Russian lacquer boxes
The boxes, which vary in size, are extremely well crafted. It can take as long as two months to make a box out of papier-mache, a material many artists prefer because of its ability to withstand changes in atmospheric conditions and to avoid cracking. The lacquer box sitting on your mantel today will likely be enjoyed by many generations.
But it's the miniature paintings that bring real value to the boxes. Lacquer artists must not only excel artistically, but must also have the patience to spend long stretches of time working on the many small intricate sections of their composition. Artists will typically use strong magnifying glasses on these spots and very fine brushes made out of a squirrel's tail.
Four schools of painting
The boxes most widely sought after come from one of four small Russian villages - Palekh, Fedoskino, Kholuy, and Mstyora (Mstera). Special schools have been established at these places where artists train for four years before they become members of each village's art community. Each village also has its unique style.
Artists from Fedoskino, the birthplace of Russian lacquer miniatures, use a more realistic style of painting than the other villages. They also use oil paints for their drawings instead of the egg-based temperas. Three to four layers of the oil paints, along with seven coats of lacquer, are applied to each box before it is completed. This layering brings out a radiant quality in the drawings and the colors seem to emanate from within. Sometimes, an underlay of gold leaf or mother of pearl enhances this radiance and adds a lovely iridescence of its own.
Boxes from Palekh might well enjoy the highest world-wide acclaim. The lacquer art of Palekh has been called "a small miracle", a label particularly fitting since that the village specialized in icon-painting for centuries until the 1917 Russian revolution. To many collectors, Palekh boxes have the most elegant look to them. When you hold one in your hand, you know you are holding something truly special. Most often in Palekh works, innumerable fine lines of gold leaf, polished to a glow by a wolf's tooth, are applied to the ornamental border and drawing itself. A simple one-color background then provides a beautiful contrast to the gold leaf and scene itself. This background, usually black, also serves to take the observer into a new world where one's concept of time and space is left to the imagination.
Here you will find a more detailed history of the Palekh school of painting in its development, as well as peculiarities of its brilliant style.
The village of Kholuy, meanwhile, began painting lacquer miniatures in the 1930's, later than Palekh and much later than Fedoskino, where this art began in the 18th century. Perhaps because of the late start, Kholuy artists are less bound to tradition or one particular style than the other villages, and seem to take a bolder approach to their works. Backgrounds for Kholuy works are occasionally one solid color (like Palekh), but more often than not the artist fills this area with swirls of tone and shade. Partly for this reason, Kholuy works appear brighter than Palekh boxes and seem to fill up more of the available space.
Boxes from Mstera, though, usually have the lightest colors. Artists there almost never choose black for their backgrounds, and instead use light blue, pink, gold or ivory colors. With the addition of these colors, landscapes generally play a more prominent role in Mstera works, and people and objects tend to take a place within the background setting rather than remain separate from it. In Mstera, a wide range of artistic talent exists. While some artists paint dynamic and elaborate scenes from fairy tales or famous battles, others concentrate on exquisite floral designs.