Fedoskino, Palekh, Mstera and Kholui are known to connoisseurs the world over for their sublime lacquer miniatures. This art form developed in the early 18th century and, partly under the influence of the rich historical tapestry of folklore and iconography, it is now widely regarded as one of Russia's most distinctive artistic achievements.

The technique of lacquer art in fact originated in China and Japan! Thanks to the many voyages of discovery that were undertaken, Chinese and Oriental lacquer arts were introduced to Europe in the 16th century. Already in the 18th century, beautifully lacquered snuffboxes were manufactured in France, England and Germany. One of the biggest producers at that time was Johann Stobwasser's factory in Braunschweig, Germany.

Piotr Korobov visited Braunschweig's workshops in the year 1795. Johann Stobwasser's factory specialised in paper-maché artefacts decorated using the techniques of miniature lacquering. Less than one year later, Korobov was to open his own workshop on the outskirts of Fedoskino, where he employed twenty workers. He initially made most of his turnover from lacquering spikes for military helmets !, but the factory quickly gained a reputation for its simple round snuffboxes. Specially crafted engravings were bonded onto the lid, painstakingly and eclectically coloured and then coated with a transparent varnish. The engravings depicted military battles, important events, portraits or landscapes.

The “Golden Age” of Russian lacquer art began after 1819, when the factory was inherited by Korobov's son-in-law Piotr Lukutin and then by his son Alexander Lukutin. The originality and high quality achieved by the Fedoskino masters were such that Lukutin was given the honour of placing his own initials on the products alongside the Russian coat of arms. Meanwhile, the factory was already employing as many as a hundred lacquer artists. In addition, the factory had its own training centre where local peasants were trained and a museum with lacquer miniatures from Braunschweig, painted porcelain and miniatures on ivory and metal.

In spite of this variety, the factory made more snuffboxes than any other product. Lukutin made them in many shapes and sizes. The boxes fit snugly in the hand, and the edges were delicately rounded off. All the minute details such as the rim of the lid and the subtle frame around the miniature were meticulously delineated. The inside of the box was sometimes divided into compartments and finished with black or red lacquer or tin leaf. Some snuffboxes were coated with mother-of-pearl, ivory or mahogany or had a lavishly decorated exterior resembling Scottish tartan or tortoise shell.

Lukutin made not only mass-produced items but also unique artefacts, and the range included not only snuffboxes, but also plates, signs and boxes. Most of the items were decorated with everyday domestic scenes, landscapes, portraits and historical and mythological subjects.
The themes and subjects of the pictures depended to a great extent on the nature of the order and the particular client: members of the nobility, merchants or the ordinary man in the street.

The most frequently occurring themes were troika rides, folk dancing, fortune telling, card games, stately homes of the nobility, beautifully dressed young aristocratic ladies, hunting scenes, views of Moscow and St Petersburg and pictures of drivers of horse-drawn carriages, merchants and shop assistants. For the common people, the colourful and elegant clothes worn by the uppercrust and the pomp and ceremony that accompanied their outings were synonymous with the epitome of beauty, truth and freedom. These facets of the aristocratic lifestyle were associated in the minds of the lower classes with poetic and fairytale images of pastoral life that in actuality had precious little to do with everyday reality.

The miniaturists each specialised in a particular genre: classical compositions, landscapes, portraits or very special delicate gold painting on a black background.

One typical feature of Lukutin's lacquer art is that the decorative scenes were based on drawings, paintings and engravings of other professional 19th century artists. The creativity of Fedoskino's miniature art lay in the individual reworking of the original composition and the interplay of lines and colours afforded by the lacquer art technique. The images and subjects were combined with the ideals and the artistic methods borrowed from traditional Russian folk art. However, it is not mere mechanical copying. The original examples were gradually adapted. The subject was simplified, and the symmetry of the composition and the circular limits of the composition were highlighted. At the same time, the colour palette was restricted and the depiction was idealised. The result is the creation of a very distinctive and independent art form that reflects the taste and opinions not only of the nobility and many of the rural population but of course also of the peasant craftsmen working in the factories in Fedoskino.

Lacquer miniatures are painted in pure, bright colours. The predominance of vermilion to display the main scene, and the vibrant colours give the miniatures a certain vividness and musicality.
The pictures were created by applying different layers of oil, a technique that was in vogue among classical painters in the late 18th, early 19th century. One after another, up to four layers were added and worked over: ground tinting, outlines and successive translucent layers. Once a layer was dry, it was sealed with lacquer. In certain areas, mother-of-pearl was cut into the surface, layers of gold leaf were glued on and silver powder was dusted on. The richness of texture was attained through the interplay between opaque hues finished with a transparent top layer and 'translucent' areas where one colour shone through a superimposed diaphanous layer.

