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The Luxurious Look of Russian
Lacquer Boxes

by Bob Brooke

 

Russian lacquer art developed from the art of icon painting which came to an end with the collapse of Imperial Russia. The icon painters, who previously had been employed by supplying not only churches but people's homes, needed a way to make a living. Thus, the craft of making papier-mache decorative boxes developed. They lacquered the boxes, then artists hand painted them, often with scenes from folk tales, such as the tale of the Firebird, or of Prince Igor, or of Swan Lake.



Princesses dance, czars scowl, knights do battle, horses fly, suns smile, Father Frost puffs icy wind, and lovers embrace on glossy black backgrounds of lacquered papier-mache, surrounded by spectacular borders of gold filigree. Vivid reds and yellows dominated these scenes, with greens and blues and ivories typically reserved for highlights and details.

In finer boxes, artists often applied paint over gold or silver, producing a luminescence reminiscent of traditional Russian icon painting. The brushwork could be astonishingly intricate and detailed and beautifully rendered in the kind of stylized realism associated with European miniature paintings of the Middle Ages.

Artists in four villages—Fedoskino, Palekh, Kholui and Mstyora—made these lacquered boxes. All except Fedoskino lie in the Vladimir-Suzdal Principality, Ivanovo region of central Russia, and have been deeply rooted in the 17th- to 19th-century icon painting tradition, which lasted until the Russian Revolution of1917.

The latter two villages, both north of Moscow, were for centuries an important home of traditional Russian icon painters, whose gilded portraits of-melancholy saints and dolorous Madonnas were the essential art form of czarist Russia. After the 1917 revolution, however, the new Bolshevik government banned religious art, and the icon makers turned to legends and folk tales and poems for their subjects.

The papier-mache process, used to make these lacquer boxes, took about six weeks to ensure that it wouldn’t warp, didn’t expand and contract with temperature, and had a linseed oil base which rendered it impervious to moisture. The papier-mache, itself, consisted of cardboard covered with flour paste which workers then shaped, coated with warm linseed oil, planed, and sanded. Artists applied clay, oil, and soot as an
undercoating that they smoothed with a pumice stone, then lacquered and primed in preparation for the artist.



Although black was the most common color for a background, artists also used red, blue, green, and white backgrounds. Red was the most challenging background to paint on a lacquer box because the other colors don’t come forward. By contrast, a black background wasn’t only dramatic, but also the easiest color with which to work.



History of Lacquer Boxes
The crafting of Russian lacquer boxes dates back to the 18th century and the reign of Peter the Great. Originally used for holding snuff, these boxes have evolved into many different shapes and sizes for holding things like jewelry and money.



Originally, the making of lacquer ware began in China and later spread throughout Asia. In 1721, Peter the Great instructed workers to adorn the Monplaisir Palace in St. Petersburg with 94 lacquered tiles. Russian artists then painted these tiles and eventually the skilled Russian artisans began to devote more attention to the technique of lacquer painting.

By the mid 18th century, tobacco became affordable for ordinary people, and the need for a box to hold the snuff became necessary. The wealthy had stored their snuff in boxes made out of ivory. gold, and other precious materials, but inexpensive lacquer boxes became a good alternative for poorer folk.

While traveling to Germany, Pyotr Korobov came across the factory of Johann Heinrich Stobwasser in Braunschweig. Korobov became intrigued by the lacquer items produced there and took supplies back home to the village of Fedoskino to make his own. The year was 1795.

Decorated snuftboxes, made in Fedoskino in great quantities in the early 19th century by Piet:Vasieiievich Lukutin, were probably the finest of all old Russian lacquer boxes but today are extremely rare. Lukutin's boxes were durable, but the processes he employed in producing a perfect material for his lacquer work from compressed sheets of cardboard were lengthy and painstaking. Evidently Lukutin realized that the success of "japanning" depended upon the quality of the papier-mache itself. He gave his boxes numerous coatings of lacquer laboriously hand polishing them between applications. He obtained a fine patina by first soaking his boxes in vegetable oil and hardening them in low-heat ovens for a long time.

Artists decorated the earliest Lukutin boxes with themes similar to those used by English and German decorators at the time. They used landscapes and skylines as well as genre subjects. They also decorated boxes with mother-of-pearl. Toward the middle of the 19th century, they began decorating the boxes with Russian folk motifs. From 1828 on, the Lutkin family marked the boxes with the Imperial eagle and the various initials of the members of the family in charge of the factory at the time. They continued to run the business successfully until it closed in 1904.

