The present centerpiece basket is from a dessert service ordered from the Paris porcelain firm of Dihl and Guèrhard by Josephine de Beauharnais shortly after her divorce from Emperor Napoleon I in 1809. Deliveries are recorded for 1811 and 1813. Comprising over 200 pieces and intended for use at formal receptions held at Malmaison, her home outside Paris, it included four such baskets as well as baskets of variant form, gilt biscuit figures of putti at various pursuits, various shaped serving dishes or compotiers, cups and saucers and plates.
Neither the shapes nor all of the decoration are unique to the service but the combination of design elements and certainly the inclusion of her crest of an Imperial eagle on a crowned ermine mantle on the important serving pieces are. Given the neo-classic taste fashionable at that time, it is not surprising to find trompe l'oeil cameo painting and silhouettes included as part of the decorative scheme. The gold ground is highly burnished and gilt with two banding patterns, both of which are used on the present centerpiece. The entire center of each plate and the sides of the ice-pails are finely painted with scenes, most likely by Jean-Louis Demarne (1744-1829) and Martin Drolling (1752-1817); the burnished gold borders ciselé with the typical bands.
Her son, Eugène de Beauharnais (1781-1824), commissioned a similar service for himself at about the same time. Smaller in scale, it included neither elaborate serving pieces nor the gilt biscuit figures of Cupid at various pursuits included in his mother's service. On his service, a simple script initial 'E' replaced her crowned crest. Differentiating the non-crested pieces for which the same shapes appear in both orders is difficult. This is particularly true of the plates. Current scholarship holds that those painted after paintings at Malmaison are from Josephine's service and those with landscapes, genre scenes and historic subjects are more likely from that made for her son.
Upon the death of Josephine at Malmaison in 1814, Eugène and his sister Hortense inherited the contents of their mother's home including the furnishings and paintings. Although works of art were sold to satisfy her debts, the recently purchased Dihl et Guèrhard dessert service was kept by Eugène and combined with his own. In 1806, he had married Augusta Amalia Ludovika Georgia von Bayern (1788-1851), eldest daughter of Maximillian I of Bavaria. Granted the Bavarian titles of Duke and Duchess of Leuchtenberg and Prince and Princess of Eichstdt, the young couple lived in Milan, Eugène serving as Viceroy to the Kingdom of Italy for his adoptive father, Napoleon I. The family returned to Munich in 1815, eventually having seven children. Six survived into adulthood, marrying into the most prominent princely families of Europe.
In 1839, their youngest son, Maximilian Joseph Eugene Auguste Napoleon de Beauharnais and 3rd Duke of Leuchtenberg married Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna, daughter of Tsar Nicholas I of Russia and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. The Tsar only agreed to this love match between his oldest daughter and a man of inferior rank with the proviso that the couple would reside in Russia. They set up housekeeping in St. Petersburg, eventually moving into the newly built Mariinsky Palace, named after Maria.
The two Dihl et Guèrhard services were shipped to St. Petersburg in 1839 along with other works of art originally from Maximillian's grandmother's collection at Malmaison. They remained in possession of the Leuchtenberg family until 1919, at which time they were absorbed into the Hermitage collections. The widow of Maximillian and Maria's youngest son Georgii took responsibility for the two dessert services, known collectively as the Eugène de Beauharnais Service, and for the family's other works of art - both pieces originally from her husband's great-grandmother's collection at Malmaison and those inherited from her mother-in-law.
Wary of the politically volatile situation in St. Petersburg, she made a hand-written inventory of the holdings, submitting it 10 March 1919. Coverage under such a certificate meant that the Leuchtenberg collection was now under the protection of the government and could not be removed from the premises. Regardless, Leuchtenberg House was taken over by the Soviet government (it became the Palace of Labor) and the works of art removed to storage at the Novo-Mikhailovsky Palace. From there, they were eventually moved to the Winter Palace and were absorbed into the collection of the Hermitage via the State Museum Fund.
During Joseph Stalin's regime, works of art from the Hermitage collections were sold to the West as a way of obtaining hard currency. Although approximately 60 percent of the original compliment of Dihl et Guèrhard dessert wares is still retained in the Hermitage, pieces from these services can now be found at Malmaison and in other private collections.
See Natalia Kasakiewitsch, "Das Service des Eugène de Beauharnais", Keramos, Heft 141, Juli 1993, p. 13-32 and Tamata Rappe, et al, France in Russia: Empress Josephine's Malmaison Collection, Exhibition Catalogue, Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House, London, 2007, pp. 41-55 and 86-93, cat. nos. 16-38 for a detailed discussion of the service, the history of its ownership and its decoration.
LAURENCE ADOLPH STEINHARDT - LAWYER, DIPLOMAT, CONNOISSEUR
Laurence Adolph Steinhardt was a lawyer by training, an art collector by birth. From a prominent Jewish family active in the cultural life of New York, nephew of Samuel Untermyer and first cousin of Judge Irwin Untermyer whose collections form the core of many departments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Steinhardt's home was also filled with all manner of works of art - early furniture, tapestries, kunstkammer objects. His first diplomatic posting was to Sweden in 1933. From then on until his untimely death in a plane crash in 1950, he served as United States Ambassador to Peru, the U.S.S.R, Turkey, Czechoslovakia and Canada during a time of global unrest and uncertainty.
While serving as President Franklin Roosevelt's eyes and ears in the Soviet Union immediately following the onset of World War II, Laurence Steinhardt took the opportunity of purchasing from the Russian State works of art deemed superfluous to their collections. His collector's eye was unerring. Aside from the magnificent Dihl et Guèrhard centerpiece from the Beauharnais Service, he acquired a collection of Russian icons, currently on loan to the Hillwood Museum and Gardens through the auspices of the Steinhardt-Sherlock Trust.
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