In 2013 Count Théodore Medem gifted a collection of family relics to the Rundāle Palace Museum, which in 1918 his grandfather had transported from Stukmaņi and Vecauce Manors to Germany and then onto France. This gift also includes a porcelain cosmetic and toiletry set of Duchess Dorothea – altogether 22 items manufactured at the Royal Porcelain Manufactory (Königliche Porzellan Manufaktur or KPM) in Berlin. Traditionally such sets have also been regarded as place settings, although in contrast to dinner, tea or coffee place settings it is comprised entirely of items necessary for facial and body care.
Gift by Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia to Duchess Dorothea
Until 2013 only the toiletry set made at the Royal Porcelain Manufactory in Berlin around 1780 and gifted to Duchess Dorothea by Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia was more widely known. In two old photographs from the Sans-Souci Palace in Potsdam it is depicted inside a storage box and set out on a table. Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia purchased this set from an art dealer in 1844 who in turn had acquired it from the estate of Princess Wilhelmine, the daughter of Duchess Dorothea.
The medallions on these objects have been painted in grey grisaille and depict scenes from ‘Metamorphoses’ by Roman poet Ovid, portraying time from the creation of the world to the reign of Julius Caesar. These paintings are based on engravings. Water decanter has been painted after Charles Monnet’s engraving ‘Meleager, Atalanta, and the Calydonian Boar’ published in the book ‘Les Metamorphoses d` Ovide’ (Paris, 1767–1771). A painted profile of Ovid adorns the topmost part of the mirror. The author of sculptural décor and three flying angels is German sculptor, painter and engraver Johann Eckstein (1735–1817). His painted décor incorporates the motifs of rose blossoms, leaves and gilded ornament. Oblong and rotund containers, thimble, candle snuffer, water decanter, rosette shaped thread spool, hairbrush and plates have been manufactured to the same proportions as the items in the set gifted by Count Théodore Medem.
Photographs from the 1930s depict 12 items from the place setting with a painted décor of roses and mythological scenes. Since WWII only one plate and a storage box remain in the collection of Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation Berlin-Brandenburg (Stiftung Preußische Schlösser und Gärten Berlin-Brandenburg).
Cosmetic and toiletry sets in Europe
Cosmetic and toiletry sets or place settings were manufactured in Europe from the 17th century up until the 19th century, and in some cases – 20th century. They were regarded as a fitting diplomatic gift, mainly among the sovereigns. Such sets were gifted to mark special occasions – a wedding or the birth of a child – or as a display of affection between husband and wife.
In French ‘toilette’ or ‘petit toile’ originally meant a small piece of cloth, however in time the meaning of ‘toilette’ widened. Morning toilette among the aristocracy was an accomplished ritual to prepare for the planned activities of the day consisting of getting dressed, having one’s hair styled and applying makeup. Morning toilette and breakfast was partially a public happening involving a group of select individuals. It started as a ritual in the court of Louis XIV of France and was later adopted in the courts of other European sovereigns and among the gentry. The morning toilette ceremony was called ‘lever’ in French. Privileged guests and intimate friends were invited to this finely rehearsed ritual to converse about politics and business or to exchange gossip. Guests were served snuff, bullion or soup and refreshing drinks. Drinks with milk were served to those in poor health. Tea, which was an expensive luxury item, became popular among the rich in the 18th century. In France tea consumption originated in bedrooms and boudoirs. Strong tea was poured from a pot into a cup and mixed with hot water, adding sugar to reduce bitterness, as well as hot or cold milk if needed. Other popular drinks were coffee and chocolate. Bullion and hot drinks were served in bowls or cups with lids to keep their contents warm and to protect them from makeup powder.
Toilette rituals have been rendered in paintings and engravings. They depict dressing tables inside boudoirs, bedrooms and toilette cabinets with cosmetic sets made from a range of materials: gold, silver, bronze, enamel, varnish, tortoise shell, ivory, glass, crystal, porcelain, faience, exotic tree varieties and other materials. Magnificent toiletry sets adorned mainly the boudoirs of noble women, although there were also special sets for men, as well as travel kits.
