Pushkin’s Bronze Grandmother and more: History of museum sculpture

Pushkin’s Bronze Grandmother and more: History of museum sculpture
Eleanor Coade. Vestal Virgin sculpture
Pushkin tries unsuccessfully to sell his wife’s dowry, Napoleon’s bronze statue is toppled from a Vendome Column and later restored, Count Sheremetev buys an item from the first British feminist’s shop, and Sergei Korolyov places a gift from Soviet cosmonauts in the ante-room of his home.

Museum exhibits draw visitors in with their artistic and other qualities. The origin, existence and demise of some masterpieces could be mystery plot.

This joint mos.ru and Mosgortur (Moscow Agency of Recreation and Tourism) story narrates the unusual destinies of four sculptures from Moscow museums.

Natalia Goncharova’s dowry

A scaled-down replica of Catherine the Great statue, which recalls the nontrivial dowry of Natalia Goncharova, the wife of poet Alexander Pushkin, is among the most interesting exhibits at the Pushkin Memorial Flat on Stary (Old) Arbat Street. After the wedding, Pushkin received a unique relic from the Goncharov family, a three-metre, three tonne bronze statue, which he affectionately called his Bronze Granny.

Where did Natalia Goncharova’s family get this statue? Her enterprising great grandfather Afanasy Goncharov commissioned it. The Goncharov family owned one of Russia’s first sail-making companies. It was established during the reign of Peter the Great and named Polotnyany Zavod (Canvas Plant). And the family’s estate in the Kaluga Region was also named in its honour. In 1775, Catherine the Great visited the thriving company, and Afanasy Goncharov received her permission to install a monument to the Russian Empress and to perpetuate this event. He commissioned a bronze sculpture in Berlin, a place that had a reputation for making bronze sculpting masterpieces. Wilhelm Christian Meyer, a professor with the Berlin Academy of Arts, started on the statue but passed away before he was able to complete it. His son-in-law finished the statue that stood over three metres tall and weighed over three tonnes. The statue was ready by 1788 but remained at Stettin seaport for three years due to the Russian-Swedish War. Ironically, Stettin was Catherine the Great’s home city. Afanasy Goncharov and his son did not live to see the statue reach Russia, and Afanasy Goncharov II, the grandfather of Pushkin’s future wife, started running the company.

Catherine the Great’s statue was not installed in her lifetime, and was unsafe to do so after the enthronement of Paul I, the son of Catherine the Great, who hated her because she gained power through a palace coup that killed his father, Emperor Peter III. The Goncharov family had become poor by that time and no longer had the funding to install the statue.

In 1832, a year after their wedding, Pushkin and his wife got hold of the bronze Empress, and it was believed that the poet would be able to sell it for 11,000 roubles or the same amount he had spent on his wife’s dowry in order to satisfy the whims of society. First of all, the newlyweds tried to sell the monument to the Russian Government. A commission that included the famous sculptor Ivan Martos who designed the monument to Minin and Pozharsky on Red Square, was established to evaluate the monument. The members issued the approval, but the sculpture was never sold.

The poet then borrowed 12,900 roubles from a friend, with the monument serving as collateral. He never repaid the debt, and the statue was later sold to Franz Byrd, the owner of a St Petersburg foundry, for 3,000 roubles. Byrd who initially wanted to scrap the statue, later appreciated its artistic merits and decided not to melt it down.

The Bronze Granny stood idle at the plant for ten years, with some merchants from Yekaterinoslavl, now Dnepr in Ukraine, eventually buying it for 7,000 roubles. They took the monument to their home city, named in the Empress’s honour, and decided to install it there. In 1846, the monument was placed on the city’s Sobornaya (Cathedral) Square.

The statue’s adventures did not end there. It was relocated elsewhere in the summer of 1914, and the pedestal was also replaced. In 1917, it was decided to melt the statue and to use the metal to make artillery shells. However, the director of a local history museum saved the statue by burying it in a pit. After passions subsided, the long-suffering statue of Catherine the Great was placed in the museum’s courtyard.

