A collection of the Russian Imperial porcelain of the State Hermitage Museum is remarkable by its authentic pieces that were kept in service and porcelain stock rooms of the Winter Palace from the end of 18th till the beginning of 20th centuries. They were used by the Imperial family members. Ekaterina Khmelnitskaya, a senior researcher of the department of the Russian history of the State Hermitage Museum, has been studying the history of the Imperial porcelain for many years. In 2014 she defended her PhD thesis, devoted to the sculptures of the Imperial porcelain factory. Ekaterina was awarded the Potanin Foundation grant for this ten year research.
– Porcelain is a mirror of the epoch, - states Ekaterina Khmelnitskaya. – Seemingly, a common small plate or a cup can contain so much knowledge. The porcelain immediately reflects the society and its cultural, social and political aspects. For instance, the beginning of 19th century was under the reign of Alexander I. The most important event of that time was a liberation war against Napoleon. Thus on the porcelain services sets countless images of the Emperor, field marshals, and other heroes of the 1812 war appeared.
In the collection of the State Hermitage Museum unique showpieces are being kept, often made in one of a kind, at the St. Petersburg Imperial porcelain factory, founded by Empress Elizabeth in 1744. The oldest manufacture in Russia differs from the rest world manufactures by its royal household character. It was produced in limited circulation for the royal family members and served also for diplomatic gifts’ purposes. Thus up to 1917 it was an elite manufacture.
– I studied creative biographies of prominent masters of the factory, - says Ekaterina. There are for instance memoires of the chief technologist, Mr Kachalov, who in the beginning of the 20th century wrote about production of two identical vases, which undertook strict selection process; the best vase was selected, the worse one was destroyed to preserve the onliest piece. There were many stories of this kind.
Studying historical art pieces gives Ekaterina great pleasure. She was born in the family of art historians and subsequently followed her family career path. She graduated from the Saint Petersburg State University, the department of the History of Art.
– My career choice was quite natural, - claims Ekaterina. – My work at the Hermitage was more of a destiny’s will. I have never thought that I would be studying the Imperial porcelain. My research interests were focused around the Russian applied arts history. But now I do enjoy my work, especially its research part. I’m trying to set a certain dialogue with a piece that allows me to sum up knowledge and outcomes of the Imperial porcelain development, to oversee creative evolution of masters. Many exhibitions are organized here, for which we write research articles, catalogues, cover various aspects of the ceremony – the way the porcelain developed, reflection of Empresses’ tastes through these pieces, the way royal tables were served, etc.
The storage of the Russian porcelain and ceramics is located in remarkable historical premises, in an ex-bathroom of Empress Alexandra Fedorovna, a spouse of Tsar Nicholas I. The Imperial porcelain was sorted out by periods of emperorship. One can clearly trace how within a time royal tastes were changing. Ekaterina Khmelnitskaya can talk endlessly about special royal orders for significant events, demonstrate favorite porcelain statuettes or vases with battle paintings. By the way war battle scenes painted on the Russian Imperial porcelain represent now another field of research interests of a young scholar.