In the eighteen and nineteenth centuries Russian lacquer painters decorated a large variety of charming and useful objects, from wall panels and furniture to fans and snuffboxes. The palace of the tsars and the nobility sparkled with the paint and gilding of wall panels with scenes from Chinese life; a mysterious glow emanated from fantastic birds and plants on the folds of screens; in the drawing rooms of noblemen's mansions ladies wrote letters at bureau ornamented with intricate scrolls; boxes for adornments with flaming flower patterns stood on the modest dressing tables of girls in the suburbs and luxurious bouquets of roses and poppies painted on the black, red and green grounds of trays imparted a festive air to peasant huts.
Despite the vast popularity of Russian artistic lacquers, until recently little was known about their history. This book is the first comprehensive overview of lacquer manufacture in Russia, tracing its dynamic development from the turn of the eighteenth century. The author has used material from rich Russian collections, putting many works into scientific practice for the first time. Relying on archival documents and forgotten rare editions, the author has provided information on previously unknown Russian masters, on the technology and occurrence of Russian lacquer painting, and on ties between Russian artists and their foreign counterparts, which is especially important since lacquer painting came to Russia from the Orient and Europe. Finding a fertile soil in the traditions and methods of old Russian art, it struck deep roots there, acquired national feature, and became an inseparable part of Russian artistic culture.
The epoch of great geographic discoveries introduced Europe to the exotic art of the Far East. Chinese and Japanese lacquer work made a strong impression on the Europeans by refined decorative forms and deep black grounds combined with subtle hues of painting, gold and mother-of-pearl. In a short period of time lacquer-painting centers emerged in England, Holland, Italy, and France. The assortment of lacquerwork was very wide, including secretaries, cabinets, floor clocks, teaware, manuscript bindings, pencil-boxes, mirror frames, and even sculpture. Imitations of Chinese and Japanese lacquers with their decorative effects and fanciful beauty remained in vogue during many decades.
In each of the above mentioned country lacquer painting acquired its own distinctive idiom. When in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, during the reign of Peter the Great, Russia joined in the mainstream of European culture, it was able to compare the splendor and painterly freedom of Italian artists with the delicate manner of French masters, the imitations of the Chinese lacquer produced in Holland with Japanned landscapes and genre scenes painted in England. Lacquer painting in Chinese style appeared in Russia as early as the second half of the seventeenth century and was first used for the decoration of the palace of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich at Kolomna. China supplied Muscovy with tea and other rare goods, including lacquerwork.
Multitudinous lacquers poured into Russia during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, following Peter the Great's travels abroad. The tsar's journeys played an important part in the development of Russia's cultural ties with Europe. Many foreign artists who came to work in Russia contributed to the development of new, secular art, including lacquer painting. From the beginning of the eighteenth century on, lacquer painting held a very prestigious place in Russian artistic culture.
Works by foreign and Russian masters were used for the decoration imperial residences (Peter the Great's Monplaisir Palace at Peterhof, the complex of Peter III's and Catherine II's Private Dacha at Oranienbaum, the Marble and Winter Palaces in St Petersburg) and mansions of the nobility. At the same time Russian families eagerly bought small homemade lacquers whose assortment was constantly increasing. Tea- and coffee-boxes, samovars, tea-caddies, trays, snuff-boxes, caskets, desk sets and other things came into fashion and continued to br popular for almost two centuries. Towards the end of the eighteenth century Russian lacquer painters mastered the overall range of artistic and technical means of their craft.
In the nineteenth century lacquer painting gained currency throughout Russia, changing its forms and style. Oriental reminiscences and symbolic ornaments gave way to motifs from Russian life. Cigarette cases, purses, notebooks, all kinds of boxes were decorated with miniature genre scenes, landscapes, townscapes, and portraits. Thus, snuffboxes with representations of celebrated Russian generals were in vogue during the War of 1812 against Napoleon while battle scenes were popular during the Russo-Turkish wars. One of the most favorite motifs was that of the Russian troika. In the middle of the nineteenth century Russian lacquer artists decorated whole furniture sets with flower and ornamental designs.
Large workshops and factories emerged. The enterprises of Andrei Ekk, Martin Bohl, and Andrei Austen, which produced snuffboxes, competed with he factories of Johann Petz, Yefun Kondratyev and Yakov Labutin, famous for their trays. The well-organized factory of the Korobovs - Lukutins near Moscow supplied the country with a rich assortment of fine lacquer wares for almost a century; its goods were sold abroad. No less famous were the factories of the Vishniakov family, which evolved a special, Zhostovo style of painting on trays well known both at home and abroad even today. In contrast to the Lukutin articles, round dances and folk festivals expressed the aesthetics of the peasant and were in high demand in villages. The back and red-brown grounds of Zhostovo trays featured luxurious flower patterns whose forms were borrowed from nature itself. One of the major centers of painted tin-ware was the town of Nishny Taghil in the Urals, which produced samovars, trays, and teapots decorated with landscapes, flowerpieces, and biblical and historical scenes.
During its two-century-long history lacquer painting has become an inalienable part of Russian everyday life. Having started from the creative assimilation of Far Eastern and European methods and subjects, it eventually developed its own forms of artistic expression, its own nation style. As long as beauty and fantasy are appreciated this vivid, festive kind of decorative and applied art will not lose its appeal.