Dining with the Tsars. Fragile beauty from the Hermitage

Background story

It is 1792. Catherine the Great has just paid the final instalment for the 700 pieces Cameo Service, that she ordered for her lover, Grigory Potemkin. Her payment averts bankruptcy for the Sèvres factory in Paris, which had supplied porcelain to the French court until the Revolution in 1789. The tsarina is delighted with the service, but dismayed by the bill which totals 62,324 roubles (or 124,650 guilders in the currency of the time). More than 160 pieces were stolen from the Cameo Service during the great fire at the Winter Palace in 1837 and only recovered almost twenty years later. In the exhibition Dining with the Tsars. Fragile beauty from the Hermitage. Banqueting in the Winter Palace this celebrated dinner service and seven other magnificent services will tell the story of the balls and banquets held at the court of the Russian tsars - the fashions, the etiquette and court intrigues – and present over two hundred years of European history, encapsulated in porcelain.

Photo Janiek Dam

The invention of a western form of porcelain in the early eighteenth century unleashed an enormous appetite for porcelain. Tsarina Catherine the Great sent her agents to the west to purchase precious objects for her palaces. Orders for thousand-piece porcelain dinner services were not unusual. Every plate, every tureen, compotier or ice coupe was intended to impress, while their decorations – flowers, birds, landscapes, palaces, mythological scenes, initials or poems - provided subjects for conversation around the dinner table. The Green Frog Service, for example, ordered from the Wedgwood factory in London, features more than 1200 different images of English landscapes and Gothic monuments. The iconography on imperial services was often secular and political in character. Services such as the Berlin Dessert Service, presented to Russia by King Frederick II of Prussia after the Russian victory in the Russo-Turkish War of 1768, demonstrated Russia’s great role in the world: the decorations incorporate military and martial scenes, uniforms and weapons, while the associated table figures represented allegories and included Turks in chains. One of the great symbols of Russian military glory is the St George Service, which Catherine the Great also commissioned, for Chesme Palace. Russian monarchs used banquets and services to present themselves as wealthy, sophisticated, civilized rulers. Services also played a role in diplomacy, for large porcelain services were sometimes presented as diplomatic gifts. They include the St Andrew Service, presented to Empress Elisabeth, and the Nicholas and Alexandra Service, a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. After the end of tsarist rule services continued their diplomatic function as gifts. In 1949, for example, the workers of the Hungarian Ministry of Heavy Industry in honour of the 25th anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s rule. This service has never before been used so its inclusion in the exhibition is a first for the Hermitage Amsterdam.

Photo Janiek Dam

À table

The tsar’s court was renowned for the unparalleled beauty of its banqueting tables. Even the most seasoned western guests were delighted by the enormous wealth of porcelain and the beautifully decorated centrepieces. Perfume burners spread delicious scents; gold and silvery cutlery gleamed in the light of crystal chandeliers, which might burn up to ten thousand candles during a banquet. Everywhere there were fresh flowers and canaries in ornamental cages sung amidst exotic lemon trees, orange trees and palms. All this elegance was intended to stimulate anticipation of the dishes to be served. Dining often began early. The afternoon meal was the most important and lasted many hours, well into the evening and sometimes until after midnight. The menu comprised a number of courses (cold, soup, hot, dessert), with all the dishes in each course, ranging from two to fifteen, served simultaneously. In between courses the tables were cleared, cleaned and redecked. Round tables were often used, allowing the tsar to move from table to table and eat the various courses on the way. The advantage for guests was that they could say they had been seated at the same table as the tsar. On more formal occasions a long, U-shaped table was used.

Photo Janiek Dam


Dessert was the climax to all banquets at the Russian court, as this was the perfect course for the host to display his wealth. It was served in exceptionally imaginative ways. Mounds of fresh fruit, compotes, bonbons, pastries and ices were decorated with complex figures, landscape compositions, fountains, woods with real and artificial trees, temples and architectural wonders. At a banquet held in the Winter Palace in 1755, for example, the dessert table looked like a mountain, made of rare stones, shells and fossils. It incorporated a mine, with miners, a meandering river on which boats were sailing at the base of the mountain and even a castle with a drawbridge and a tower from which light beamed. During the dessert course a sumptuous range of hot and cold dishes was served, such as icecream (popular flavours in the eighteenth century were jasmine, chestnut and violets), cake, pastries, compotes, kissel, fresh fruit and chocolate. These dishes were richly decorated and presented in a variety of guises, from animals to palaces. Sweetmeats were a must at the Russian court, particularly in the eighteenth century, the ‘age of bonbons’. Throughout the meal guests could enjoy a selection of sweetmeats, as dishes of these remained on the table during all the courses.

