The matryoshka doll is a symbol of Russia and its culture. It is truly a doll—a child's plaything—but it began its history just over 100 years ago as a highly collectible art form. The matryoshka doll (or, simply, the matryoshka) is a nested doll with two halves that can be pulled apart. The outer figure contains increasingly smaller versions of itself. The largest figure is usually on the order of 2-12 in (5-30 cm) tall, although larger ones up to several feet tall have been made. And the smallest may be very tiny—less than 0.25-in (0.6-cm) tall.
The painted image on the dolls is most often a woman wearing traditional Russian costume. The woman is a mother; the names Matryona and Matryoshka were common Russian country names for generations. Both come from the Latin root mater for mother. So matryoshka has come to mean "little mother" based on the idea that the outer or largest doll holds her babies inside like an expectant mother and that each daughter in turn becomes a mother. They are symbols of fertility and motherhood and have a modified egg shape.
From the largest doll to the smallest in a set, each resembles the others, but they are not necessarily identical. The outer doll may wear a costume that is red, the next one green, the third blue, and so forth. Or the costumes may be the same, but each doll may carry something different in her hands. For example, the outer doll may hold a loaf of bread (a symbol of welcome in Russia), the next may carry a bowl of salt (representing welcome and the family's offering of its wealth to guests—salt was once very rare), the third doll may hold several large beets (a traditional Russian vegetable symbolizing the richness of the earth), and a fourth may carry a basket of strawberries (for the sweetness of the garden).
Flowers are one of the most traditional themes with particular flowers representing the cities where the dolls are crafted; usually, the flowers are painted as designs on the shawls and aprons of the matryoshka. The most highly prized artistic collectibles may not have faces; instead, they tell a story, perhaps of a Russian fairytale, all around the exterior. A different scene from the tale appears on each nest; stories are also told in the apron panels of traditional doll styles. The sets of nested dolls may include as few as three or as many as 25 nests or dolls; historically, sets containing up to 1,800 dolls are known. A typical set contains three to twelve dolls.
Souvenir and toy matryoshka also depict many other kinds of images other than the traditional Russian mother. Sets have been made showing great Russian leaders (from Vladimir Putin, the Russian president elected in 2000, back to the czar Peter the Great), household pets (with the dog usually the largest and a cat, bird, fish, and mouse inside), a traditional Santa Claus (called Saint Nicholas or Father Snow in Russia) with his wife and elves as inner dolls, many scenes from Russian folk tales, or images of historical landmarks like Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow or the Hermitage Art Museum in St. Petersburg. And the figures and scenes shown are not always Russian. Some matryoshka are sets of American baseball or football players or images of paintings from the Italian Renaissance. Russian artists are, for after all, eager to appeal to the buying public and eager to show the quality of their artwork. Although the majority of matryoshka show figures that are both Russian and traditional, the origin of the nested doll is neither Russian nor particularly old.
The "Russian" matryoshka doll came to Russia from Japan at the end of the nineteenth century. Little more than 100 years ago, Russia was experiencing an economic boom and a rising sense of culture and national identity. New artistic trends were developing, and a "Russian style" was growing and focusing on the revival of traditions that were in danger of being lost. In St. Petersburg, Russia, in December 1896, an exhibition of Japanese art opened. Among the exhibits was a doll depicting a Buddhist wise man named Fukuruma. The sage was shown as a bald-headed old man with a wooden body that could be split at the waistline into two halves; nested inside were the images of the man when he was younger and bearded and still with hair on his head. The doll came from the island of Honshu; the Japanese claim that they are the inventors of nested dolls or matryoshka, but they also generously admit that the first nested dolls made on Honshu were carved and painted by a Russian monk. That first set of dolls showing Fukuruma is in the Artistic Pedagogical Museum of Toys (APMT) in Sergiyev Posad, a city in Russia that is a cultural center for the making of matryoshka dolls.
Meanwhile, the matryoshka began developing its Russian identity thanks to an industrialist Savva named I. Mamontov (1841-1918). Mamontov was also a patron of the arts and a believer in traditional and nationalistic artistic expression. He established an art studio at his Abramtsevo estate near Moscow. This studio was also an innovation and was the first of a number of "artistic units" around the country where folk craftsmen and professional artists worked together to preserve the skills, techniques, and traditions of Russian folk art including peasant toys. Mamontov's brother, Anatoly Ivanovich Mamontov (1839-1905) created the Children's Education Workshop to make and sell children's toys. The first Russian matryoshka set worked by Vassily Zviozdochkin and painted by Sergei Maliutin (an illustrator of children's books) was made at the Children's Education Workshop and shows a mother carrying a red-combed rooster—inside are her seven children, the smallest being a sleeping, bundled baby.
