In Spring 2018, while furnishing one the last rooms in the exhibition ‘From the Gothic Style to Art Nouveau’ dedicated to Historicism, it became apparent there was a shortage of portraits that would enable the viewer to experience the presence of the previous owners of exhibited items. And at the very moment from the faraway Chile arrived a proposition from Count Alejandro Medem about the acquisition of his grandparents’ portraits.
Supplied photos showed the last owners of Eleja Manor Count Paul Medem and his wife Helen together with their daughter Helene Mathilde – painted in 1896 by Sally von Kügelgen. We had already seen these paintings in other photographs in 1989 when the Rundāle Palace Museum hosted an exhibition dedicated to Eleja Manor. It had been established that these portraits were in the possession of the descendants of the Medem family. At the time assistance with important information for the exhibition – photographs and genealogical materials – was provided by Count Paul Medem’s granddaughter Baroness Gerharda von Hoyningen-Huene and her husband Baron Heiner von Hoyningen-Huene.
The portraits were acquired and immediately placed in the Historicism room. They were in a good condition, which is remarkable, considering their complex fate.
Count Paul Medem (1860-1939) had inherited Eleja Manor in 1883 from his uncle Count Johann Medem who did not have any offspring. In 1887 Paul married Helen (1870-1940), the daughter of Bukaiši Manor proprietor Prince Nikolaus Wilhelm Lieven, they had three sons and four daughters. The portrait depicts their oldest daughter Helene (Ellen) Mathilde Jenny (1888-1985) who in 1911 married Karl Ernst (1886-1958), the son of Vecauce Manor proprietor Count Friedrich Paul Medem.
The author of these portraits is a Baltic-German painter Sally von Kügelgen (1860-1928) born in Tartu, Estonia, into the family of painter Konstantin von Kügelgen and Antonia, b. Baroness von Maydell. She studied painting from her father, then from a Baltic-German painter Julie Wilhelmine Hagen-Schwarz and later as an auditor attended the Academy of Art in St Petersburg perfecting her craft in the studio of the famous portraitist Ivan Kramskoy. After 1890 she resided in Rome, although she periodically returned to the Baltics. Von Kügelgen is a well-regarded portraitist, however she also crafted a fresco in the chancel of St Charles’s Church in Tallinn, following Timoleon von Neff’s design and featuring scenes from the life of Christ. The portraits of the Medem’s stand out from among her other work because of their particularly representative character. The reserved, murky colouring, dominated by the shades of brown, reflects Kramskoy’s influence, while the realism of Hagen-Schwarz’s portraits can be detected in their faces. Meanwhile the approaching Art Nouveau period has been announced with white lightness and flowing lines in the Countess’s attire, which is not surprising, since the date of this painting coincides with the launch of iconic Art Nouveau publication ‘Jugend’ in Munich. The portraits were painted at Eleja Manor – Count Medem has been depicted in the palace’s dome hall sitting on a so called curulic chair, evidenced by photographs from the palace. Also recognisable is the redwood table with bronze decorations, which used to belong in the apartments of Countess Helen. However, the monumental fireplace in the portrait of Countess is not captured by any photographs from the palace and rouses questions about other artistic treasures that were in the palace and have since been lost without leaving behind even a photographic record.
Until the WWI, the original interior finish at Eleja Manor with paintings and ornamental sculptures had remained intact, it was filled with an astonishing collection of works of art. In 1915, the palace was burnt down by troops of demoralised Russian soldiers retreating from Riga and demolishing everything in their way. The painting collection survived because it had been transported to Jelgava well in advance and then further on to Dresden where Count Paul Medem relocated in December 1919 together with his wife. In 1939, they went to live with their daughter Dina (1890-1980) in Neustift by Passau (Lower Bavaria). Some of the paintings were sold, including the pride of collection – four Caspar David Friedrich’s landscapes, affording a life of luxury to Count Medem, which he had grown accustomed to in Courland.
At the start of the WWII, the collection was still in Dresden where in 1945 it perished during a night of ruthless bombing on 13th to 14th February. In an unknown way both portraits and a few other paintings avoided destruction. After the war the portraits were stowed in Wandlitz (near Berlin) with Baroness von Meerscheidt-Hüllessem, mother-in-law to Count Paul Medem’s eldest son Friedrich Johann Theodor or Fred (1897-1959). After her death in 1966 they were inherited by the Baroness’s daughter Gerda von Meerscheidt-Hüllessem who resided in Schleswig. When she passed away, both portraits went to her deceased husband’s nephew Alexander Medem who emigrated to South America. The portraits remained in the care of his relative Freiherr von Poschinger-Bray, from whom they were acquired by the Rundāle Palace Museum.
Surrounded by the splendid interior of the Historicism room, Count Paul Medem and his wife and daughter could almost feel like being at home in Eleja Manor. On the opposite wall hangs a portrait of Countess Sophie Medem from Stukmaņi Manor, nearby – the portrait of her relative, the proprietor of Mežotne Manor Prince Paul Lieven, painted by Ivan Kramskoy. In the opposite wing of Rundāle Palace Museum a work of art is displayed, which Countess Helen Medem would have known since her childhood – the portrait of Charles I of England, painted by Ernst von Liphardt, that adorned her father’s house in Bukaiši and miraculously survived the Revolution in 1905 (see The Tales of Things: Portrait of Charles I).
The Historicism room features yet another article of memorabilia from Countess Helen Medem – on 24th May 2018, Baroness Gerharda von Hoyningen-Huene gifted her grandmother’s embroidered brocade shoes to the Rundāle Palace Museum, which are now displayed in a glass case under the portrait of their previous owner.
Author: Imants Lancmanis Dr.h.c.art.