Photo Janiek Dam

Balls and masquerades

All kinds of major events - coronations, weddings, funerals, the birth of an heir to the throne, departures, guard parades, church rituals and hunting parties - could be marked by an official ball or banquet: One of the best-known balls was the Great Ball, held in the Nicholas Hall at the Winter Palace and attended by 3000 people. In the late nineteenth century the Great Ball opened the ball season. Anyone who wished to attend the ball had to register with the Chief Marshal or the Chief Stewardess. Two weeks before the ball invitations were received by those lucky enough to be chosen. At the start of the ball representatives of the beau monde, merchants, military officials and civil servants were required to enter the palace through different doors. Palace lackeys took charge of their furs and wraps. Ladies wore court gowns with a deep decolleté, men uniforms with gold trimmings. Flanked by rows of Cossack guards guests ascended the wide Baroque stairs to the Nicholas Hall where they were welcomed by masters of ceremony. Court balls opened with a polonaise, a parade-style dance in which participants formed an avenue through which couples progressed, led by the tsar and his consort. This was followed by quadrilles, waltzes, redowas and mazurkas. At the end of a ball coaches were drawn up outside the palace to take guests home. Among the more relaxed festivities enjoyed by the Russian beau monde were court masquerades, which had emerged in Russia before the reign of Peter the Great and traditionally been held between Christmas and the Great Lenten Fast. Aristocrats, merchants and even people from other classes of the city’s population revelled at these events in the parade halls of the Winter Palace. Masquerades were a popular form of entertainment in the eighteenth century. Court masquerades did not follow any set calendar in this period but simply coincided with various important events in the imperial family’s life. Masquerades were regularly held during the 34 years of Catherine the Great’s reign.

The glories of court culture at the Winter Palace

In the seventeenth century the tsars of Russia rivalled their subjects for hospitality and their banqueting tables formed a standard feature of daily diplomatic life. Until this period court cuisine had not essentially differed from ordinary Russian cuisine: only the volumes were greater. Under Peter the Great (tsar from 1690 – 1725) the ball and banqueting culture changed radically, to reflect European practices. Napkins appeared on tables, to replace the custom of men wiping their mouths with their beards. Western ingredients such as butter, copied from the Dutch, became popular. A long tradition of richly decked tables arose. Although food initially remained simple (cabbage soups, hotpots and buckwheat porridge), tables were laden with viands and occasionally collapsed under their weight during the reign of Anna Ivanova (tsarina 1730–40). It was not uncommon for each of the two courses in a banquet to comprise 300 dishes, dessert not included.

Under Tsarina Elizaveta Petrovna (reigned 1741–61) European traditions became embedded and banquets acquired an increasingly festive character. They were modelled on the banqueting culture at Versailles and incorporated extravagant, often allegorical themed decorations by architects such as the renowned Francesco Rastrelli. Such importance was attached to banquet design in this period that some people were placed with their backs to each other and thus had no-one to talk to during the meal. Desserts were regarded as culinary theatre and featured sweetmeat pyramids, model boats and buildings and trompe l’oeuil designs. Expenditure on dining at the tsar’s court increased fivefold in this era. The Enlightenment saw the emergence of gastronomy in Russia. Chefs produced increasingly inventive culinary masterpieces, such as fricassee of nightingale tongues, ragout of deer lips, ‘opened this morning bulls’ eyes’ in sauce and stewed bear paws. Elisabeth loved little pasties with foie gras and even sent these to the king of Prussia. Hundreds of different dishes were served at the same time. At a dinner for 43 people held in 1746, for example, the tables were laden with 1300 plates and dishes, interspersed with 300 bonbon pyramids.