Around 1850, more than a thousand peasants were employed by the lacquered miniature workshops.
In the imagination of the peasants at that time, the world was as it always had been. Around 1900, however, there was a clearly discernible deterioration in the quality of lacquer art. Lukutin's factory had to close its doors in 1904 after the last owner died. Six years later, the 'Fedoskino Guild of Former Masters of the Lukutin Workshop' was established. As a result, the ageing craftsmen preserved the albeit fading glory of their craft into the 1930s and endeavoured to pass on their time-honoured skills to a new generation. Unfortunately, their traditions and expertise gradually disappeared.

The quality of mass production in Fedoskino rarely reached above-average quality, although there were still some outstanding exceptions, notably the landscape and still-life genres. In these disciplines, there were in fact a number of skilled practitioners who maintained a finely-honed distinctive artistic style, including highly skilled artisans such as A.G. Vishnyakov, V.S. Borodkin and A.I. Leznov.
Around 1940, miniature lacquer art was hit by a serious crisis that continued for several decades. The totalitarian regime that blighted all areas of culture had a deleterious influence not only on the tradition of icon painting, but also on the very use of metaphors and symbols. Socialist realism was all about propaganda and a true-to-life approach to art that ultimately undermined the miniature traditions and disdained the individual artistic, decorative and thematic originality of miniature art. All allegorical expression was abandoned and the new lacquered artefacts were crude imitations of posters or photographs.

From then on, the Fedoskino masters were under orders to copy classic Russian and Soviet paintings in a mechanical fashion. In Palekh, Mstera and Kholui, workshops were commissioned to churn out portraits of the leaders of the Communist Party and depictions of pompous official events such as 'The March of the Victors', 'The Harvest Festival' or 'The Award Ceremony'.
Against this background, the work of several artists were a welcome exception, true craftsmen who were faithful to the tradition, such as I.I. Strakhov, V.D. Lipitsky, S.P. Rogatov, M.S. Chizhov and G.I. Larishev in Fedoskino, I.P. Vakurov, N.M. Zinoviev and D.N. Butorin in Palekh and I.A. Fomichev and E.V. Yurin in Mstera.
In Mstera, artists like N.I. Shishakov, Lev A. Fomichev and V.F. Nekosov gained a well-earned reputation by researching innovative artistic approaches.

The year 1970 saw the first tentative green shoots of what was to be a renaissance in miniature art, especially in Palekh.
B.M. Khodov, I.B. Livanova and Y.F. Shchanitsyna were the artists who made a tremendous contribution towards the ideas that breathed new life into these long-lost traditional skills. Unfortunately, they did not receive the appreciation they deserved.
Today, interesting and creative work is once again being produced by B.M. Yermolaev, N.I. Golikov and G.N. Kochetov in Palekh, by S.I. Kozlov, A.V. Korchagin and Yu.V. Karapaev in Fedoskino and by P.A. Mityashin, V.A. Yolkin, Sergey Dmitriev, Ye.Yu. Grachev and V.V. Kharchev in Kholui.

This new creative impetus has been crowned with success. The most prominent artists have worked closely with studios to apply traditional skills, techniques and practices to contemporary miniatures by creating artistic variations on certain themes and motifs.
These craftsmen have demonstrated an amazing ability to use the allegorical language and imaginative themes borrowed from the Middle Ages and from folk art, giving them tremendous scope to embody their artistic ideas in meaningfully stylised and symbolic images: the unity of man and nature is poetically depicted as the quintessential source of life, and the principles of love and goodness are represented as the harbingers of a harmonious world, all crystallised in breathtakingly shimmering and glittering miniatures.

The lacquer miniature school of Palekh emerged in the 1920s and was followed by those of Kholui and Mstera in 1930.
These three schools had in common one essential stylistic feature that distinguished them from the movement that developed in Fedoskino, which is close to Moscow, as they applied the traditional artistic techniques as epitomised in medieval art and in Russian icon painting. These techniques were used with consummate subtlety to evoke a wide variety of themes borrowed from fairytales, popular ballads, historical events or scenes from everyday life, all characterised by the same unique stylisation. Professional icon painters such as Ivan Golikov, Alexander Kotukhin, Ivan Zubkov, Nikolay Zinoviev, Ivan Bakanov, Ivan Markichev and Ivan Vakurov, who were forced out of work as a result of the persecution of the Church and of Christians in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, had to master the art of making paper-maché and lacquered boxes and learn how to prepare and polish the lacquer, since the Fedoskino masters tended to keep many of these secrets to themselves.

The basic techniques involved in the production of paper-maché were the same, but the painting process was quite distinctive in Palekh. Here, as in Mstera and Kholui, the artists did not use oil paint but tempera based on egg yolk. The bright colour accents were applied to white guiding lines on a black painted background. The characteristic delicate flowing line and the many gold-coloured lines were then applied according to a certain pattern and in a certain order. The ornamentation was also gold-coloured.

