by: Larry Roberts
As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Winter/Spring 2008
Illustration 8 - Herring Gull
Illustration 9 - Rare Nekrassoff still life
With all the love lavished on Florida paintings, most Florida collectors have turned a blind eye to art in other media. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to own a Hertzog, Homer, or Heade, but I don’t own stock in Halliburton.
Still the state was home to many talented artists that didn’t paint and produced wonderful art that is currently available and affordable.
Metal smiths, printmakers, lithographers, potters and others all made significant contributions to Florida’s collective artistic expression.
This article and others I plan on writing will hopefully stimulate a growing interest in "alternative artists".
The first in this series will cover Serge Nekrassoff, a little known master metal smith with an incredible eye for design and careful detail to craftsmanship.
Serge’s unique tale begins in Russia. Born in 1895 to landed gentry in St Petersburg, (Leningrad), he followed the family military tradition and joined the elite Royal Guards assigned to protect Czar Nicolas and the Romanov family. But the noble life abruptly ended with the Russian Revolution of 1917. With the country in chaos following the victory of the communists, Serge was barely able to escape with his life. He left Russia a pauper and made his way on foot to Germany where he labored over a year as a coal miner. From there he went to Paris where he soon began work as a metal smith apprentice. For three years he mastered his trade. While there he was exposed to gregarious G.I.’s returning from WWI and decided he liked Americans and would seek U. S. citizenship.
Before he acquired his American passport Serge moved to Argentina were he opened a shop from 1923 until 1925. There he honed his skills as a utilitarian metalworker making durable household goods. Around 1925 he acquired his immigration papers and passport to America, the land of promise, prosperity, and consumers. He soon found his way to New York City where he gravitated to an established Russian community where he met his wife Mary, a fellow Russian immigrant. It wasn’t long before he set up a studio and began producing his wares. A man driven by determination, hard work, with an eye for style and a pride in perfection, his metal ware was embraced by the big city markets.
When Serge arrived in N.Y., several metal smiths were well established producing art nouveau influenced metal ware transitioning to art deco. Internationally known silversmith Georg Jensen opened his first storefront in NY in 1924, just a year before Serge’s arrival. We also find the popular Arts and Crafts copperware of the Roycrofters in many gift and specialty shops throughout the city and across the country.
With his European heritage and love of design, Nekrassoff was soon combining current trends with his own instinctive style. Having designed for a short period for Jensen, Serge’s own work reflects a stylized foliate design frequently seen in Jensen silver. One can look at Nekrassoff’s tulip and other floral embellishments, his recurrent graduating ball motif, and the use of fruit, especially cherries, to accentuate designs and see Jensen’s influence. (See pictures I&2) Serge was also interested in regional colonial metal ware and incorporated traditional forms in his work. (See picture 2)
His pieces sold to upscale department stores and gift shops throughout NY and the Midwest. Most of his items were made of copper, pewter, or Britannia ware, an alloy of tin combined with other metals. He signed his earlier ware "Nekras" but when he left NYC he used "Nekrassoff’, and sometimes "S. Nekrassoff’. There are also pieces stamped "King" under a crown, who sold Nekrassoff items under their name. All of his Florida metal ware was stamped "Nekrassoff’ except the larger decorated enameled plates that were hand signed in either black or white enamel.
Serge’s finely crafted metal ware was well received and his business continued to expand. Since he didn’t have a retail storefront in New York City, he decided to move to a more rural setting where he could build a larger studio and provide his son Boris with a better education. In 1932 he decided on Darien Conn., about 50 miles north of NYC, quiet but still close enough to his clients. The Darien shop employed as many as 18 craftsman and produced a wide verity of table and household ware, including tea and coffee pots, creamers and sugars, 4 section servers, candy dishes, boxes, candle stands, punch bowls, table lamps, etc. The business continued to thrive until WWII, when the government abruptly confiscated Serge’s metal inventory for the war effort. His son Boris would enlist in the paratroopers.
The Nekrassoff family had been coming to Florida since 1939 and considered it the second home after the forced closing of their shop. Serge and Mary returned to Florida where Serge temporarily took up portrait photography as a source of income. They built a house on Sewell’s Point on the Indian River that became a sanctuary for local wildlife. After the war Boris joined the family in Stuart and around 1949-50 reopened the business and established a storefront on US 1 just south of Stuart. They offered the tradition metal ware earlier produced in Darien but introduced enameled copper as well.
The glazed copper was decorated in a number of ways. One can find monochromatic colors with flecks of white, intermingling colors in fluid uniformity, but most recognizable are his beautifully enameled birds, fish, and other marine life realistically illustrated on his enamel ware. According to his son Boris, who I interviewed in 1999, Serge began enameling around 1949-50, and would often portray sailfish in his earlier work. Boris told me his father liked to fish and being Stuart is considered Florida’s sailfish capitol it was a fitting choice. (see picture 3) Some of my favorite fish were those created by Serge.
These fanciful representations have long flowing tails, singly represented or swimming in Schools. (See picture 4) But he pictured other marine life as well, primarily seahorses and a few hermit crabs, however the Nekrassoff birds were his masterpieces. Boris said his father’s best work was his portrayal of feathered wildlife. Here Serge’s love of Florida nature shines. Boris describes his father as a "colorist" choosing colorful songbirds as one of his favorite subjects. This is obvious by the number of surviving examples. Cardinals appear to be his favorite, but we also find blue jays, Florida jays, titmice, chickadees and migratory visitors like cedar waxwings, gold finches, and painted buntings. (see picture 5&6) Among his larger birds we see eagles, (see picture 7) many seabirds including, the brown pelican, the larger white pelican, herring and black headed gulls (see picture 8) and an occasional shore bird like the great blue heron.
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