During the reign of Catherine the Great (1762 – 96, the ‘queen of all festivities’) resplendent balls and ceremonies became a regular feature of court life. Court food was increasingly modelled on French cuisine, with exceptionally refined dishes, such as consommés, game with truffles, quail, turtle and paté. A traveller’s journal from 1783 records the following items on a provisioning list: ”three pud (1 pud = 16 kilo) of ham, over one and a half pud of mutton, a fresh tongue, one and half pud of veal, four and a half pud of lamb, three pud of lard, two geese, four turkeys, four ducks, 38 Russian fowl, three suckling pigs, five chickens and several black grouse and partridges”. Another account quotes a list that specifies “fourteen pike, two bream, two ides, ten burbot, sixteen bass, ten roach, three freshwater salmon, six grayling, fifty ruffe, a hundred crayfish and diverse salt fish and caviar”.

The tsarina organized culinary bacchanalia around original ideas that appealed to all the senses. In 1770, for example, Catherine held a banquet themed on the Four Seasons in honour of Prince Henry of Prussia who was staying at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Twelve tables were prepared, each devoted to one month of the year, and decorated with artfully painted calendar symbols; the air was filled with ‘natural’ scents and the viands reflected the various seasons. Guests were served French, Spanish, German and Hungarian wines, varying kinds of vodka and huge amounts of champagne. Along the walls were ‘porcelain cascades’. During the banquet the orchestra played a piece comprised of four parts - Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter - while young children of aristocratic birth danced a ballet divided into the same four seasons. After dinner there was time for card games, the wheel of fortune, a tableau vivant, drama, music or slides.

Catherine the Great also loved art, read Macchiavelli and corresponded with well-known Enlightenment philosophers, such as Voltaire and Diderot. Intellectual conversation became more important at table. Artists designed invitations and menus which were often artworks in themselves. Balls and masquerades became increasingly common, but naturally the thousands of guests who attended these events did not all receive an invitation to dine with the tsarina. Catherine held private soirées in the Small Hermitage, where she kept her art collection. There were no servants present at these gatherings: the tables could be hoisted up and decked with food on a higher storey. The Small Hermitage was also where the tsarina met her (generally much younger) lovers. They included her favourite, Prince Grigory Potemkin, for whom she commissioned the imposing Cameo Service.

Photo Janiek Dam

The nineteenth century

After the reign of Catherine the Great the Russian court’s exuberant ball and banqueting tradition developed a more sober character. Under Alexander I (1801 – 1825) the number of large dinners was limited and the festivities toned down. The tsar was preoccupied by the war with Napoleon and did not particularly enjoy social gatherings, although he often held ‘dinners to honour heroes’. Banquets began with zakuski (appetisers), such as caviar, smoked fish, cheese, salted meat and sweet and savoury pastries, which were eaten standing up. Among the drinks served were vodka, bitters, porter (a dark beer) and Hungarian wine. The imperial table had always been characterised by an overabundance of food and Alexander I’s reign was no different in this respect. The largest animals were chosen for the main course and were often so heavy that three or four men were required to carry them to the table. Courses were served in sequence, starting with soups such as schi and ucha, followed by entrées that might include brawn, fish and vegetables in aspic. and then a course with roast meat and poultry. After a course with boiled or fried fish there were pasties and kasha, and finally dessert. The quality of the drinks served was more important than the amount. The wine was carefully selected for each course. ‘After the soup Madeira, Burgundy and Bordeaux with the entrées, for the hot dishes Château d’Yquem and Rhine wine, then Bordeaux and Burgundy again, sherry with the sweet entremets, with the dessert first Muscat wine, then white Alicante, Malmsey and Tokay.’ Champagne was drunk throughout dinner. Under Alexander II (1855 – 1881), who had been presented with the Grand Duke Alexander Nikolaevich Service as a wedding gift, official dinners were shorter and more ceremonial in character. Toasts, for example, were composed entirely in advance. During formal dinners it was customary for the tsar to leave his own elevated table after a while to mingle with his guests, who were seated at separate tables.

Europe dines in the Russian style

Dining tables began to look different in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century when the Russian style of serving came into vogue. This replaced the French practice of setting all the dishes in a course - fish, pastry, meat, poultry and fruit - on the table at the same time and lifting the covers of these simultaneously when the tsar or tsarina appeared. Now dishes in the varying courses were brought to table one by one and served individually. Tables were decked with the obligatory porcelain, silver and crystal, and beautifully decorated with figures and dessert vessels full of flowers and fruit. Dishes were warmed on sideboards in menu order, portioned on plates and served to the guests. This method of serving was more elegant and convenient for diners, and introduced a taste sequence into the meal. An additional advantage was that the dishes could be served hot. The system spread throughout Europe which has dined in the Russian fashion ever since.

