cups, and vases mimics the display of similar objects that gleam from the top of A Boyar Wedding Feast. Makovsky had once painted a portrait of Count Sergei Stroganov and possibly used the occasion to study the family's silver collection, which comprise most of the buffet pieces represented in the painting.
Some pieces on display provide real-life examples of the costumes that were an important feature of Makovsky's re-creation of boyar life. Boyar costumes, rarely seen outside of Russia, on loan from a private collector, highlight the sumptuous brocades, silks, satins, pearls, and embroidery that helped to inspire Makovsky's great interest in the life of the boyars.
A Fabergé box with a boyar and a kovsh with a detail from A Boyar Wedding Feast illustrate both the influence that Makovsky's colorful historical genre scenes had on contemporary artists and the move toward a neo-Russian style - which drew on themes from history and peasant culture as well as the abstracted natural forms of the merging art nouveau - that evolved at the end of the 1800s.
In the dining room, the tradition of tableau vivant that was the backdrop for A Boyar Wedding Feast is the inspiration for a lavish table display, including precious silver objects and even a replica of the dramatic and symbolic swan.
A full-color, 144-page companion publication, titled Konstantin Makovsky: The Tsar's Painter in America and Paris accompanies the exhibition. Co-published with D Giles, Ltd., the book explores new perspectives on the art and career of Makovsky and the wider 19th-century enthusiasm for medieval Russian culture and boyar life. Contributors to the book are Wendy Salmond, professor of art and art history, Chapman University; Wilfried Zeisler, associate curator of 19th-century art, Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens; and Russell E. Martin, professor of history, Westminster College, New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.