‘Travel boxes’ contained a mixture of containers for cosmetics, dining and drinking, toiletries and stationery, as well medicine and medical implements. Boxes were often made from exotic tree varieties and lined with fine fabrics. Their contents were typically assembled by merchants. Mostly a set consisted of twenty or thirty items. However, the toiletry set of Empress Maria Feodorovna, displayed at the Pavlovsk Palace, was gifted to her by Louis XVI of France and Marie Antoinette in 1782 and contains 72 items manufactured at Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory (Manufacture nationale de Sèvres).
A cosmetic and toiletry set was placed on a dressing table or inside special cubby holes under a lift-up top with an attached mirror. In 2016, the Rundāle Palace Museum acquired a dressing table with sixteen cubby holes made in France in the 3rd quarter of 18th century and found six porcelain and glass objects under its lift-up lid. One of the glass flasks contained the remains of evaporated vinegar.
These types of sets were mainly intended for storing cosmetics. The manufacture of cosmetics was linked to alchemy and even magic and witchcraft. Recipes were kept secret. It is well known that lives around the world were claimed not just by wars and plague but also by beauty care. In 1779, the book ‘Toilet of Flora’ (London, 1779) was published and immediately gained popularity. It described methods for preparing baths and published recipes for various cosmetics, essences and perfumes.
Cosmetic and toiletry sets of the Royal Porcelain Manufactory (KPM)
In 1784 Duke Peter of Courland and Duchess Dorothea went on a trip around Europe and visited the Royal Porcelain Manufactory in Berlin where they purchased the cosmetic and toiletry set that was gifted to the Museum by Count Théodore Medem.
Several identical cosmetic and toiletry sets with various painted décors are known to have been made at the Royal Porcelain Manufactory. The first toiletry set was commissioned by Friedrich II of Prussia on 18 June 1768 and its décor depicts bouquets of wild flowers with a thin gilded line of lace ornament adorning the edges. A detailed list of containers in the set was produced on 21st December of the same year. The largest oblong container from this set with slanting edges and a slightly domed lid with a handle was auctioned on 3 May 2017 at the Lempertz Action House in Berlin.
The second toiletry set was made around 1770 with a painted décor of rose blossoms, leaves and gilded lines and resembles the set made for Duchess Dorothea in 1784.
Cosmetic and toiletry set of Duchess Dorothea
Most of the items that have been preserved come from the Duchess Dorothea’s cosmetic and toiletry set with painted green wreaths, pink roses and a gilded bath foam ornament along the edges. The set acquired by the Rundāle Palace Museum contains twenty-two items, including five different size oblong containers with lids and five rotund containers of various sizes. The set used to be much bigger as is evidenced by the two rotund lids without matching containers.
The set consists of five parallelepiped containers with slanting edges and slightly domed lids with a handle: one container (16.2 cm x 24.1 cm x 20.6 cm); two medium size containers (13,5 cm x 16,3 cm x 13 cm) and two small containers (8.3 cm x 12.8 cm x 7.3 cm). There are five rotund containers: two containers of the same height (11.5 cm, diameter 13.4 cm) and three different size containers (8.5 cm x 8.7 cm; 9.5 cm x 7.4 cm and 7.5 cm x 6 cm).
The containers were used for storing makeup powder, pastes, creams, blusher and other beauty products. Makeup was applied to even out skin tone and mask imperfections. Smallpox was a widespread disease in those days, leaving lifelong scars. A thick layer of facial paste also helped to conceal the symptoms of syphilis. With the use of makeup, it was possible to completely change one’s appearance.
Aristocratic paleness was in fashion; it was achieved by applying generous amounts of white greasepaint and powder. Pale complexion attested that the individual had not been carrying out farm work and tanned skinned was associated with farm hands. Smooth skin was highly coveted. Women used paste that was made from white lead and vinegar. It was applied to face, neck and even breasts. However, these chemicals caused hair to fall out and white lead pigment turned the skin grey and rough. Thus, many noble women damaged their appearance and health. In the 16th century white paste was widely used by Elizabeth I of England and her court. White lead was still used in the early 18th century when talcum, alum paste and tin ash became the new recommended products.