The end of ball and banqueting culture

The balls and banquets held by the last tsar of Russia, Nicholas II (1894 – 1917), were no different from those of previous eras at the beginning of his reign. Official banquets were etched into the national consciousness as essential elements of the Russian identity, so balls and banquets were as grand as ever, with 4000 guests no exception. In 1913 the grand celebration of the Romanov dynasty’s 400th anniversary lasted no less than four days. However, there was one major difference in the ball and banqueting culture in Nicholas II’s reign: the tsar and tsarina spent as little time as possible at festive gatherings, where they would simply put in an appearance and speak to a few guests, before retiring to their private quarters with their son, Tsarevich Alexei, who suffered from hemophilia. There they sat down to a family dinner, a typically Russian meal of five courses. Large-scale festivities became increasingly rare and were replaced by comparatively sober New Year celebrations. The Russian Revolution brought an end to the Romanov dynasty, and its extravagant ball and banqueting culture, which had once captured the imagination of all the courts of Europe, vanished into history.

The collection

The dinner and dessert services in the exhibition were purchased by or presented to the Russian imperial family between 1745 and 1894. They are part of the rich collection of European porcelain in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and comprise more than 15,000 pieces, out of which this exhibition displays 1,034 pieces . These often unique objects come from leading porcelain factories throughout Europe and display superb decorative artistry.

Photo Janiek Dam

In the exhibition

Service of the Order of St Andrew:
12 dinner plates, 4 side plates, 8 tureens, 2 bowls, 2 salt and pepper sets, 1 bonbon dish, 12 cups and saucers, 6 candleholders.

Photo Janiek Dam

Berlin Dessert Service:
24 place settings (plate, ice cup), 2 tureens, 12 saucers, 6 baskets, 8 flower vases, 4 figurine groups, 14 table figurines, replica portrait of Catherine, bust of Frederick.

Photo Janiek Dam

Green Frog Service:
12 plates, 8 tureens, 4 covered serving dishes, 4 sauce boats, 2 ice-cream cups, 4 dessert plates.

Photo Janiek Dam

Order of St George Service:
4 place settings (plate, forks, knives), 6 serving trays, 4 baskets, 3 saucers, 4 salt bowls, 8 cream jugs, 1 candleholder, 8 table figurines, bust of Catherine.

Photo Janiek Dam

Cameo Service:
24 place settings (plate, knife, fork, spoon, cup and saucer), 14 serving dishes, 6 bowls, 4 ice cup holders with separate cups, 4 with fixed cups, 1 teapot and 1 coffee pot, 1 sugar bowl, 1 milk jug, 1 butter dish, 4 wine glass coolers, 1 wine bucket, 2 ice buckets, 1 liqueur bottle holders, 2 figurine groups and 8 flower vases.

Photo Janiek Dam

Service of Grand Duke Aleksandr Nikolaevich:
10 dinner plates, 3 small plates, 4 serving dishes, 2 sauce boats, 1 ice bucket, 1 wine bucket, 3 cups and saucers, 1 butter dish, 1 bonbonnière, 1 table decoration with two-headed eagle.

Photo Janiek Dam

'Service Gifted by Wilhelm II’ (to Tsar Nicholas II and Tsaritza Alexandra): :
4 plates, 1 basket, 2 fruit dishes, 2 candleholders, 2 table figurines.

Service with ‘Motif hongrois Grand’ (Stalin’s Service):
12 place settings (large and small plate, soup plate, dessert plate), 6 tureens, 16 serving dishes, 2 bowls, 3 pastry boxes, 3 gravy boats, 3 mustard pots, 9 serving trays, 2 section serving dishes, 1 salt and pepper set, 1 teapot, 2 coffee pots, 4 sugar bowls, 4 milk jugs, 1 bonbon dish, 6 cups and saucers, 1 butter dish, 2 candleholders, 3 vases.

Photo Janiek Dam

Opening hours

Daily 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Closed on 27 April (Kingsday)
Open on Christmas Day (25-12) &
1 January 11 a.m.- 5 p.m.

The Hermitage Amsterdam is located on Amstel 51, Amsterdam

Photo Roy Beusker Fotografie

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