After Matilda Geddings Gray died in 1971, her collection passed to the foundation she had established, with the stipulation that a broad public should be able to enjoy it. The collection was on view for many years at the New Orleans Museum of Art and at the Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art in Nashville. Earlier this year, the rare Imperial Napoleonic Egg and Lilies-of-the-Valley Basket from the collection were featured in the exhibition Fabergé Revealed at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond.
Peter Carl Fabergé (1846–1920) was a talented artisan and jeweler but also a visionary. In 1872 he took over his father's small atelier in Saint Petersburg and within forty years transformed it into the world's largest enterprise of its kind, employing some five hundred craftsmen and designers. During the 1870s Peter Carl Fabergé had ongoing and open access to the world-renowned collections of the Hermitage for cataloging, repairing, and restoring precious pieces, particularly ancient gold pieces of jewelry. In 1882, at the Pan-Russian Exhibition held in Moscow, he was awarded the gold medal for his accurate replicas of those objects, drawing the attention of the czar and of the Imperial family. In 1885 the House of Fabergé was nominated "Goldsmith by special appointment of the Imperial Crown" and received the commission for the first Imperial Easter Egg. The firm rapidly grew to become the largest jewelry enterprise in Russia, and from 1882 to 1917 (when the Russian Revolution brought an end to the Fabergé production), the House of Fabergé produced thousands of objects ranging from silver tea sets to objets de luxe. The artisan died in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1920.
The exhibition features three of the fifty Imperial Easter Eggs created for the Romanov family by Fabergé beginning in 1885. Records show that the eggs were initially commissioned by Czar Alexander III for his wife, Maria Feodorovna, and then by his son and heir, Czar Nicholas II, for his mother and his wife. The creation of each Imperial Easter Egg required the work of many people—designers, gem cutters and setters, engravers, enamelers, polishers—and each could take more than a year to complete. The three Imperial Easter Eggs on view include the Imperial Danish Palaces Egg, which Czar Alexander III presented in 1890 to his wife, and which is divided into twelve sections in opalescent pink enamel with diamonds, emeralds, and sapphires. It opens to reveal a surprise folding ten-panel screen that bears miniatures of the Empress's favorite Danish and Russian retreats. The Imperial Caucasus Egg, an opulent piece adorned with diamonds, pearls, crystal, and ivory, has four oval doors, each of which opens to reveal a different miniature view of Abastuman, the imperial hunting lodge in the Caucasus Mountains. And the Imperial Napoleonic Egg, which Czar Nicholas II presented to his mother, the dowager empress Maria Feodorovna, on Easter 1912, commemorates the centenary of the Russian victory over the armies of Napoleon, revealing a folding six-panel screen with miniatures showing the six regiments of which the dowager empress was an honorary colonel.
Another highlight of the exhibition is the Lilies-of-the-Valley Basket, considered to be Fabergé's floral masterpiece. It is the most important piece by the artisan in any collection in the United States. Made in 1896, it was originally presented to Czarina Alexandra Feodorovna and consists of nineteen individual stems emerging from nine separate plants in a "moss" of spun, fused, clipped, and polished green and yellow gold. Each pearl blossom is edged in silver set with rose-cut diamonds, with realistic leaves made of hard, dense nephrite and carved with the striations characteristic of the lily-of-the-valley plant. The czarina adored the Lilies-of- the-Valley Basket, as the blossoms were among her favorite flowers, and pearls her favorite jewels. She kept it on view in the private apartments and often took it with her when traveling.