A Virtual Exhibit of Miniature Masterpieces: Russian Lacquer Boxes

October 30, 2020 – March 28, 2021

We hope you enjoy this virtual exhibition which features many of the over 100 lacquer boxes being shown at the Museum. Click on any image to enlarge it and see the fine details on these miniature masterpieces.

This history of Russian lacquer boxes, widely renowned for their exquisite detail and luminous colors, is a fascinating story of the artist as entrepreneur, drawing on and adapting local traditions. This art form first appeared in Russia in the eighteenth century, when Peter the Great commissioned lacquered panels, painted by Russian iconographers, to decorate a room at his Monplaisir Palace. As with other decorative arts introduced during Peter’s reign, the manufacture of lacquerware was gradually taken over by private companies and later, in the Soviet period, by cooperative artels.

Historically, workshops in the villages of Feodskino, Palekh, Kholui, and Mstera were the primary producers of Russian lacquer boxes. Each village is known for its distinctly recognizable style, although thematic considerations greatly vary. Some depict scenes from the lives of both country and city dwellers while others are based on fairy tales, landscapes, cityscapes, and reproductions of famous paintings.

In 1795, a merchant named Pavel Korbachov purchased a small village near Feodoskino called Danilkovo, where he established a factory producing lacquered snuff boxes. He hired German artists to train his workers, most of whom were his serfs. They formed snuff boxes out of papier-mâché and decorated them with miniature paintings using oil-based paints, often employing a realistic style.
For centuries, workshops in Palekh, Kholui, and Mstera produced icons, and by the mid-eighteenth century, the economy of these three villages had become entirely reliant on their production. After the Revolution, artists could no longer work as iconographers and sought work elsewhere. In 1924, Ivan Golikov, an iconographer from Palekh, helped found the Artel of Old Painting. He and other artists produced tempera-painted lacquer boxes with a distinctive style based on traditional icons; similar workshops soon opened in Mstera and Kholui.

For decades the factories and workshops were strictly regulated by the collectives under the Soviet Union. When that system collapsed, an influx of inexpensive imitations, partnered with a struggling economy, led to a steep drop in the boxes’ value. Many young artists have become iconographers due to the decline of demand for lacquered art and religious renaissance in Russia. Despite this, workshops in the four villages continue to produce lacquer art today, preserving the craft for generations to come.

This exhibition is made possible through the generous gift of lacquer boxes from the private collection of Dennis H. and Marian S. Pruslin.
A special thank you to Erik Livingston for his comprehensive work translating and researching the collection.

Characteristics of the Four Villages

Feodoskino

Fedoskino, near Moscow, is the smallest of the four villages. It is the oldest lacquer box manufacturer in Russia and the first in the area to work with papier-mâché. Lacquer painting began here in the eighteenth century when Ivan Korobov opened a factory, later known as the Lukutin Factory, which specialized in papier-mâché objects. Artists from Fedoskino often used gold, silver, or mother-of-pearl for their beautifully detailed boxes.

Palekh

Palekh, located near Nizhny Novgorod and Moscow, is historically known for icon painting and began producing lacquer boxes after the Revolution. Master iconographers from Palekh painted papier-mâché boxes, applying the principles learned from painting icons. It did not take long for these miniature masterpieces to become as renowned as the Palekh icons. The artists used bright tempera paint over a lacquered black background to represent themes from daily life, fairy tales, literary works, and folk songs.

Mstera

Mstera, or Mstyora, is close to Nizhny Novgorod and Moscow. The village developed around the Theophany Monastery, which may have contributed to the establishment of icon workshops. After the Revolution, Mstera artists began producing various decorative arts, including lacquer boxes. Mstera boxes are known for their multi-colored base coats, a tendency toward realism, and minimal use of gold leaf.

Kholui

Kholui, or Kholuy, is a rural village near Nizhny Novgorod and Moscow. Its economy is primarily based on artisan crafts, such as textiles, woodworking, and most notably lacquer boxes. According to local accounts, icon painting in this region goes back to the thirteenth century. Following the Revolution, this practice shifted to lacquer boxes and other artisan crafts. The Kholui style is the youngest of the four villages and is defined by its warm color palette of deep yellows, browns, and reds.

Portraits and Reproductions

Many lacquer artists, especially those from Fedoskino, emulated well-known European and Russian paintings and styles. They painted portraits that were commissioned or that depicted famous historical figures. On view in this exhibition are examples of classical, neoclassical, and art deco styles, as well as a recreation of John Everett Millais’s 1886 painting Bubbles, which hangs in the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool.

Folk Scenes and Fairy Tales

Russian miniatures tell exceptional stories: artists use form and color to depict history, fairy tales, folklore, and scenes of daily life on the boxes.

Perhaps most common amongst the folk motifs is the troika, a sleigh or wagon pulled by a team of three horses. Both winter and summer troikas symbolize joyous festivities, adventure, and the vast expanses of Russian terrain.

Other popular folk scenes include young love, peasant life, and tea-drinking, as well as ceremonies, as shown on the box entitled Presentation of Bread and Salt. By tradition, when honored guests are welcomed into the home, bread and salt are presented on outstretched hands that are covered with a rushnyk (woven cloth). A similar ritual takes place at weddings: when the married couple returned from the church, their parents would greet them with bread and salt on a rushnyk.

Landscape and Architecture

Easily the most common theme for lacquer boxes is landscapes, and Russia’s lush forests and expansive countryside provide a wealth of artistic inspiration. Often the artist incorporates an idyllic village or a church, or cityscapes of Moscow and Saint Petersburg. In these landscapes, artists romanticize the seasons using such motifs as the birds returning in spring, the summer sun shining through green leaves, glorious autumn hues, and onion domes blanketed in snow.