- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 14, 2000

Marjorie Merriweather Post, founder of Hillwood Museum and Gardens in Northwest, always thought big.

The four-time-married cereal heiress, businesswoman, mother, philanthropist, hostess and collector lived in nine houses and collected about 16,000 art objects during her 86 years.

The museum recently reopened after a three-year, $9 million renovation with some 5,000 pieces on display. Outstanding among them is the Russian imperial art — porcelains, paintings, religious icons, ecclesiastical chalices and vestments, glassworks, sculptures and jewels — a collection recognized as the most comprehensive of Russian czarist art outside the former Soviet Union.

Mrs. Post, who died in 1973, became interested in Russian art almost by accident. At age 27, as the only child of cereal magnate C.W. Post, she inherited the Postum Cereal Co. After marrying her second husband, financier Edward F. Hutton, she furnished their 54-room New York apartment with Sevres porcelain and 18th-century French furniture and tapestries. Art expert and dealer Sir Joseph Duveen, who assisted Andrew Mellon with purchases for the National Gallery of Art, was her mentor.

Mrs. Post was an experienced art collector when she traveled to the Soviet Union in 1937 with her third husband, Joseph E. Davies. He was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's ambassador in Moscow, and the couple had diplomatic privileges that helped them form their Russian collection.

They were able to travel to areas normally closed to foreigners and visit the opulent palaces of the Romanovs and others. The couple also could buy from the "commission shops" that were selling off treasures confiscated from the imperial family, the aristocracy, churches and even museums.

Although these sales had begun in the 1920s, just after the Bolshevik Revolution, Davies and Mrs. Post still found art — especially icons — liturgical objects and textiles to buy. Soviet officials sold off art to conserve waning foreign-currency reserves. Later, money from sales was used to help communist parties abroad.

Davies and Mrs. Post were drawn to religious icons such as the "Royal Doors," which is on view at Hillwood. Icons had been introduced to Russia with Christianity and Byzantine art forms in the 10th century and remained popular with succeeding generations.

Artists used the age-old technique of applying several brightly colored layers of tempera paint to wood panels. The painting of flatly patterned, two-dimensional holy figures also was carefully prescribed to express the symbolic and mystical aspects of the sacred beings.

These doors occupied the center of the church's iconostasis, a screen of icons that separates the worshippers from the sanctuary. Priests opened and closed the doors frequently during Russian Orthodox services. They stood for what was believed to be man's original sin but also held the hope of union with God through the sacraments.

When closed, the top of the doors formed a scalloped crown (koruna) showing the Annunciation. The artist painted the four evangelists in the panels below. The painter also showed the Eucharist in two parts of the canopy over the doors.

Mrs. Post also bought a variety of decorative and fine arts. Although icons formed the core of her collection, she was even more passionate about the porcelains. She bought them from private factories and later used them for entertaining back in Washington.

A major coup was acquiring pieces from the "Orlov Service" (1762-1765), made in St. Petersburg at the Imperial Porcelain Factory. Mrs. Post found them not in Russia but in a leather case in Vichy France. Catherine the Great had commissioned the service for her favorite, Count Grigorii Orlov. He had orchestrated the coup, with his four brothers, that placed Catherine on the throne.

Mrs. Post found an important cabinet of ebonized wood with four doors in the Soviet Union. Ippolit Monigetti, court architect to Alexander II, had designed it in the elaborately decorated neo-Renaissance style.

It is the main piece of furniture in the "Icon Room" at Hillwood, which holds many of the Russian porcelains, some of the icons and a case of Faberge objects. Arriving fairly late on the Russian collecting scene, Mrs. Post owned only two of the famed Faberge Easter eggs.

When Mrs. Post bought the chest, it held portraits of Alexander II and his wife, Maria. They had presented the chest to the Grand Duke Konstantin, Alexander's brother, and his wife, Aleksandra Iosifovna, on their 25th-wedding anniversary.

When the chest was delivered, however, the portraits were missing. Mrs. Post later replaced them with Belgian lapis panels.

Carl Faberge himself designed the glass case that holds Faberge Workshop miniatures, brooches, music boxes and the "Twelve Monogram Easter Egg." The date of the famous "Catherine II Easter Egg" (1914) is reflected in the mirror placed beneath it.

Designed in the Louis XVI style for Nicholas II, the pink enameled egg featured painted French allegorical scenes of the arts and sciences in the style of the French artist Francois Boucher. The egg was one of two Russian pieces Mrs. Post owned before she and her husband arrived in Moscow.

She also collected the large vases decorated with copies of old master paintings that were fashionable with the court of Nicholas I (1825-55). The front parts were regarded as canvases for painting and didn't really relate to the rest of the vases. Four greet visitors in Hillwood's front hall.

Mrs. Post owned 12 portraits of Catherine II, who was better known as Catherine the Great. Surrounded by portraits of other Russian rulers, the monumental "Portrait of Catherine II" (circa 1788) dominates the entry hall and staircase winding to the second floor.

The painting was attributed to Dmitrii Levitskii, who posed Catherine II in full state regalia and draped her in an ermine robe with double-headed eagles. Catherine points with her scepter to a bust of Peter the Great and an orb and a crown, indicating her right to follow his rule.

Mrs. Post acquired only 20 percent of her Russian art while in the Soviet Union. She spent the next 36 years building the collection through auctions and dealers in New York City, Paris and London.

When she and her husband moved back to Washington in 1940, they bought an elegant Georgian mansion and named it Tregaron. Now the Washington International School, it was perfect for entertaining and displaying the art.

She even reconstructed a Russian dacha, or country house, on Tregaron's grounds, where it still stands. It is one large room of wood, with Russian tiles around the fireplace and shelves for holding Davies' library of 10,000 books.

They divided their Russian objects when they divorced in 1955, but Mrs. Post was able to buy many after his death. The state portrait of Catherine the Great was among them.

When she bought the 36-room Hillwood in 1955, Mrs. Post decided it would be a museum as well as her home. The first floor featured built-in, lighted display cases. The estate was opened to the public in 1977.WHAT: Russian art collectionsWHERE: Hillwood Museum and Gardens, 4155 Linnean Ave. NWWHEN: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, select evenings and Sundays, except February, when the Hillwood is closed.TICKETS: Admission by reservation only, with access limited to 250 daily. Deposit of $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and $5 for students and children ages 6 to 18. Deposit will be refunded after tour by mail. The deposit also may be used as a donation.PHONE: 202/686-8500

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