Whether the first matryoshka was Japanese or Russian, Russian artists have clearly made nested dolls a symbol and souvenir of Russia. Woodworking and turning is an ancient Russian craft, and the first paintings by Maliutin all came from archaeological and ethnographic (ethnic tradition specific to different regions) sources. Embroidery, clothes, historic dyes and colors, and peasant culture were sources of inspiration for him. Clothing for the dolls that are traditional motherly figures includes an apron, a brightly colored scarf, an embroidered shirt, and sarafan (the national dress of Russia). Lace, flowers, fruit and vegetables, traditional embroidery patterns, and bright colors and complicated designs are copied in detail by matryoshka painters.
The Children's Education Workshop was closed in the late 1890s, but the tradition of the matryoshka simply relocated to Sergiyev Posad, the Russia city known as a toy-making center since the fourteenth century. Sergiyev Posad is located about 45 mi (73 km) from Moscow and is the site of a famous monastery, the Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery. The founding monk, St. Sergius Radonezhsky, carved wooden toys himself, using the rich woodlands surrounding the monastery for materials. His so-called "Trinity" toys became famous among pilgrims who came to the monastery and were even collected by generations of children of the czar. In the 1930s under the Soviet political system, Sergiyev Posad was renamed Zagorsk, and with the fall of the Soviet Union, the city reverted to its traditional name in 1991. With this long tradition of wooden toy-making, the artists of Sergiyev Posad quickly adopted matryoshka with the closing of the Children's Education Workshop. Dolls from this center are called Sergiyev Posad or Zagorsk matryoshka.
In 1900, Russia participated in the World Exhibition in Paris and entered various styles of matryoshka dolls. The nation's exhibit won a medal and many admirers for the nested dolls. The Russian Craftsmen Partnership opened a shop in Paris, and, by 1911, matryoshka—or dolls la Russe —were being sold to customers in 14 countries. Until about 1930, matryoshka dolls continued to be very individual. Under the Soviet regime, emphasis shifted to the mass production of nested dolls. In the 1980s, the opening of Russia and the other Soviet countries to the West introduced more freedom, and the "author's matryoshka," with the highly individual style of the particular artist, began to dominate again. Today, matryoshka dolls are collected much like paintings or icons on the reputation of the specific artist over the school or style.
Other major centers for the turning and painting of matryoshka dolls are the city of Semyonov, the Russian region of Nizhegorod (especially the villages of Polkhovsky Maidan and Krutets), and the Mordvinia, Vyatka, and Tver' areas. The popularity of matryoshka painting has spread from Russia to some of the other former republics of the Soviet Union, particularly the Ukraine (known for its delicately painted Easter eggs), Mari El, and Belarus.
Matryoshka dolls are made of wood from lime, balsa, alder, aspen, and birch trees; lime is probably the most common wood type. These woods share softness, light weight, and fine grain texture. In early spring, the trees for matryoshka-making are marked for cutting. They are felled in April when they are full of sap. After cutting, the trees are stripped of most of their bark, although a few inner rings of bark are left to bind the wood and keep it from splitting. The top and butt ends of the trunks are smeared with sap to keep them from cracking. The logs are stacked in piles in such a way as to leave clearance between the logs so air can circulate.
The logs are aerated in the open for at least two years. A master woodworker decides when they are seasoned enough to be worked. The tree trunks are cut into lengths appropriate for the heights of the matryoshkas to be made and transported to the woodworker's shop.
Raw materials for treating the worked dolls before painting include oil to retain the moisture and a starch-based glue primer. The artist uses tempera paints, oil paints, gold leaf, and less often, watercolors. Lacquer and sometimes wax are used to provide protective layers on the painted artworks.
The source pieces of wood dictate design somewhat in that they may limit the height, diameter, thinness of the shells of the dolls, and other factors. The master woodworkers are extraordinarily skilled in choosing the right wood for the work. Although matryoshka dolls usually take one of several basic shapes, the turner is free to choose all aspects of shape and size. In painting, the author's style dominates; that is, the individual artist is able to select the theme, story, or character of the doll and to decorate it as he or she wishes. Design limitations vanished with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of Russia to the world marketplace.