Depending on the desired aesthetic effect, the Palekh masters applied their varnish in thick or almost translucent layers, creating extremely rich tonal effects. These artists had a profound knowledge of and familiarity with a rich palette of cultural references, born of their experience as icon painters, and it is this heritage that formed the artistic framework that made these Palekh miniatures possible.

The vivid interplay of lines and the musical repetition of the elements of the composition created a delicate pattern that lent form to the smooth, shimmering surface of the black lacquer. They used the technique of gradual transition from dark to light to accentuate the landscape, to create a special nuanced variegation to accentuate the landscape tastefully dotted with hills, rivers and lakes and palaces and in the process create a work of art that is truly enchanting. The painting was then finished with gold and sealed with lacquer. In Palekh miniatures, the sky is never actually depicted: the black background is not painted in and the horizon is not clearly discernible. A subtle sense of depth is created in these compositions by the different parallel planes of representation.

In terms of themes and subjects, the miniatures of Palekh reveal a profound predilection for Russian landscapes and nature. These are reflected in an exemplary fashion in the miniatures of Palekh, especially in the vivid depictions of hunting and battle scenes. The works of Ivan Golikov (1886 - 1937), who more than anyone else developed the art of Palekh, are quite unsurpassed on such themes. His compositions are dazzling, and the box lids decorated by Golikov in his characteristic passionate and vivid style glow with all the colours of the rainbow

Nature is depicted with a subtle delicacy and perspicacity, creating an elegance of composition characterised by strong lines and a continuous smooth rhythm coupled with a striking sense of refreshing directness of expression. These works celebrate village life and exude a sense of bucolic calm and tranquillity along with a certain meditativeness. The depth effect in the compositions is created by the different parallel planes of artistic representation. One immediately senses the shimmering blue of the sky in the delicate gold paint against the velvety black lacquer background!
The decorative structure of miniatures from Palekh reflects the depth of the artist's interest in and knowledge of folk ballads. In the past, artists in Palekh painted icons based on themes borrowed from religious songs and hymns. In lacquer miniatures, song adds a musical and rhythmic structure to the painted image.

It was again Ivan Golikov who created the most outstanding artefacts in this genre. His miniatures are replete with rich musical and poetic resonances. His interpretation of the medieval Russian classic “The Lay of Igor's Host” is a work of pure genius: the tremendously exuberant rhythm he creates wonderfully conveys the determination of the Russian warriors who fight in defence of their motherland, and the all-pervading blue aptly expresses a sense of imminent threat.
On the morning of the battle of the Kyala river, blue lightning flashes rend the clouds. Svyaoslav perceives in his dream some blue, poisoned wine. Finally, the werewolf Vseslav is shrouded in blue mist. Golikov makes extensive use of this colour symbolism, especially in the depiction of the eclipse of the sun over Igor's army

The Mstera Proletariat Art Guild of Lacquer Painters was established in the year 1931. The Guild brought together craftsmen who had previously been icon painters such as N.P. Klykov, A.I. Bryagin, A.F. Kotyagin, I.A. Serebryakov and E.G. Yurin. From the very start, the Guild of Mstera had an export department.

As in Palekh, the craftsmen in Mstera had formerly been traditional icon painters. Initially, they applied their talents to create landscapes, so much so that pastoral scenes depicting peasants at work, hunters and festivities laid the groundwork for a veritable revival of miniature lacquer art. Also, their lyricism became part and parcel of the epic structure of miniature painting.

Miniatures from Mstera are not characterised by fantastical mountains or trees. These features typical of the Palekh style are replaced in Mstera miniatures by sky-blue and pink hills bedecked with woods and shady bowers and by rivers and lakes that shimmer in the sunlight.
In Palekh miniatures, line was just as important as colour. In Mstera, the artists initially adopted a more picturesque approach. While in Palekh miniatures there was a tendency to seek to develop a narrative and symbolic idiom, in Mstera the emphasis was more on the detailed depiction of scenes. 

Miniatures from Mstera have a coloured background, generally light blue or ochre. The colour palette ranges from cool silvery blue to a warm, golden-reddish ochre. The surface is light and airy, while the individuals who stand out against this background appear as omens or symbols of nature itself.

Kholui is the most recently established centre for tempera-based lacquer miniatures. Initially, Kholui artists sought to establish a close inspirational connection with Mstera and then with Palekh, but soon the former master icon painters of Kholui diverged from the strict artistic ethos of Mstera and Palekh.
The Kholui craftsmen combine images inspired by the early Russian epic ballads and especially historical subjects, with a picturesque interpretation of form and imagination that informs their decorative compositions. The principles which were laid down in 1930 by the great master S.A. Mokin (and which were subsequently developed by V.I. Kiselyov, N.N. Denisov, V.A. Belov, E.G. Tikhonravov and N.I. Baburin) form the basis of this time-honoured tradition.