Nobody knows the certain date of Palekh foundation. For the first time this village was heard of in the first half of the 17th century, but it is clear that there was a settlement even before the 15th century. In the years of Andrey Bogolyubsky, Yury Dolgoruky's son in the Vladimir and Suzdal Lands some handicrafts began to be developed and icon-painting was among them. Earlier icons were painted in the nunneries. At the beginning of the 18th century the first workshops appeared. They united the masters into settlements. Immigrating to those places people from Vladimir and Suzdal founded Palekh where they had brought their icon painting handicraft.
In the middle of the 17th their mastership was heard of in Moscow. So Palekh masters were invited to t he Tsar Chambers.
Palekh masters also decorated church walls in different towns all over the Russian Empire. Some icon masters worked far from their homes for a long time, enriching their experience. That was why Palekh masters stood higher than ordinary peasants. Many Palekh masters were invited for restoration works to Vladimir, Rostov, Yaroslavl, and Novgorod. They also painted the Granite Chamber and the Church of the Annunciation in the Moscow Kremlin, and the Church of Assumption in Vladimir.
In 1814 I. W. Goethe showed an interest in the Russian icon masters and wanted to get some information on them. In the answer that the governor of Vladimir sent to the famous German writer, he was talking of Palekh masters as of the most talented ones. There were 600 peasant painters by that time but he marked Andrey and Ivan Kaurtsevs. Two icons made by them were sent to Goethe.
The 1917 Revolution struck the fatal blow to icon painting. As icon and mural paintings were no longer in demand many masters returned to agriculture, others tried to turn to other handicrafts such as shoemaking, carrier's trading, wickering of bast shoes, making toys and dishes. In 1923 some former icon painters tried to start painting on wood again using the old Palekh traditions, but it was not yet the beginning of Palekh lacquer miniature.
In 1922 Ivan Golikov being in Moscow saw a black papier-mache box from Fedoskino in the Handicraft Museum (the Museum of Folk Art now). He tried to make a box like that himself. At A.A.Glazunov's studio in Moscow he painted a papier-mache piece using techniques of icon-painting and technology of the Lukutin lacquer work. He chose one of Gustave Dore's illustrations to the Bible - "Adam in Paradise", which he interpreted in his own way. Glazunov carried it to the Handicraft Museum. The Handicraft Museum supported his venture so he began to create some miniature paintings. Soon other painters began to work for the museum, too. The museum helped them with advice and finance. It gave them material and money. Then they went to Palekh and continued their work there. In 1923 Palekh masters' work won the first price at the All-Union Exhibition of Agriculture and Industry in Moscow. In 1924 Palekh masters took part in the Exhibition in Venice. Their works were of great success.
The new times demanded new themes and subjects. Indeed their paintings abounded in peasantry and revolutionary themes, such as reflecting the heroism of the people, reaping, hay making, fishing, hunting, circle-dancing, merrymaking, horse-riding. From the very beginning of the miniature art Palekh painters made generous use of folk motives. One of the mainstreams of their art drew upon folk songs, tales by Pushkin, Lermontov, Gorky, and epics. The range of articles painted in Palekh was very wide including brooches, jars, small boxes, bead-boxes, cigarette-cases, snuff-boxes, powder-boxes, panels, spectacle-cases, tea-chests, glove boxes, inkstands and so on.
On January 24, 1932 the exhibition "Palekh Art" was opened in Moscow, which won wide acclaim both among laymen and among experts for their superb paintwork, virtuosity of skill, beauty and elegance of color combinations, temperament, bright life outlook and poeticism.
The 1980s can be rightly called the period of the renaissance of Palekh Art. Many new talented painters appeared, and all of them took the traditions of Palekh seriously and started working them out with prolific imagination. This trend is kept on till the present day.
Stylistic Peculiarities of Palekh Art
Peculiar and delicate Palekh lacquered miniature art inherited the main features of ancient Russian painting and folk art. Palekh style was completely formed only by the middle of the 18th century. It includes some principles and elements of Novgorod, the Stroganov school and Povolzhie of the second half of the 17th century. In spite of the fact that the church demanded to fulfill precisely every element of icon, Palekh painters did it in their own manner of painting faces, figures, elements of landscape, buildings, carriages and so on. On the icons you could see some domestic details such as furniture, clothes, arms, horse harness. Some of them have been kept in today's Palekh miniature art, somewhat changed in a creative way.
Some icons told us the whole stories of life and miracles of some saint (for example St. Nicholas). Such icons were called biographical ones. In the centre of an icon there was an image of the Saint with smaller pictures around which were called cleims. They amplified the main plot.
The Stroganov style had a delicate manner of painting and exact complicated plots. The icons painted in such a manner were not large but colorful with much gold on them. This manner of painting can be found in the modern Palekh art as well.
Palekh art was influenced by folk style of fresco and many-figured icon painting manner of Yaroslavl, Kostroma, Rostov the Great having some biographical elements developed. In Moscow at that period there appeared a new Ushakov style (after the icon-painter of the tsar Simon Ushakov). Its representatives paid much attention to a person, to their truthful depiction. This and the western manner of painting influenced Palekh icon-painting and they were kept on in Palekh lacquered miniature.