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.