The statue disappeared in 1941 when the Germans were on the edge of the city (Editor’s Note: In 1926-2016, Yekaterinoslavl was called Dnepropetrovsk). It is believed that the statue was delivered to Germany, its “birthplace,” and melted at a munitions plant.

In 2012, sculptor Irina Makarova sculpted a scaled-down replica of the lost statue using photos taken by visitors at the Dnepropetrovsk museum. Three copies were made, and one is kept in Pushhkin’s flat on Stary (Old) Arbat Street.

The short-lived statue of Napoleon

On 20 November 1805, Napoleon Bonaparte defeated the superior Russian-Austrian forces commanded by Emperors Alexander I and Frantz II during the Battle of Austerlitz. This is seen as one of his greatest military victories. The Battle of the Three Emperors effectively ended the Third Anti-French Coalition.

On the very next day after the battle, Dominique Vivant Denon, Baron Denon, Napoleon’s Chief Artistic Adviser and the first Director of the Louvre, suggested to immortalise the great victory. It was decided to build a column, similar to the Trajan Column in Rome showing Roman victories in their wars against Dacia, in the French capital. Place Vendome eventually accommodated the 44-metre tall column that cost 2 million francs. It took four years to build the towering monument. Europe’s best masters created the 280 metres of spiral bas-reliefs ringing the column. They used bronze Russian and Austrian cannons captured during the Battle of Austerlitz and later re-melted. First, the monument was called the Austerlitz Column but was later renamed Victory Column and the Grande Armee Column.

A bronze sculpture of Napoleon wearing a Roman-style toga praetexta, made by Antoine-Denis Chaudet, an expert on antique sculptures, stood on top of the column. The good people of Paris did not admire the column for a long time, and Allied forces toppled it in 1814. Since then, the monument to Napoleon has repeatedly been removed and reinstated. Today, the third bronze sculpture of Napoleon, created by Auguste Dumont in 1863, decorates the Vendome Column.

A commemorative medal honouring the campaign of 1805 with the Vendome Column and the head of Napoleon, decorated by a laurel wreath

Before working on the Vendome Column, Chaudet repeatedly depicted Napoleon as a Roman Senator/Law-Giver with a scroll in hand and a laurel wreath on his head. One such marble statue survives in a French royal palace in Compiegne that served as Napoleon’s residence for a while.

The Antique Empire style became popular in Napoleonic France, and Chaudet’s Roman-style rendition of Napoleon thrilled everyone and remained desirable. Elise, the older sister of Napoleon, ordered several copies of this monument. Elise received huge estates in Italy from her powerful brother, including Carrara quarries with the best European marble. The Emperor’s ambitious sister established the Academy of Arts in Carrara. In turn, sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini who worked on the Vendome Column’s bas-reliefs and who followed the exiled Napoleon to Elbe Island in 1814 taught at the Academy for some time.

In 1808, Elise commissioned Bartolini to make several copies of the Chaudet sculpture; these copies were later delivered to various regions of vanquished Europe.  One found its way into the Hamburg City Legislature. The two-metre tall Roman-style Napoleon soon fell into the hands of the Russian forces that liberated Germany during the Foreign Campaign of 1813-1814. The marble “prisoner” rode to Moscow and ended up at the new Imperial Museum, established by Alexander I with Kremlin Armoury treasures. The statue remained in the Kremlin for almost 170 years and is now displayed at the Battle of Borodino Panorama Museum.

Remembering a British feminist

The Ostankino Museum-Estate boasts one of the capital’s best sculpture collections. Items bought by Count Nikolai Sheremetev in the late 18th century especially for Ostankino Palace interiors form the mainstay. One of them, an artificial-marble statue called the Vestal Virgin, seems more interesting than the others.

In the first half of the 19th century, the statue stood in the central section of the Palace-Theatre’s Plates and Prints Gallery. It was first mentioned in an 1802 inventory, and a similar 1809 document mentions a Neo-Classical clay statue in the centre of the room. According to the inventory, this female statue symbolises religion and holds a round crystal lantern in its right hand. Experts believe that this female statue wearing a toga praetexta depicts a priestess serving the goddess Vesta that patronised family values in Ancient Rome.

