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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Russian Lacquer Boxes

Nesting Doll Shape Russian Lacquer Box

Amazing Russian lacquer boxes

There’s one more thing besides matryoshkas that foreigners like to take home from Russia. It’s a beautifully hand-painted lacquer box. They are so popular that people consider them a real art achievement of the 20th century. Yes, you read right: 20th century. The lacquer art has surely been here for a much longer time, but that’s when it became really popular. That’s also when it finally gained global appreciation and its popularity has been growing ever since.

Why are those lacquer boxes so popular?
The moment you see them you realize just how unique they are. No matter whether there’s a landscape or an episode from a Russian fairytale depicted on a box the level of detail is unparalleled! Moreover, these boxes can last a lifetime. They are made from papier-mâché which is as hard as wood, and you can be sure that neither climate changes nor age will cause their deterioration. These handcarved and handpainted boxes will stay in your family forever.

History of Russian lacquer art

Russian lacquer boxes are still made the same way they were made back in the 17th century, but the art itself is far more ancient than that. The lacquer art originally came from the East. According to the old Chinese manuscripts the lacquer tree resin was used in the country more than 2000 years ago. Japanese lacquer art is just as ancient. Later the genre of lacquer painting made its way to Europe through Persia and that’s where it caught the attention of Peter the Great.

Peter the Great learned about the lacquer art and loved it so much that in 1721 he ordered the artists to decorate the “Chinese Room” in his Monplaisir Palace with 94 lacquered tiles. That’s how lacquer miniatures finally came to Russia. By the middle of the 18th century the lacquer art became very popular. At the same time tobacco finally became affordable for anybody, so the European trend of using a lacquer box for tobacco came to Russia, too. Surely rich people used silver or even gold boxes, but lacquered ones were much more affordable and thus much more popular. And in 1795 a Russian merchant Korobov founded the first lacquer art factory in a village called Fedoskino. That’s how the mass production of lacquer boxes started.

Fedoskino is still one of the main centers of the lacquer art in Russia. The other three centers are Palekh, Kholuy and Mstyora. Those are more than just four different places where they make lacquer boxes. In fact, those are four different schools of painting. So what’s the difference between them?

Fedoskino is the oldest lacquer art center and the only place where the boxes are painted with oil paints. All the other centers use egg-tempura. The process of applying the paint has three or even four stages, so the end result is amazing in the depth of color and the degree of detail. Fedoskino art factory is known for the depiction of realistic impressionistic scenes. Fedoskino artists often use mother of pearl, pure gold and silver leaf and other natural elements in their painting. Many of the boxes from Fedoskino are not just painted on the lid, but on all sides, and even inside.

Fedoskino Lacquer Box
Fedoskino miniature was extremely popular in the 19th century. The masterpieces created at that time are known under the name “lukitins” after the name of the owner of Fedoskino lacquer art factory at that time. The most popular motifs used by artists of Fedoskino were tea time with samovars, troikas and different scenes from Russian peasant life.

Palekh is a small village in Ivanovo region. The village was a well-known icon painting center until the Revolution in 1917. After that there wasn’t much demand for new icons, so in the 1920s the icon painters of Palekh changed their specialty and started painting papier-mâché boxes applying the same techniques and principles as in iconography. They normally used egg tempera paint and painted pictures in bright colors over a black background. These boxes usually depict scenes from rural life, or episodes from fairytales and folk songs. The artists of Palekh normally depict people with longer bodies. Besides, these boxes almost always have a golden border.

Like Palekh, Kholuy is located in the Ivanovo region. The Kholuy school was founded back in 1883 as another icon painting center, but after the Revolution all icon painting centers were closed. In 1934 the production of lacquer miniatures started in the village, which led to the foundatioin of a new lacquer art school in 1943. In 1960 the school was officially named Kholuy Factory of Lacquer Art Miniatures. Now it is famous for its colorful and dynamic compositions. The pictures are painted on light or dark backgrounds, like in Palekh and Mstyora, but the artists of Kholuy prefer bright red or green background. These boxes are unique and are definitely worth your attention.
Lacquer Box
Kholuy Firebird Lacquer Box

The settlement is located in Vladimir region. Like other lacquer miniature centers, Mstyora miniatures appeared also on the basis of an icon painting school which was closed after the Revolution in 1917. The artists of Mstyora used the very best techniques from Palekh and Fedoskino to create their masterpieces. Mstyora miniatures normally depict various scenes from everyday life, folklore, or history. The painters mainly use gentle colors and work hard to achieve a great depth of landscape backgrounds. The pictures are typically placed inside a golden frame, so that is also a characteristic trait of Mstyora.

Mstyora Lacquer Box

What are the boxes made of? How to tell whether your box is made of the right material?
Since real lacquer boxes are so popular, some people decided to use it for their own benefit. Unfortunately they use the wrong materials. These boxes may look pretty in the beginning, but they just don’t last as long as the traditional ones. They may be cheaper than the real boxes, but they clearly won’t become a family treasure.

The best thing is to check how the box sounds. The cover of the box should be half-opened, and it should open and close with a soft clapping sound. If you hear a clear and woody sound, then your box is probably not made of papier-mâché, but of cardboard or some other material.

The painting process
The work starts with a metallic base being applied to the box. It can either be the aluminum powder, gold leaf, or mother of pearl.

Then comes a stage called “underpainting”. The artist applies the first coat of paint to build up the basic colors and shades. Then the box is dried in the oven at 60oC. It is essential in order for the paint to dry fast and well, otherwise it will either dry extremely slowly or some types of paint won’t dry at all. Then the artist applies the first thin layer of lacquer and dries everything in the oven again.

The next step is called “overpainting”. This is the stage when all the fine details are carefully painted, the shades are made more distinctive and the light is made more intensive. Then the work is dried, then lacquered and dried again.

The next stage is “highlighting”. Actually, the name speaks for itself. That’s when the artist creates accents, adds highlights and paints the finest details. Then the work is dried and lacquered, and dried again.

The last step is to help the box actually look great. The artist makes an ornamental pattern on the sides of the box. By the way, the box needs to be lacquered no less than 10 times before it can be polished with the “green rouge” oil paint. The master uses a slowly turning polishing wheel in order to produce a glassy even surface. And then the final polishing is done by hand. Only then the box is ready.

How to distinguish a fake lacquered box?
A simple magnifying glass will help you see the finest details of the box and tell a painted picture from a card or a photo pasted into the cover. Rough, childish painting also says that the author of the work is not a master of miniature painting. The ornament should be very carefully painted, too.


We know it may seem really complicated to look for all those little details when you are buying a Russian lacquer box. We strive to make the buying process as simple as possible for you, because we import only genuine works of art from Fedoskino, Palekh, Kholuy and Mstyora. We guarantee that your box will be a unique creation that will stay in your family for generations and will be a source of joy and many good memories.

More Lacquer Box Info:

Written by Arina Anashkina for The Russian Store.

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