On 18th October 1791, Dorothea, Duchess of Courland, wrote from Berlin to Karl von Manteuffel, the proprietor of Blankenfelde Manor: ‘His Highness gifted five large, magnificent porcelain vases to me, dark blue with gold and exquisitely painted.’ (This letter is in the collection of the National Library of Latvia.)
Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, was well acquainted with Dorothea, Duchess of Courland, whom he had met for the first time in 1780 in Jelgava while en route to Saint Petersburg. Later he encountered her on several occasions in Berlin in 1785 and in the following years, because the Duke Peter had acquired the Friedrichsfelde Palace near Berlin. The vases were presented to the Duchess Dorothea after she had completed a political mission in the Court of Warsaw entrusted to her by her husband and arrived in Berlin to partake in the wedding of Princess Friederike on 29th September 1791.
As these vases had been expressly gifted to the Duchess, she transported them to her private Löbichau Palace after the Duke Peter’s abdication from the throne in 1795 where the set of five vases remained until 1907. The Duchess died on 20th August 1821 and her youngest daughter Johanna, Duchess of Acerenza, took possession of the Löbichau property. In 1876, Löbichau was inherited by Johanna’s relative – Fanny, the wife of a Prussian general Leopold Hermann von Boyen, whose daughter Louise von Tümpling became the next proprietor of Löbichau. In 1907, von Tümpling family decided to part with the Löbichau Manor and handed it over to Deutsche Adelsgenossenschaft to be used for social purposes. The palace’s interior was sold and only two rooms remained in a museum-like condition displaying engravings, portraits and documents, as well as some furniture.
The inventory of Löbichau Palace was auctioned at the Berlin Auction House “Rudolph Lepke” on 22nd and 23rd October 1907; its catalogue shows all five vases displayed on a half-moon console table under the portrait of Princess Pauline and Princess Johanna in the Palace’s Hall. However, the catalogue’s text mentions neither the vases nor the portrait nor several other art objects depicted in the photograph. There is a rather simple explanation – prior to the auction most of the valuable objects had already been acquired by Gustav Biron, the Prince of Courland and the proprietor of Gross Wartenberg Manor. The Duchess’ vases made another appearance two years later in a publication about Silesian palaces authored by the architect Robert Weber. In this publication vases are shown on top of a glass cabinet in the so-called Silver Hall of Gross Wartenberg Palace. On the wall behind the vases hangs a portrait of Fanny, the wife of Gustav Kalixt, the Prince of Courland and the proprietor of Gross Wartenberg Manor, meanwhile the portrait of Princess Pauline and Princess Johanna depicted in the photo of Löbichau Palace is featured on another page in Weber’s album together with photos of the rest of the family. Nowadays the portrait of both princesses belongs to the Prince Ernst Johann, head of the Biron Family.
The subsequent fate of the set of vases remains unknown. Photos of just two vases appeared in Erich Köllman’s book ‘Berliner Porzellan 1763-1963’, published in two volumes in Braunschweig in 1966, listing Prince Torlonia in Rome as the owner of vases. In 2000, the Rundāle Palace Museum curated an exhibition dedicated to the 200th death anniversary of the Duke Peter and approached Prince Torlonia kindly requesting a photograph of the vases for the purposes of this exhibition, alas to no avail – a response arrived from the Secretary to the Prince informing the Museum that the vases could not be found at Palazzo Torlonia.
In mid-June 2019, the same two vases that had been featured in Köllmann’s monograph unexpectedly showed up in a catalogue of Bonhams Auction House.
It turned out that the Prince Alessandro Torlonia de Civitella-Cesi had passed away in 2017 and his heirs had begun to sell some of the collections. The auction took place on 2nd July in London and the Museum successfully acquired both vases, which by that point had borne a long life in various palaces. Initially the Duchess Dorothea had undoubtedly stored them at Vircava Palace but after the Dukes left Courland the vases ended up at Löbichau Palace and later adorned the interiors of Gross Wartenberg Palace, eventually finding their last home at Via della Conciliazione 30 in Rome. Concealed behind the sullen façade of Palazzo Torlonia built in the late 15th century are pompous rooms that have been decorated throughout many centuries. Now the vases have arrived at Rundāle Palace and, it could even be said, returned home, hopefully for good. Displayed on a redwood roll-top bureau in the Duke’s Reception Room underneath a portrait of Duke Peter, originally painted for the Academia Petrina Hall in Jelgava, while the face of Duchess Dorothea reveres these vases from across the room. This painting, made by German artist Johann Riedel, is a copy of Duchess’ portrait, originally painted by Angelica Kauffman in 1785, and was created shortly after the original had been completed. The Duchess had ordered three copies to be made and gifted one copy to her brother the Count Jeannot Medem. In August 2019, the Museum acquired this painting and other family portraits from the Count Theodor Medem, descendant of Jeannot Medem.
The vases presented to the Duchess Dorothea were not an ordinary gift, they were the most modern wares created by the Royal Porcelain Manufactory Berlin (Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Berlin) in the early Classicism period. In 1763, the King Friedrich II had acquired this company from a private owner, thus fostering the growth of porcelain manufacturing in Berlin. The King was a devotee of the Rococo art and Friedrich’s II taste has been reflected in a great number of commissioned porcelain sets for the royal residencies. A turn towards the Classicism style came in 1785 when the manufactory produced a so-called Weimar vase. The urn-shaped vase with two handles and a snake motif around its base was named after its commissioner the Duchess Louise of Saxe-Weimar. During the same year of 1785, these modern vases also arrived in the royal household – a set of five vases was placed on the mantelpiece in the Concert Hall of Sans-Souci Palace where they have remained to this day. These vases feature a painted flower composition inside the round medallions. The Duchess Dorothea’s set manufactured six years later has a more complex iconographic scheme. As is evident from the photograph of 1909, the large central vase depicts the coat of arms of the Duchy of Courland and this design is also repeated on one of the medium size vases with the Duke Peter’s monogram on its reverse. Whilst the other medium size vase depicts the main motif of this set – a sepia toned portrait of the recipient of this gift Duchess Dorothea, painted after a portrait by Josef Grassi.
The “Weimar Vase” style has endured a long life. It is one of the KPM products that has lasted for centuries by varying only its painted décor. Museums and art fairs feature date-stamped vases (1830; 1849; 1878 or 1930) that, regardless of the stylistic period, attest to this classicism urn-shaped object as not deemed old-fashioned or boring. Almost all later samples stand out with a wider multitude of colours, replacing the blue background with green or red or leaving it white, whereas the medallions usually feature gallant scenes or landscapes of the 18th century. It is peculiar that only a few early samples from the 18th century have remained and therefore Duchess Dorothea’s set occupies a very significant place in the history of “Weimar Vase”. Its closest analogy is a vase with a painted sepia portrait of Frederika Louisa, the Queen Consort of Prussia, that was sold at the Christie’s Auction House on 29th January 2019.
The connection between the Duchess’ of Courland vases and the Duke Biron has attained yet another symbolic expression. After the auction Ernst Johann Biron, the Prince of Courland, transferred funds to the Rundāle Palace Museum covering the cost of this purchase, thus proffering a family donation to the Duke’s summer residence and to Latvia overall. Indeed, had Europe not been affected by the tempest of World War II, the post-war political development taken a different route and the Gross Wartenberg Palace not burned down, the current owner of all five vases would have been Prince Ernst Johann, head of the Biron Family. However, even without these hypothetical suppositions, he has successfully orchestrated the return to Latvia of two significant works of art and two valuable family relics.
However, the saga of Duchess’ Dorothea vases is far from over. A question remains unanswered – what happened to the other three vases from this set? Prince Ernst Johann Biron believes that most of the interior objects from the Gross Wartenberg Palace perished in early 1945 when Red Army robbed and torched the palace. Only those objects survived that Prince Karl Biron had already transported to his villa in Baden-Baden, which later turned out to be the only intact family property after the war. Prince Ernst Johann is also not aware of how and when these two vases ended up in Rome. Had they been sold by his father after World War II? Why only two? When had the set been divided? Have the other three vases perished or been stored somewhere awaiting their moment of public appearance?
Author: Imants Lancmanis, Dr.h.c.art.