Lacquered wares – wood or metal objects decorated with coats of lacquer – date from antiquity. This opulent art, however, reached Russia in the 18th century when Peter the Great “Westernized” the country.
Over time, four great schools of Russian lacquerware arose in villages near Moscow, each developing a distinct style based on specific traditions and techniques.
The earliest, dating from 1795, produced lacquered, papier-mâché visors for army helmets, as well as lacquered snuffboxes. When inherited by Piotr Lukutin, this workshop also produced papier-mâché match boxes and cigar cases, typically depicting sentimental scenes of Russian life.
Preparation was extensive, generally taking an average of six weeks. Yet boiling these lightweight, handcrafted boxes in linseed oil, then oven-drying, priming, polishing, and lacquering them, made them not only durable but also impervious to water.
When Lukutin’s workshop closed in 1904, its craftsmen continued independently under the name of their village, Fedoskino. “Fedoskinos,” created with successive layers of thin oil paint, agleam with mother-of-pearl, metallic powders, or gold-leaf underlay, are famed for their detail, visual depth, and luminescence. Many portray realistic scenes of rustic landscapes or peasants dancing, fetching water or assembling tree-bark shoes. Others depict famous personalities, miniature reproductions of classic paintings, or favorite fairy tales, like Father Frost and the Maiden, The Frog Princess, and Ruslan and Ludmila. “Fedoskino” typically appears at the center or left lower margin of these miniatures. Artists’ signatures, rendered in complementary shades, appear to the right.
After the 1917 Revolution, Russian authorities widely suppressed religious expression, so craftsmen of Palekh, a village long recognized for its superb Russian Orthodox icons, applied their extraordinary skills to lacquered boxes instead. Like their icons, “Palekhs” feature brilliant, egg-based tempera images against dark, solid grounds, enhanced by fine gold or silver leaf ornamentation.
Many portray popular folk songs, legends, ballets, operas and poems with images of elongated, icon-like figures. Others feature traditional images, like fierce Cossacks atop majestic steeds, spirited “troikas,” or three-horse teams, pulling sledges through the snow; or unfolding folk narratives like “The Tale of the Humpback Pony.” More contemporary Palekhs depict dramatic scenes of Soviet life , the USSR emblem or portraits of Joseph Stalin. Many are signed in fine gold script.
Some describe Palekh miniatures as “small miracles,” owing to their fine workmanship and illustrious lineage.
Craftsmen in nearby Kholui also originally made icons before venturing into lacquer boxes. While their boxes feature egg-based tempera images embellished with gold-leaf highlight, their designs are more realistic, less nuanced, and bolder. In addition, “Kholui” palettes feature employ reds, yellows, browns, and orange against bright, dramatic, swirled backgrounds.
Kholui lacquer boxes often depict ancient cathedrals, churches, convents, monasteries, or the architectural glories of historical cities like Suzdal or Yaroslavl. Many, celebrating the joys of nature, depict local landscapes, like the springtime floods along Kholui’s picturesque river, the Teza. Some are more fanciful and portray sweeping oral epic poems or beloved fairy tales like “Seven Semeons” or “Scarlet Flower.” Others depict traditional Russian customs, like greeting guests with loaves of bread and loaves of salt.
Mystera was once an icon-making village, too. But unlike Fedoskino, Kholui, and Palekh boxes, their designs were decorated only the lids. Some are edged in lacy gold or silver and depict fine, floral bouquets. Others portray villages, fields, or forests (replete with faraway blue and lilac-hued hills and dales), romantically melting into pale, egg-based tempera pink, blue, gold, or ivory backgrounds.
Other “Mysteras” depict seasonal fairs, festivities, or traditional Russian activities like mushroom or berry-picking. More dynamic examples commemorate historic events or heroic battles. Others feature colorful fantasies inspired by Russian songs, legends, fairy tales, and literary works like Pushkin’s “Tale of the Golden Cockerel” and “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen.
Antique Russian lacquer boxes are prized not only for their beauty and exquisite craftsmanship but also for the passion and national pride their images evoke. Because each box is a handmade artwork, collecting opportunities are endless, and the potential discovery of a new addition to one’s collection is always just around the corner.