The art of creating lacquer boxes from papier-mache, a word that literally means chewed paper, has its roots in early 18th. century Russia. It took the arrival of tobacco however, and the resulting popularity of "snuff" to bring the painters of miniatures and the makers of boxes together to create a whole new, extremely lucrative industry.
Due to the high cost of "snuff", its use was initially confined to the wealthy upper classes. These members of high society wanted attractive, decorative boxes in which to store and transport their precious powder. This resulted in a market for ornate, handcrafted boxes encrusted with jewels and other costly materials such as ivory, tortoise shell and porcelain.
As tobacco became more readily available and the "snuff" craze spread to the masses, the market for snuffboxes increased. Eventually, demand became so great that small factories were set up to manufacture nothing but snuff boxes. The first of these was Petr Korbrov’s factory established in 1796 in the village of Danilkovo not far from Moscow.
Snuffboxes aside, miniature painting was already a flourishing art form by the 18th century. Popular subjects included portraits, religious stories, landscapes, and allegorical scenes.It’s not surprising then that when Petr Korbrov’s son-in-law, Petr Lukutin, began receiving requests for custom made boxes, he turned to the well-known and talented painters of miniatures. The rest, of course, is history.
The painting of miniatures on boxes of all kinds, including cigar, stamp, jewelry and cosmetic boxes, became an art form unto itself. In fact, its practitioners became so skilled that they eventually specialized and branched off into schools or styles of painting. Today, there are four primary miniature painting styles which correspond to the 4 villages where they were originally developed, flourished and have continued to be taught.
The today primary painting styles are:
Characterized by vibrant colors with several applications of genuine gold paint, Palekh’s painters are known for painting scenes from old Russian fairytales and poems, usually on a black background. To be able to sign a box "Palekh", an artist must have completed at least 4 years of training at a local institute, which graduates only 5 students per year.
Influenced by the revolution and characterized by a bold style of painting, Kholui artists are less concerned with painting in the old style than in with experimenting with color and innovative ways to portray traditional subject matter. As a result, traditional black is used sparingly and gold is usually found only in the intricate borders of their work.
Known for their use of muted and subtle shades of color, Mstiora artists use pale blue, burgundy and pastel colors in their background scenes and use gold only to paint intricate decorative borders around their scenes.
The only artists to use oil paints, Fedoskino painters are also known for incorporating mother of pearl and gold inlays into their work. They specialize in portraying scenes of Russian village life, the countryside and architecture.