I wake filled with thoughts of you. Your portrait and the intoxicating evening which we spent yesterday have left my senses in turmoil.
Sweet incomparable Josephine, what a strange effect you have on my heart!
Are you angry?
Do I see you looking sad? Are you worried? ...
My soul aches with sorrow, and there can be no rest for your lover; but is there still more in store for me when, yielding to the profound feelings which overwhelm me, I draw from your lips, from your heart a love which consumes me with fire? Ah! it was last night that I fully realized how false an image of you your portrait gives!
You are leaving at noon; I shall see you in three hours.
Until then, mio dolce amor, a thousand kisses; but give me none in return, for they set my blood on fire.
Even the most ardent Francophiles would probably concede that it’s a challenge to hold a candle to Germany when it comes to Christmas markets. But the combination of German and French traditions and cuisine in Alsace makes the region an unbeatable place to celebrate Christmas.
Predictably the largest market by far is in the region’s capital, Strasbourg, but there is much more to the city’s preparations for Christmas than hundreds of brightly lit stalls. There are concerts for three nights over the weekends, an ice rink and ice garden, and special activities for children including festive boat rides on the city’s waterways.
The Christmas tradition goes back a long way in Strasbourg. It was in 1570 that the Strasbourg Protestants established their own Christkindelsmärik (market of the infant Jesus) to counter the Catholic tradition of the Saint Nicholas market. Today’s market continues the tradition of starting on the first weekend in Advent: 29 November. Even the use of a fir tree as Christmas decoration has a much older provenance than in Britain; this too dates from the 16th century, being covered first in red apples and unconsecrated wafers and later by gilded nuts and multicoloured paper flowers. In the mid-19th century, red glass balls began to replace apples.
To see the city and its markets at their best, try to arrive in Strasbourg in the late afternoon and wait until it is dark to approach the place de la Cathédrale, preferably by rue Mercière or rue des Orfèvres. Both provide a stunning first view of the cathedral’s great cliff of ornately carved pink sandstone on its entrance façade. Though the market surrounds three sides of the cathedral, this is not the largest concentration of stalls; that is found in the elongated rectangle of place Broglie, and there are smaller themed markets in the nearby squares of place Kléber, place des Meuniers, place Benjamin Zix and place du Marché Neuf.
The great delight of the market is that even someone jaded by mass consumerism will find their interest aroused by the astonishing variety and quality of the stalls, naturally dominated by Christmas-related objects and decorations. There are stalls with thousands of painted and unpainted wooden figures, angels and animals; stalls devoted to fairy lights, decorative glass balls, Venetian masques, candles, elongated glass cats, incredibly elaborate water features with working waterwheels, and numerous stalls selling local crafts in leather and pottery.
It is impossible to resist the food on offer. Many stalls sell locally made jams, wine, beers, biscuits and of course foie gras for which the city became famous, thanks to Jean-Pierre Clause, the chef and pastry cook to Alsace’s governor in the late 18th century, Maréchal de Contades. Clause’s confection reputedly so delighted Louis XVI that he rewarded de Contades with land and Clause with money. Clause went on to sell ‘pâté de foie gras de Strasbourg’ commercially.
Stalls are devoted to seasonal fare such as Berawecka, the Christmas cake which resembles a Swiss roll made with a filling of dried pears, figs, prunes, raisins and dates to which are added orange and lemon peel, chopped almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts. Another favourite is the Kougelhopf cake which is available all year. The cake is a symbol of Alsace and looks like a panettone baked in a Bundt tin.
Although the markets are the main reason people visit Strasbourg in the weeks before Christmas, the city is a treasure house of fine architecture, ancient and modern, as well as museums that illuminate the past of this frequently contested part of France. Foremost among the city’s buildings is the cathedral, and everyone wants to see the huge astronomical clock, which dates from 1571 although the mechanism was rebuilt in 1842. The best way to appreciate its finer points is to watch a 22-minute film with English commentary, which shows the moving parts in close-up.
The cathedral’s 142-metre spire made it the world’s tallest building when it was finished in 1439, but the crocket spire was nearly destroyed during the French Revolution when zealots thought it should be reduced to the height of the matching spire-less tower. It was spared when a local man suggested that a red metalwork Phrygian cap – symbol of the Revolution – should be placed on top of its pinnacle. When Goethe was a student in Strasbourg in 1770-1, he used to climb the 328 steps of the tower to the viewing platform to exercise willpower over his fear of heights.
The view from the tower is the best way to appreciate the importance of water to the city and its proximity to the Rhine, reached by the River Ill which briefly divides to create the island on which the old city stands. The quais on the Rhine make Strasbourg the second largest port on the river. Paris-like bateaux mouches take you past Vauban’s imposing defensive dam of the 1680s, its dark inner recesses now stuffed with stored sculpture, and on to the European institutions that make Strasbourg the closest Europe has to a capital – the Palace of Europe, the European Parliament and Richard Rogers’ striking Court of Human Rights.
For most visitors it is the wealth of timber-framed buildings lining the streets of the medieval cité that makes it such a pleasure to wander round. The quarter known as ‘Petite France’ is particularly picturesque. But for those wanting to appreciate the architectural evolution of the city, the tourist office produces an excellent Strolling in Strasbourg booklet with six themed walks and maps. They can be easily cut short by hopping on one of the five tram routes which are much the easiest and cheapest way to get around the city. Trams B and E heading north, for example, take you through the Imperial quarter of the city, built after the siege of 1870; it is now recognised as a fine example of urban planning with a cluster of large civic buildings around place de la République, including the Art Nouveau Civic Baths of 1908.
A tram will also take you to the city’s most historic park: the Droits de l’Homme stop on tram E (direction Robertsau Boecklin) is only a few yards from the Parc de l’Orangerie, which was laid out as a French garden by André le Nôtre and remodelled as an English garden for Napoléon’s first wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais. The large area has a mixture of formal gardens with topiary and straight, tree-lined avenues. Besides a lake and a playground, there is a small zoo which includes some pointy-eared Siberian lynxes, reintroduced into the nearby Vosges Mountains in 1983.
Napoléon was popular in Alsace, and Palais Rohan off place du Château became his residence after it was refurbished in 1805. Today it houses the Decorative Arts, Fine Arts and Archaeology museums. The recently updated Strasbourg Historical Museum on place de la Grande-Boucherie should not be missed for an enjoyable journey through 500 years of the city’s history, with exhibits of military objects, drawings, paintings and etchings. It also includes a 78-square-metre relief model of the city made from papier-mâché and silk, one of 144 made for Louis XIV (most are in Les Invalides in Paris).
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.
Featured above is an outstandingly fine, rare and historical 18K gold, enamel and diamond-set hunter case ‘petite souscription � tact’ watch, made for Josephine Bonaparte, Empress of France, and given to Hortense de Beauharnais Signed Breguet, No. 611, made for Madame Bonaparte and sold to her in 1800.