The styles of decorations of papier-mache boxes in the village of Palekh differed from those decorated at the old Lutkin works. In 1917 some of the artists and craftsmen of the lacquer industry formed cooperatives and revived the art before it became lost. But it wasn’t until Ivan Golikov applied icon painting techniques to lacquered papier-mache in 1922 that many of the icon painters of pre-Revolutionary days began work in Palekh decorating lacquer boxes. Painted in egg tempera rather than the oils used in Fedoskino, the Palekh
style is fanciful and somewhat less realistic than those of the original village. The artists of both Kholui and Mstyora also used egg tempera paint.

Another difference was the subject matter they painted and how they painted it. Fedoskino was known for realistic impressionistic scenes, while the other three focused on relic paintings that were less realistic. Originally, Palekh made relic paintings for the rich: Kholuy and Mstyora made relic paintings for the middle class and poor.

Fedoskino
The village of Fedoskino, located not far from Moscow on the banks of the Ucha River, is the oldest of the four art centers of Russian lacquer miniature painting on papier-mache, which has been practiced there since 1795. Its artists practice a style of remarkably realistic impressionistic people and scenes using both opaque and transparent oil paint applied in a three-part process, providing higher depth and detail.



The earliest versions of Fedoskino lacquer boxes were trademarked "Petr Lukutin," who inherited the factory in 1828. Lukutin's son Alexander then inherited the factory in 1843, and Lukutin remained the trademark until 1904 when the factory closed. A group of craftsmen re-opened the factory in 1910 and called it Fedoskino Artel.

Fedoskino artists had an unsophisticated style, full of rosy-cheeked maidens and dewy-eyed animals, although its masters executed good copies of popular 19th-century portrait paintings.

Palekh
Palekh boxes appeared at the beginning of the 20th century and focused on relic paintings, almost always on a black background. Along with historical subjects, Palekh's artists also painted contemporary themes and scenes of rural life, such as threshing, harvesting, and hay-mowing. Their depictions of humans tend to have much longer bodies than those of Kholuy or Mstyora. Palekh lacquer boxes almost always have a hand-painted golden border design. But it was the artists Ivan Gofikov and his brother-in-law Alexander Glazunov who really made Palekh famous for its lacquer boxes which had the most sophisticated decoration, considered unrivaled in composition, color, and execution.

Kholuy
The boxes produced in the village of Kholuy, begun in 1934, became known for their dynamic and colorful compositions. Kholuyi boxes use both the light backgrounds of Mstyora and the dark ones of Palekh, but most of their pieces have a green or red background. The painted scenes often cover the entire surface of the box.

Mstyora
Boxes produced in the village of Mstyora featured "creamy" earth tones. Artists often used pale blue, pink, and orange colors for the background. They liked to paint characters from real life, folklore, and literary and historical works. Faces of people painted in Mstyora style tend to have a cartoon feel.

Artists drew a preliminary sketch outlined in white lead before starting to paint a box with egg tempera. After they completed the painting on a box, they applied gold leaf for highlights. Then they polished the box with a wolf's tooth. For a distinctive sheen, they lacquered the finished box is lacquered again. The artist's paintbrushes were handmade from squirrel hairs. The cooperatives identify the finished boxes by the artist's name, the village, the painting's title, and a control number.

How to Tell If a Box is Authentic
Tourist guides frequently tell their tour groups that a signature on the bottom of the box indicates that a master painted it. However, in reality most lacquer boxes came from small factories where signing another artist's name was no more difficult than painting in his style. Instead of checking for the signature of an artist, buyers should consider the quality and detail of the artwork_ Many of the lacquer boxes produced in the former Soviet Union have exceptional detail and command astronomical prices, yet have no signature. Box sellers rather then the artists themselves have perpetuated the signature myth of the signatures.



Collectors vigorously seek these little boxes. As a result, untrained people are now producing them using inferior materials such as wood, poured acrylic, or pressed sawdust-board called argalite. Tourists find these on the streets of the tourist centers of Russia and through venues like eBay. Many of these fakes have the name of one of the four villages and even the name of a well known artist added to fool the uneducated buyer. Buying from reputable dealers ensures that any purchase made will be of high quality, even if the price is higher.

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