Eleanor Coade. Vestal Virgin sculpture

This statue is a rare example of an artistic masterpiece owing its popularity to the personality of the artist, business manager and manufacturer. The Vestal Virgin was made in the United Kingdom in the late 18th century at an artificial-stone workshop of Eleanor Coade using the Lythodipyra (Greek: twice-fired stone) technique. This technique allowed Coade to take control of neo-classical sculpture, architectural and park statue commissions.

The Lythodipyra method was a process to obtain high-quality ceramic material called Coade Stone and manufactured by Eleanor Coade. Eleanor Coade commissioned the best British sculptors and designers and also used unconventional advertising ideas, including newspaper ads and thick mail order catalogues. These aggressive marketing methods attracted the British aristocracy, including King George III, as well as Russian Count Sheremetev.

In the prudish Georgian era, the idea of a woman running a company with a very good reputation was a novel one. Eleanor Coade who ranks among the first British feminists bequeathed a substantial part of her fortune to charitable organisations and 60 needy women, mostly widows and spinsters. Although some women were married, Coade’s will stated expressly that their husbands and other male relatives could not claim a share of her legacy.

The Ostankino Museum-Estate, now closed for restoration, housed the masterpieces from the Sheremetev Palace’s sculpture collection, but they are displayed at a long-duration exhibition in the Tsaritsyno Museum-Reserve’s Opera House.

A gift from the first cosmonauts

The Soviet Union launched Sputnik One, the first manmade satellite, on 4 October 1957 and thus ushered in the Space Age. This landmark event prompted artists to focus on space themes. Moscow received one of the first “space” monuments only a few months after the successful launch. In 1958, an allegorical composition called Reaching for the Stars by Grigory Postnikov was installed in the Frunze Central Soviet Army House Park, now Catherine Park. The sculptor placed a bronze athletic male figure on a granite pedestal. The figure is about to toss a rocket into space. That same year, the sculpture was depicted on a stamp in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. In 1961, the Soviet Postal Service immortalised Postnikov’s sculpture on a stamp honouring the first manned space mission. Two copies of this sculptural composition were installed in Pyatigorsk and Budyonnovsk.

Grigory Postnikov who grew up in an orphanage dreamed of flying since childhood. Before the war, he was able to graduate from the Leningrad University of Civil Air Fleet Engineers and repaired aircraft during the war. Postnikov fulfilled his dream and also became a sculptor during the postwar period.

Grigory Postnikov. Sculpture.  Reaching for the Stars

In 1950, Postnikov, an engineer-turned-sculptor, as well as a group of other sculptors headed by Yevgeny Vuchetich, received a Stalin Prize for the high relief, We Swear to You, Comrade Lenin. This multi-figure composition is currently at the State Tretyakov Gallery. However, Postnikov was not interested in official propaganda and soon focused on space exploration and created dozens of works on the subject.

A scaled-down version of his composition, Reaching for the Stars, was sent to the home of spacecraft and rocket designer Sergei Korolyov, which is now the Academician Korolyov Memorial House-Museum, and a subsidiary of Moscow’s Cosmonautics Museum.  

The father of the Soviet space programme and his wife moved into this home in November 1959. Korolyov lived there until his death in early 1966. According to tradition, every Soviet cosmonaut who flew in space visited Korolyov after each successful mission. In the winter of 1964, the first 11 Soviet cosmonauts presented a copy of Postnikov’s sculpture to Korolyov who liked it very much. He placed it in the entrance hall, where the sculpture “greeted” all of his guests. In the summer of 1965, the autographs of all those who presented the sculpture and whom he had placed into orbit were engraved on the pedestal at the request of Korolyov: Yury Gagarin, Gherman Titov, Andriyan Nikolayev, Pavel Popovich, Valery Bykovsky, Valentina Tereshkova, Vladimir Komarov, Konstantin Feoktistov, Boris Yegorov, Pavel Belyayev and Alexei Leonov.   

Starting 17 July, a miniature version of the sculpture, Reaching for the Stars, is being displayed at Moscow’s Cosmonautics Museum that is running an exhibition called, In the Name of Peace and Progress. The exhibition presents international cooperation in space exploration and marks the 45th anniversary of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP).