November 01, 2010

Vodka with a Kiss

Konstantin Makovsky painted Boyarina Bearing a Tray as a study for his monumental 1883 canvas, Boyar Wedding. This lovely portrait of a demure woman with eyes downcast, berouged in the medieval Russian fashion, represents Makovsky’s attempt to capture the essence of the Russian past, a past that many feared was being lost with industrialization, massive urban migration, and railroads that were changing the face of the Russian countryside. Like other iconic paintings from the 1880s, Makovsky’s work idealizes Russia’s distant past. But unlike such artists as Viktor Vasnetsov and Ilya Repin, Makovsky chose to portray not heroic scenes from his country’s history or mythology, but domestic, intimate moments, particularly those recalling the era of Muscovy (thirteenth to sixteenth centuries), when Moscow was ascendant.

In depicting scenes of everyday life, Makovsky paid great attention to detail; his use of color and brushwork deftly convey the intricate patterning of the boyarina’s dress. Here is the richly ornamented style of old Russia: the elaborate kokoshnik (headdress) is decorated with semi-precious jewels and pearls, while the gown is made of brocade and embellished with gold embroidery. Makovsky shows the boyarina resplendent in her wealth, an impression reinforced by his careful rendering of the finely wrought goblet of silver and gold that is borne on a hammered silver tray.

Makovsky was deeply interested in Russia’s material culture, and it is likely that he painted the goblet after an object in his own collection. Other paintings of his, such as A Cup of Mead (Charka myodu, from the early 1880s), depict additional specialized drinking vessels from old Russia that were used until being displaced by Western-style glassware under Peter the Great’s eighteenth-century reforms. The goblet shown here is a kubok, a ceremonial vessel reserved for special occasions and especially for the regalement of guests. The kubok varied in form: some had a broad base, others none at all; sometimes the bowl of the vessel was affixed to a pedestal. The wealthiest boyars ordered their kubki from skilled silversmiths, who decorated them through hammering or adornment with precious stones, jewels, or even tiny silver chains. Many of the best silversmiths were associated with monasteries. The vessels known as Troitskie sudy,1 crafted at the Trinity Monastery of St. Sergiy outside of Moscow, were especially prized.

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