About our Matryoshka Collection
What's a Matryoshka?
Matryoshka (Mатрёшка) is known by many names: a Russian wooden doll, a nesting doll, a stacking doll, a Russian tea doll, and a Babushka doll. It is a set of wooden painted dolls of decreasing size, nested inside one another.
These brightly painted matryoshka dolls are made in such a way that they can be taken apart via a seam in the middle to reveal smaller dolls fitting inside each other. A matryoshka doll set may be displayed separately or together.
Having appeared a little more than a century ago, matryoshkas very quickly gained popularity and won the hearts of people all over the world.
Matryoshka (derived from the Latin root “mater” which means “mother”) is considered to be a symbol of motherhood and family. A mother doll with numerous doll-children perfectly embodies the oldest symbol of human culture.
The history Russian painted matryoshkas has three periods.
The first one starts with the birth of the Russian matryoshka (late 1890). It was the time of rising national identity, of great world interest in Russian culture. Special attention was paid to the revival and development of folk toys. Artistic creative studios offered jobs to highly-qualified creative toy makers who showed initiative and creativity. The legendary first matryoshka was made in the “Children’s Education” workshop (Moscow Region). The hereditary toy maker, Vassily Zviozdochkin, was entrusted to turn this toy. The first samples were painted by Sergey Maliutin, who at that time also illustrated books for children using the colours and the style of traditional Russian folk art.
From that time on, painted matryoshka is a creation of at least two artisans—a highly skilled wood craftsman and a folk or professional artist. Though the first painted matryoshkas were quite expensive, they quickly won the admiration of adults and children.
In 1900, the Russian matryoshka was successfully exhibited at the World Exhibition in Paris, where it received a medal and world recognition. After this, the dolls became famous and their popularity grew rapidly. In 1911 the orders for matryoshkas poured in from as many as 14 countries.
Matryoshka business turned out to be so profitable that a number of other matryoshka-making centers appeared soon after mass export began.
The largest were based in the town of Semionov in Nizhniy Novgorod province, and in the village of Polkhovsky Maidan. The first period lasted until the beginning of 1930s, and may be described as the time of free work of artisans. It led to the establishment of matryoshka-making centres based in old Russian villages rich with folk art and craft traditions.
The second period, which started in the mid 1930s and lasted till late 1980s, was marked as the age of factory-based mass production of matryoshkas, with the craftsmen working together at state enterprises. During this period the most northern matryoshka making center in Vyatka was established.
Finally, the third period began in the early 1990s when the free market of matryoshka-making triumphed. It was, and still is, the time of so-called “artisans’ matryoshka”. Although folk craftsmen and artisans preserved aesthetic and age-long traditions of folk art, the mastery of highly artistic matryoshka painting began to emerge.
The modern matryoshka is a souvenir that embodies the age-old folk traditions of national arts and craftsmanship.
The Process of Making Wooden Shapes
No modern or state-of-the-art equipment is used to create the matryoshka dolls that are admired all over the world.
The basic technique of matryoshka-making has remained unchanged for decades. As a rule, matryoshkas are made from lime (linden, basswood, scientific: tilia), birch, alder or aspen, but linden is the most commonly used material. The trees are cut down at the beginning of spring, then they are stripped of their bark, leaving a few rings to prevent the wood from cracking. The prepared logs, arranged in proper piles with aeration, are kept in the open air for at least two years. Only an experienced master can tell when the material is ready.
Russian craftsmen already had considerable experience in turning wooden objects which fitted inside each other (e.g Easter eggs). In the initial period of Russian matryoshka development, a turner played a very important role. Making a doll on the turning lathe requires great skills and an ability to work with a deceptively small set of tools: a knife and chisels of various length and shape. Every workpiece can be turned as many as 15 times before the matryoshka will be ready. All operations do not involve any measurements, and rely only on intuition of an experienced craftsman. Highly skilled masters turn matryoshkas with very thin sides, which is considered to be a special art of matryoshka turning.
Before painting, raw blank doll shapes are treated with oil and a starch-based glue primer, this process helps to retain the moisture. Even though nowadays you may find matryoshkas of various unusual shapes—round or cone-shaped, in forms of boxes and bottle-holders—figurines imitating a woman's body still remain the most popular ones.
Similar to the role of a mother in her family, the process of creating Russian matryoshkas requires hard work, dedication, determination, and a great amount of passion.
The end of the XIX century brought a real "matryoshka boom". To satisfy the unexpected demand, in less than a few years, almost the whole town of Sergiev Posad was painting matryoshkas. It is no coincidence that the town of Sergiev Posad near Moscow became the first and the most famous center for their manufacturing. Manufacturers of various wooden souvenirs, handicrafts and toys have been operating there for a long time. It was the place that had experienced woodturners working with excellent raw material derived from local linden and birch trees. The Sergivoposad matryoshka owes its initial success to the town’s legacy as a forge of great talent, for whom the development of new products was second nature. The painting was done by family cartels, where even children and old people took part in the process.
In the first decades of the 20th century, craftsmen of Sergiev Posad developed their own technique of painting and decorating matryoshkas based on their deep cultural roots. As a rule, Sergiev Posad matryoshka shapes are wider and smaller than the Semionov-turned ones. Sergiev Posad manner of painting is a bit crude with academic simplicity and ornamental linear stylization. This sincere, simplistic, barefaced art gained wide admiration and was understood and welcomed by the masses.
Semionov is a small town located near Nizhny Novgorod, this region is known for old traditions of wooden crafts. These old traditions are still alive and carefully cherished. Semionov town became the biggest matryoshka-making centre in Russia.
Semionov’s matryoshka is an archetype of a strong, radiant, healthy Russian woman, a maternal symbol—the guardian of the family hearth. The distinct style of Semionov is now the most recognizable matryoshka image in the world.
Semionov’s traditions go back to the floral ornaments of ancient Russia. The painters of Semionov use aniline dyes. Two colours dominate in the designs—red and yellow which appear in various combinations in the scarf, sundress and apron of these matryoshkas. An apron is considered to be the main focal point in Semionov’s doll designs, as painters will leave the other details of a matryoshka costume relatively plain. A very colourful and graphic bouquet of flowers suffused with the sap of grass adorns the apron. Traditionally, the bouquet is painted on the apron asymmetrically, and sets the tone for the matryoshka’s vast colour scheme.
Polkhovsky Maidan is another matryoshka making centre located in Nizhny Novgorod region. The first matryoshkas there were made by wood-burning, then local craftsmen painted these wooden dolls with floral ornaments. The matryoshkas are pasted over, brightly painted with aniline dyes before being coated with varnish.
The colours of the matryoshkas of Polkhovsky Maidan are brighter and more expressive than Semionov ones. Green, blue, yellow, violet, and crimson are used in contrast to each other. The matryoshkas of Polkhovsky Maidan are painted in the peasant primitive style which resembles children’s drawings.This style is famous for its pattern in the form of a large dog-rosehip flower, surrounded by unopened buds. This flower is considered to be the symbol of femininity, love, and motherhood.
Matryoshka of Vyatka is the most northern one in Russia. It portrays a girl from the North with a gentle bashful smile. The girl’s face is so charming that it has gained wide appeal over the years. The Vyatka style is distinguished by a detailed drawing of the eyes with large dark pupils and without the line of the lower eyelid, lush eyelashes, red-brown hair and its famous smile. Another prominent feature of the Vyatka matryoshkas is paired-down design, flat floral motifs or patterned ornament. The tonal range of the apron is most often dominated by the colour red. Vyatka matryoshkas are the brightest northern representatives of this kind of folk traditional art.