Classicism wall paintings in the residential building of Oleri Manor
by Dainis Brugis
Wall paintings of Oleri Manor were discovered 28 August 1985, when the head of the architecture sector of the scientific research council of Museum and culture monuments G.Jekabsons together with J.Kalnacs – the supervisor of monuments of Valmiera district - found the remains of wall painting in one of the ground floor rooms.
In order to specify the character of the newly found paintings and to update a rather problematic issue of the use of building itself, in September 1986, the research of interior decoration of the residential house of Oleri Manor was carried out by museum staff of Rundale Palace.
The research programme was generally intended to provide the fullest possible exposure and fixation of the paintings already discovered. In the course of the research, the painting turned out to cover a relatively large quadratic room, which is currently divided into two smaller ones (rooms No. 2 and No. 3). Despite significant losses of paint layers in individual spots, the extent and condition of the preserved paintings allow not only to reconstruct the composite scheme of the room’s original decoration but in a large part also completely restore the authentic painting. (Both ceiling bends and paintings have been lost in the second half of the 19th century when the ground floor covering was raised throughout the whole building.)
The wall’s oil colour painting of the room is in greyish-green, rose-violet and griseous of light-brown. Originally the painting was denser and brighter, for currently only the part of the colour ingrained in plaster and the spots of painty shadow and light have remained, thus forming a rather schematic graphic idea of the original character of the painting. The composition is formed as a tectonic system with a low panel zone split in horizontal fillers on the lower side of the wall and triglyph and zone of metopes on the upper side of the wall. The painting’s composite knots are formed of large oval medallions containing painty storylines. At a lesser scale, the groups of naked figures with Cupids depicted in the background of a conditional landscape. The tectonic elements at the bottom of the composition are interconnected with laurel and rose garlands.
There is a decorative composition with a hunted bird, arrow, a bunch of artichoke and wreath of roses exposed above one of the triglyphs, while the top of the medallions is contained by figures of naked women.
The remains of the painting (the split of the panel and the mirror’s frame between windows) are also found in the northern wall.
The overall composition of the wall resembles engravings of the Classical period when strictly tectonic heavy framing of Classicism ornament successfully coexisted with frivolous, often overtly erotic storylines of the paintings typical of the period of Louis XV. Clearly, graphical samples have been used to compose the room, yet their attribution attempts have failed for the time being.
Meanwhile, the figurative compositions depicted in two of the fully exposed medallions show an unambiguous similarity to the samples of F. Boucher and J.H. Fragonard circle’s frivolous painting, which gained popularity in Europe due to engravings of P. Basan, R. Tiller, K. Fesar and other authors of the second half of the 18th century.
The effective composition and highly professional performance of the wall paintings of Oleri Manor currently allow them to be regarded as the republic’s major monument of Classicism’s monumental painting. Graphic analogies and few of the interior samples of this style preserved in Latvia allow the room’s wall paintings to be dated last quarter of the 18th century.
Also, while carrying out some test sampling in other residential premises of Oleri Manor, remains of poorly preserved polychrome were found in a number of rooms, which confirmed the assumption of the originally rich painting decoration of the whole building.
The decoration system was successfully specified only in one room, which is now split with a bulkhead (rooms No. 18 and No. 19). Here are oil “paintings” with all of the frames being put directly on the plaster, turning the room into an illusory painting gallery with still lifes and storyline compositions arranged in multiple levels, besides it is possible that the frames of the “paintings” have even originally been formed as reliefs in the mass of plaster or stucco. Judging from the small fragments spared by time, the “paintings” do not appear to be the copies of specific easel paintings. They are composed taking in account the principle of a unified viewpoint characteristic to a painter representing monumentalism, as a result of which the fruit dishes, bottles and glasses of the still lifes set in the upper row are being viewed from the bottom perspective. Three painted compositions in painted frames have been found – two still lifes with fruit and dishes and one figurative composition (a discernible woman with a baby near her breast). Though the paintings are preserved only on a tiny part of the walls and the idea of restoring the room to its original appearance is beyond consideration, the situation still requires this to be considered as a significant fact of Latvian monumental art history.