Following the application of white paste, skin was powdered. ‘Powder’ originates from the French word ‘poudre’, which also means dust. In Europe makeup powder originated in the 16th century and was applied to fasten greasepaint. Loose makeup powder evenly covered the skin and reduced oiliness. It was made from rice flour and talcum and applied with a large soft brush. Rice had been imported in Europe from Asia since the 10th century and from the 15th century also grown in Italy and Spain. Rice powder or starch was one of the finest powders, whereas talcum – one of the whitest natural substances. Hair and wigs were also powdered. White or grey powdered wigs and hair were in fashion – they had to look slightly silvered.
Vivid makeup was considered the sign of nobility and therefore cheeks and lips were vibrantly coloured. It was believed that rosy cheeks made women appear younger. Blusher or rouge (from ‘rouge’ in French) for colouring cheeks and lips came in several shades of red. It contained cinnabar mercury sulphide, also known as the ‘dragon’s blood’. Cinnabar is the main ingredient of mercury and is used for its red pigment, however cinnabar ore is harmful to health. In ancient times, condemning a convict to work on a cinnabar mine was basically a death sentence. As knowledge about harmful substances grew in the 18th century, the ingredients of cheek blusher and lip colour also changed – grease and less harmful dye and perfume pigments were used instead. Lard from pigs and beef was applied to make softer greasepaint while using sheep fat produced firmer paste. Geese fat, as well as fat from different exotic animals, was also popular. One of the Duchess Dorothea’s rotund containers in the Museum’s collection still contains the remains of rosy rouge.
Brushes made from soft animal hair or wool were used for the application of powder and for brushing off excess powder from face and clothes. An oval brush with a painted porcelain décor and dyed animal hair (7 cm x 12.5 cm x 7.5 cm) remains in the toiletry set of Duchess Dorothea.
The set includes oval hand and face washing bowl (5.4 cm x 26.6 cm x 21 cm) and water decanter with a curved handle (17 cm x 13.5 cm).
Two shallow oval plates have also been preserved (2.4 cm x 17 cm x 12.3 cm)
A single candle holder on a platform for illumination (height 7.3. cm, dimeter 12.3 cm). The candle was extinguished with a cone-shaped snuffer (7.8 cm x 3.8 cm).
A rosette shaped thread spool (diameter 4.8 cm) and a thimble (height 4.8 cm) for sewing.
A gilded blunt metal knife with a porcelain handle (length 15 cm) for opening letters and seals.
A flat flask with a lid that was used as a purse or a toiletry case for smaller items (11 cm x 1.7 cm x 6.5 cm). It has two compartments – a large and a small one, although both are empty. Toiletry cases were used for storing scissors, nail files, tweezers, ear scoops, needles, nail buffers and other small objects.
Perfume burner or brule parfum with a spirit lamp (height 13 cm) for aromatising the room. The perfume burner is missing its lid.
Unfortunately, neither mirror nor brush for applying powder and rouge, nor the storage container have remained from this porcelain toiletry set.
Portraits of the Duchess Dorothea of Courland depict her with a pale skin, powdered hair and rosy cheeks and lips. In her memoirs about summers at the Löbichau Mannor, Emilie von Binzer, the step daughter of Dorothea’s daughter Wilhelmine, recounts that the Duchess Dorothea’s “skin was delicate and white, although she still applied makeup during her toilette, not because it was necessary but because it had been the fashion of her youth. The Duke Peter battled in vain, even quoting lines from the Bible that an ‘adorned face shan’t face the Lord’.” (Emilie von Binzer. Drei Sommer in Löbichau. 1819–1821. Leipzig, 1878, S. 15–16).
The toiletry set of Duchess Dorothea demonstrates that beauty care in the 18th century held an important role in the life of noble women. Cosmetic products were expensive and only those who were affluent could afford to have them.
Author: Dzintra Miķelsone
Chief Specialist of the RPM Collection