THE LILIES OF THE VALLEY EGG: A FABERGÉ IMPERIAL EASTER EGG PRESENTED BY EMPEROR NICHOLAS II TO
HIS WIFE THE EMPRESS ALEXANDRA FEODOROVNA AT EASTER 1898,WORKMASTER MICHAEL PERCHIN,
The egg enameled translucent rose pink over a guilloché ground and surmounted by a diamond and ruby-set Imperial crown, the egg divided into four quadrants by diamond-set borders, each quadrant with climbing gold sprays of lily of the valley, the flowers formed by diamond-petaled pearls, the finely sculpted gold leaves enameled translucent green and rising from curved legs formed of wrapped gold leaves set with diamonds ending in scroll feet topped with pearls, a pearl-set knob at the side of the egg activates a mechanism which causes the crown to rise revealing a fan of three diamond-framed portrait miniatures of Tsar Nicholas II and the children of Nicholas and Alexandra, Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana, each signed by the miniaturist Johannes Zehngraf, the reeded gold backs of the miniatures engraved with the date 5.IV.1898, marked on these backplates with Cyrillic initials of workmaster, Fabergé in Cyrillic and assay mark of 56 standard for 14 karat gold.
Fabergé's invoice lists this egg as:
“April 10. Pink enamel egg with three portraits, green enamel leaves, lilies of the valley pearls with rose-cut diamonds. St. Petersburg, May 7, 1898 6700r.” 1
The Lilies of the Valley Egg is adorned with the favorite flowers and the favorite jewels – pearls and diamonds – of the young Empress. It also contains, as its surprise, miniatures of her three favorite people in the world: her adored husband Nicholas and her two daughters, Olga (born 1895) and Tatiana (born 1897). Moreover, Fabergé designed the egg in the Tsarina's favorite style – Art Nouveau. Doubtless this egg was also one of her favorite objects by the Russian master.
For a brief period of approximately five years, Fabergé championed the cause of Art Nouveau in Russia. The present egg of 1898 marks the initial appearance of this style in his oeuvre while the Clover Egg of 1902 (Kremlin Amory Museum, Moscow) 2 is the last dateable example in this idiom created in St. Petersburg for the Imperial family. The Russian equivalent to French Art Nouveau and German Jugendstil was Stil Moderne and Mir Iskusstva or the World of Art Movement. 3 The driving force behind Mir Iskusstva was Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929). In 1885 the art patron Savva Mamontov founded a private opera house in Moscow and an artists' colony at Abramtsevo, where a group of artists including Ilya Repin, Vassilii Polenov and Victor Vasnetsov, together with younger artists such as Konstantin Korovin, Valentin Serov and Mikhail Vrubel, developed new ideas which stood in stark contrast to the established art of the Peredvizhniki , or Wanderers. The dynamic Diaghilev, with the aid of St. Petersburg artists such as Léon Bakst, Alexander Benois and Evgeny Lanceray and the financial backing of Savva Mamontov and Princess Maria Tenisheva, published the group's journal, World of Art , which appeared for six years between 1899 and 1904. A first exhibition of the group's art took place in 1898; a second pioneering exhibition was held at the Stieglitz Museum in early 1899 with participation of such foreign artists as Böcklin, Boldini, Degas, Liebermann, Monet and Renoir and such craftsmen as Lalique, Tiffany and Gallé. Fabergé's interest in this style dovetails neatly with Mir Iskusstva' s existence.
The Lilies of the Valley Egg was displayed at the 1900 World Fair, which marked the peak of Parisian excitement over Art Nouveau. René Lalique's stand at the fair with its bronze storefront of winged female figures engendered a furor amongst his numerous followers. He was awarded a Grand Prix and the Order of the Legion of Honor or his creations. The same jury which lauded Lalique's work to the heavens was curiously ambivalent about Fabergé's Art Nouveau submissions. The floral decoration of this egg was described as “ of delicate taste ” but criticized as “too closely adhering to the egg.” The critic would have preferred “three feet instead of four, leaves not terminated by banal scrolls and that the egg should have been set with asymmetrical sprays.” 4 But then the critic also found fault with another of Fabergé masterpieces, the Lilies of the Valley Basket (now in the Matilda Geddings Gray Foundation Collection, Fine Arts Museum, New Orleans), which was viewed by him as “without artistic or decorative feeling. We have before us a photograph of nature without the artist having impressed his own style upon it.” 4
Alexandra Feodorovna's interest in Art Nouveau is well documented. Her brother, Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse, founded a colony of artists on the Mathildenhöhe in Darmstadt, where they endeavored to create joint works of art or Gesamtkunstwerke of interior design, furniture and pottery. Inspired by this artistic climate, she collected pieces of Gallé and Tiffany glass, Roerstrand and Doulton pottery, many of which were mounted for her by Fabergé's specialist silversmith, Julius Rappoport. 5 These works stood on cornices and mantelpieces in her salons at the Alexander Palace, interspersed with Victorian clutter of sentimental character.
The present egg was kept by the Empress in her private apartment in the Winter Palace on the first shelf from the top of a corner cabinet and is described in detail by N. Dementiev, Inspector of Premises of the Imperial Winter Palace, in 1909, including its mechanism ( “At the side of the egg there is a button with a single pearl which, when pressed causes the crown to rise and disclose three miniature medallions framed in rose-cut diamonds”). 6
The Lilies of Valley Egg is clearly visible in a pyramidal showcase, together with other eggs from the collection of Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, at the 1902 von Dervis mansion exhibition (p. 186) . It is also mentioned in a description of the exhibition, albeit confused with the Lilies of Valley Basket, which stood next to it: “The Empress Alexandra Feodorovna's collection contains an egg containing a bouquet of lilies of the valley surrounded by moss: the flowers are made of pearls, the leaves of nephrite, and the moss of finest gold.” 7
The Lilies of the Valley Egg was one of nine eggs sold by Antikvariat to Emanuel Snowman of Wartski around 1927. Like the Coronation Egg, it too was then sold to Charles Parson in 1934 and bought back by Wartski. It was then sold by Wartski to Mr. Hirst and bought back yet again. In 1979 Kenneth Snowman of Wartski sold the egg to Malcolm Forbes together with the Coronation Egg for a total of $2,160,000.
1. Fabergé/Proler Skurlov 1997, p. 136.
2. Kremlin Clover Egg (op. cit., p. 160f.).
3. The World of Art Movement in early 20th century Russia. Aurora, Leningrad, 1991.
4. Géza von Habsburg, “Fabergé and the Paris 1900 Exposition Universelle ” in St. Petersburg/Paris/London 1993/4 , p. 122.
5. Op. cit., cat. 36, 37, 38, 39.
6. Archive of the State Hermitage, stock I, inv. VIII-G, file 7b, nr. 189. Quoted from Fabergé/Proler/Skurlov 1997, p. 138.
7. Op. cit., p. 138 ( Novoie Vremia ,March 9, 1902).