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Russian Lacquer Miniatures from 
Fedoskino, Kholui, Palekh and Mstiora

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The Firebird is a magical bird of light that appears in several Russian fairy tales.  A feather from her tail is said to bring inspiration, and it is this artistic inspiration that is celebrated in the Russian lacquer miniatures.  

Artists working in this tradition train for five years as miniature painters, and practice their art with a commitment that is truly remarkable in our times.  

  • Russia 1976. Palekh Art Ministures. “The Firebird”. A. V. Kotukhin, 1930. 

They live and work in four villages in Central Russia - Kholui, Palekh, Mstiora and Fedoskino, all located north of Moscow in the vicinity of Sergiev Posad (former Zagorsk), the holy city of Russian Orthodox faith.  Their vibrant, visionary miniatures are painted on papier maché, usually as boxes, plaques or brooches, each with its characteristic lacquer finish.  The art draws deeply from the Russian heritage of fairy tales and legends, and also from the icon-painting techniques handed down since ancient times.  

The village of Fedoskino, situated 40 km north of Moscow on the picturesque banks of the Ucha River, is Russia's oldest center of lacquer miniature painting.  At least half of the inhabitants of this village and the neighbouring ones are in one way or another connected with the traditional craft.  

The secrets of making and painting papier maché lacquers have for 200 years now been passed from one generation to another.  The French word "papier-mache" [literally chewed paper] is well-rooted in the Russian language.  Several layers of pasted cardboard, boiled in linseed oil and then repeatedly dried in a hot oven, form an original material -- hard as wood, light and waterproof -- that can be sawed, polished, primed and lacquered. 

  • Fedoskino Landscape Casket, by V.D. Antonov, 1994.  
In the 18th through the 19th century papier-mache was widely used to make sundry items from peaks for the Russian army headdress to trays, tables and even chandeliers.  Needless to say, all sorts of papier-mache caskets and boxes used to store matches, stamps, cards, glasses and above all snuff, were immensely popular.  

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s the artists focused primarily on copying works by Vassily Perov, Vassily Surikov, Ilya Repin, Ivan Shishkin and other renowned Russian artists.  However, as few easel paintings could be adapted to the laws of miniature painting, the more creative artists came up with their own compositions.  

  •  Little Khavroschechka box, by L.N. Krasnolobodtseva, 1994. 

During that period N.M. Soloninkin, Y.V. Kaparayev, V.D. Lipitzkij, and A.I. Kozlov emerged as original artists, who turned to Russian tales, such as "The Scarlet Flower", "The Tale of Czar Saltan", and "The Snow Maiden", which was a new trend for the Fedoskino craft. Ever since that time Russian tales became a popular theme among Fedoskino artists, whose poetic images have lost none of their glamour. 

Russia 1977. Russian Folk Art. "Welcome". Russia 1977. Russian Folk Art. "Northern Light". Russia 1977. Russian Folk Art. "Tales of Czar Saltan". Russia 1977. Russian Folk Art. "The Scarlet Flower".
Russia 1977. Russian Folk Art. "Along the Road". Russia 1977. Russian Folk Art. "Summer Troika". Russia 1982. Russian Folk Art. "Tale of the Golden Rooster".

Many of these poetic paintings exist in various versions, painted by different painters, according to their individual interpretation of illustrating the Russian fairy tales.  Examples are "The Summer Troika" by Namilov (stamp above middle), and the same motif by an unknown artist in the Vishnyakov Workshop (lid from rectangular biscuit box below) -- and "Along the Road" by Antonov (stamp above right), and the same motif by an unknown artist in the Lukutin Factory (lid from circular biscuit box below).  The highlights on the scans show the lids' slightly convex shape. 

The below image of the famous Evening Bells at the Trinity Sergius-Lavra at Sergiev Posad (former Zagorsk) north of Moscow, is one of the most outstanding paintings made at Fedoskino.  The artist is P.N. Puchkov, and the art work was created in 1991. It belongs to the Museum of the Fedoskino Art School.    

It is not so easy to squeeze modern life into the realm of miniature painting.  Nonetheless, some artists see enough alluring forms and poetry around to meet the requirements of miniature painting.  The Fedoskino Art School stores a collection of 19th century lacquer miniatures as well as diploma works of its graduates from the 1930s onwards.  The immutable charm of the native land and continuity of the craft, which earns the artisans their daily bread and sense of achievement, account for the longevity of Fedoskino lacquers.

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