1 It is essential that the full set of matryoshka be made from one piece of wood because the expansion-contraction characteristics and moisture content of the wood are unique; making a set of dolls from different pieces of wood would result in a set that almost certainly would not fit together properly. Matryoshka-making begins with the smallest doll—the one is that is a solid piece and cannot be taken apart. This smallest figurine is shaped on a turning lathe first, and her shape and size determine those of all the larger dolls that follow. The bottom half of the next doll (the smallest one that can be taken apart) is turned first. The last portion of this lower half that is made is the ring fitting the bottom to the top. When the ring on the lower half is finished, the upper part of the matryoshka is made and the inset for the ring is carved. Each doll is turned at least 15 times.
The craftsman uses few tools, including the turning lathe and a variety of woodcarving knives and chisels of different lengths and shapes. The woodworker completes his job by putting the upper part of the matryoshka doll on its lower half and allowing the wood to dry. This tightens the ring to its upper fitting so the halves of the doll will close securely.
3 In the history of the matryoshka doll, the early dolls were prized for the skills of the turner and his ability to make a thin shell for the matryoshka. Woodworking was prized above painting. By the 1980s, this balance had shifted and the painting was considered to add more value than the wood turning. There were also two schools of emphasis in painting; one puts more importance on the doll's face, and the other features the costume and its details. Matryoshka artists are often also painters of religious icons (images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and other religious figures) that are revered in churches and private homes. Thus, the detail they can achieve in their chosen style is amazing.
The painter is the next craftsman to work on the matryoshka. Early matryoshkas were painted with gouache, an opaque form of watercolor; today, high-quality tempera (colloid-based paint like poster paint), oil, and other paints (the same as those used by artists on canvas) are used to color the dolls. Watercolors are also used, but watercolor dolls are more rare and expensive because watercoloring wood is a difficult technique. The painters are true artists who know the character of the wood, the tradition of the matryoshka and other wooden toys, and national costume and folk tales, as well as their own individual artistic strengths. The themes used to paint the matryoshka are usually typical of the studio of the artist and the region and are suited to the size and shape of the dolls. The artistic style may be very coarse or extremely fine—sometimes, only a single hair from a brush is used to add eyelashes and threads of lace. Gold leaf is also added to enhance the detailing.
Some styles of matryoshka are colored with aniline (synthetic organic) dyes instead of paint. The dye has a lighter texture, more like watercolor, and dolls that are dyed usually have a more childlike style. The colors tend to be basic green (from a vegetable dye), fuchsine (a brilliant bluish red), blue, and yellow. Early examples of dolls colored with dye were also coated with glue that dried the colors to dark hues.
Although the majority of matryoshkas are painted all over, some are not primed so the native wood is exposed. The wood becomes the background or thematic color of the doll, and paint is added to give her a face and costume. A heated poker is also used in some designs to burn in details of the doll including facial features and costume details. The doll may be left with only the poker work designs as her character, or the poker outlines may be filled with paint. All painted dolls are covered with lacquer to finish them and protect the paint. Some dolls with unpainted wood and poker detailing are not lacquered.
Matryoshka making does not produce any byproducts although the artistic centers where they are crafted usually make other wood products. The seasoning of the wood is time consuming, and, when the wood is ready for turning, woodworkers avoid waste whenever possible. Similarly, the painters are highly skilled craftsmen and little paint or lacquer waste is generated.
The production of matryoshka dolls experienced a huge upsurge with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the greater availability of Russian products to a worldwide audience. Matryoshka dolls are highly prized by collectors; essentially, they have become artistic works auctioned through Sotheby's and other leading auction houses, with far less expensive versions sold to tourists and as toys. Unfortunately, the price gap between the artistic and toy versions is large, and there is no middle ground.
The same open market that encourages artists to make matryoshka dolls also discourages them, however; the painters particularly are very gifted artists and often have experience painting icons and other products that command a still higher price. The rebirth of religion in the countries of the former Soviet Union has pulled many artists back into the painting of icons. The competition among manufacturers, then, is in keeping the artists interested in nested dolls as a form of artistic and cultural expression. Only 15 to 20 artists produce the top-quality matryoshka dolls, and, like a painting bound for a museum, each set is a unique masterpiece that may command $2,000. Clearly, interest in matryoshka dolls is well-established and has come to represent Russian culture. In the future, it remains to be seen whether the availability of skilled artists can meet the demand.
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— Gillian S. Holmes