Although the researches did not solve the issues concerning construction history of the building, the wall paintings of comparatively precise dating urged to abandon the traditional opinion that Oleri Manor was built in the middle of the 19th century and to move its dating to the last quarter of the 18th century. Such dating is also confirmed by the spatial structure typical of the buildings of the Classicism period with a centred round salon protruding to the garden façade, yet this having been lost already in the second half of the 19th century replaced with a wooden porch (a full configuration of the room with an interesting flat star-like vault has survived). The above-mentioned rebuilding in the second half of the 19th century has also severely altered the appearance of the building. Thus, by constructing a hall in the place of the former lobby, the central entrance has been eliminated, while due to the raised floor the building’s original steep roof has obtained a flat featureless silhouette. The “conservatory” of Neoclassicism style, which was added to the West side of the building at the beginning of the 20th century, has also turned out to be too massive for the small building and has excessively extended its proportions. Yet, both of the servants’ houses, which symmetrically include the yard, in the ensemble have preserved the compact silhouette typical of the buildings of the 18th century.
As a result of the research, the raised issue concerning the inclusion of Oleri Manor building ensemble to the list of monuments of national importance remains open for the time being, yet regardless of the formal resolution of this issue, it is clear that the ensemble deserves not only attention from many authorities but also a serious and complex study.
Though the current research has significantly complemented our notions of Latvian Classicism style interiors’ painting, it has only slightly opened the curtain to the art mystery held by the walls of Oleri Manor buildings.
- The exposed wall paintings in the rooms No. 2 and No. 3 of the residential house of Oleri Manor are considered to be a very high-quality monument (dated 80s and 90s of the 18th century) of the monumental decorative Classicism painting. Its value is determined by its complicated compositional structure and highly professional pictorial performance. Today, this is the most significant one among the existing interior Classicism paintings and it largely alters the existing notions of the interior culture of this age in Latvia.
- The wall painting found in room No. 18 containing an imitation of easel works painted on the wall is considered to be a peculiar technique of interior decoration of highly professional performance and so far is the only sample found in Latvia.
- The layer of the original polychrome colouring found in part of other rooms points to the originally luxurious and artistically significant decoration of the entire building.
Excerpt from Vija Strupule research "The Myth of Empty Premises, or Polychromy in Christoph Haberland's Interiors"
(Mākslas vēsture un teorija 2003/1)
Interior paintings frequently reflect various ornaments, which are typical of the stylistic language of a particular age, and the analysis of which points to the time the decoration has been created.
In the 3rd quarter of the 18th century, the building process of small manors was spreading in the territory of Livonia and Riga. This was encouraged both by the glorified aspiration towards nature typical of the Enlightenment and the economic growth promoted by the long period of peace in politics. In the last quarter of the 18th century, the landlords’ houses of their countryside manors in Vidzeme region were also comfortably furnished and richly decorated – most commonly with paintings.
Starting from the 70s, the new fashion trend of Classicism occurred in the construction of residential buildings.
The increasing interest towards antique culture and art, which had spread throughout Europe in the middle of the 18th century, had reached the civil society of Riga as early as the 3rd quarter of the 18th century. This is illustrated by the occurrence of the composition of the marbled frame system with details typical of the Roman architecture. More luxurious rooms featured framed landscape and figurative motives.
As in the other northern European countries, the fashion inspiration for the interior decoration in Riga of this period came from France, the influence of which has manifested itself not only in the understanding of ornamentation and colouring but also in the compositions influenced by Antoine Watteau’s painting of “courteous scenes” (fête galante). According to the written evidence, the citizens of Riga had invited craftsmen from Italy to decorate the buildings, who likely have created an invincible competition for painters of Riga.
The answer to the question of why exactly the coloured and painted interiors clearly dominated during this period of time lies in the examination of the availability of other forms of decoration. Not only wallpapers of pressed leather, expensive fabrics, precious wood, plastic stucco décor, decorations of stone or marble, but also attraction of appropriate craftsmen demanded considerable financial investments. Meanwhile, raw materials for painter’s work were cheap and easy to provide. With the use of an appropriate technical manner, one could create a convincing illusion of all of the mentioned precious materials and an impression of wealthy premises.
In terms of both quality and quantity, the interior paintings of Riga of the 18th century clearly fit in the European culture of interiors and are viewed as a part of a single process.