Fedoskino miniature is a fine example of the Russian lacquer miniature oil painting, traditionally associated with decorative items made of papier-mache. It took shape at the end of the 18th century in the village of Fedoskino not far from Moscow.
The art of Fedoskino miniature came to life due to a bad habit common in 18th century: it was fashionable then to take snuffs, so almost everybody – the nobles and the commons, men and women succumbed to it. Tobacco was stored in snuff-boxes which were extremely popular and could be made of gold, silver, tortoise shell, porcelain and other precious materials.
Soon in Europe they started to produce snuff-boxes of pressed cardboard, saturated with vegetable oil and dried at a temperature up to 100 degrees C. This material became known as papier-mache (chewed up paper). Ready snuff-boxes were covered with black primer and black varnish and painted, usually with classical subjects. When these elegant snuff-boxes first traveled to Russia they immediately won a wide popularity. On the wave of the new fashion manufacture of papier-mache emerged in Russia in 1795, when merchant P. Korobov organized canopy-production business in his own village Danilkovo 30 km from Moscow (now part of Fedoskino). A few years later Korobov visited the factory owned by I.G. Shtobvasser in Braunschweig (Germany), adopted technological methods of papier-mache production and started his own manufacturing of round snuff-boxes at home. To make the boxes more attractive they glued pictures to their raised lids. Korobov invited German artists to instruct and train his workers.
At first the snuff-boxes were decorated with clear lacquered prints, glued onto their lids, but since the first half of 19th century they started to embellish the boxes with picturesque miniatures, made in oil paints.
After Korobov’s death for a short time the factory was owned by his daughter, and then became property of the Lukutins – a family of Moscow merchants - who owned it for 85 years. They built a factory in Fedoskino that produced snuff-boxes for the royal court. The peak of the production fell to the second half of 19th century; items made at that time were even named after Lukutin. Some of the artists who worked at the factory, had received artistic education at the Stroganov Art School, others had studied art at the icon-painting workshops of Sergiev Posad and Moscow. Thanks to these talented Russian artists, "Lukutin" lacquer boxes acquired their own unique identity and national character, both in subjects and in painting techniques. By 1830, the factory employed 100 craftsmen, 20 young people studied in the drawing school. Products varied both in price and in type: in addition to snuff-boxes they produced needlework boxes of all sizes and shapes, jewelry caskets, powder and needle cases, caddies, brooches, pendants, glass cases, purses, covers for the family album, Easter eggs, decorative trays, etc. These objects were widely used not only among wealthy classes, but also by Russian middle-class families, and were even exported abroad. The "Lukutin" lacquer boxes received many prestigious prizes at trade exhibitions and fairs. Among subjects, favored by the "Lukutin" artists in 19th century, were views of the Moscow Kremlin and other architectural monuments, scenes from everyday life.
Especially popular were troika ridings, carnivals or peasant dances, tea parties "at the samovar". Masters either invented stories themselves or copied them from works by other renowned artists. The last representative of the Lukutins family – Nicholay, a prominent Moscow industrialist, collector and philanthropist, supported Fedoskino production, which by that time had stopped bringing any profit.
In 1893 he ordered construction of a new manor, which housed the artists workshops. In 1904, two years after the death of Nicholas Lukutin, the factory was closed.
However, artists decided to keep the old tradition of Fedoskino miniatures, and in 1910, assisted by the Moscow government, "Fedoskino workshop of ex-Lukutin factory artists" was opened. The workshop continued its operations after the Revolution of 1917. In the 20-30-s of 20th century the number of artists increased, they picked up new subjects that depicted a somewhat idealized Soviet reality. The first items, sent for sale to a Moscow trade fair, were highly praised by experts of the Moscow Handicraft Museum. In 1912 the workshop employed 14 artists and 9 students, and produced about 160 various types of products which in their quality were not inferior to the famous "Lukutin" lacquer boxes.
The workshop continued its operations after the Revolution of 1917 though during the first post- revolution years it lived through many hardships.
The turning point came after 1923, when the boxes were awarded with the First degree diploma at the All-Union Exhibition of Agricultural, Cultural and Industrial Achievements held in Moscow. Due to the increased demand, production of Fedoskino lacquer boxes gradually expanded again, many items were sold abroad. In 1930-1950-s Fedoskino artists mainly copied works by renowned masters. A new stage in the history of Fedoskino miniature painting, marked by the growth of the artists’ own subjects, started at the end of 1950. In 1960 the workshop was transformed into "Fedoskino factory of miniature painting".
In 1931 a School of Handicraft Apprenticeship was founded (now Fedoskino school of miniature painting) at the Fedoskino Workshop. In 1950-1980-x the school trained specialists in lacquer miniature painting on metal in Zhostovo manner and Rostov finift (enamel).
The main peculiarity of Fedoskino lacquer miniature is the technique of painting. From the very start Fedoskino artists used the classical technique of 3-4 layers oil painting, and were extremely skilful in fitting pictures into the surface space of a concrete item. As a result pictures on the boxes look picturesque and true to life. If one carefully examines any of Fedoskino miniatures, one will see how elaborately the faces are painted, features clearly defined down to wrinkles, blushes, or even eyelashes. The colors are so crisp and clear that the miniatures seem to shine with a warm twinkling light.
There are two main techniques of Fedoskino painting: "solid" and "transparent". The "solid" technique is carried out in the following way: first, the surface is smoothed out by pumice powder, and then white lead paint is squeezed from a tube all over the surface, leveled and dried. Contours of the future painting are then transferred to the surfaces with the use of a blueprint. Paints are carefully mixed up with linseed oil; as for the brushes, only thin squirrel ones can serve the purpose. The first layer is the "underpainting": thick blots of paint are used to indicate general shapes of figures and objects. After drying in natural conditions for 2-3 days or in an oven for 3-4 hours the box is covered with transparent lacquer. The dried lacquer is slightly polished with pumice powder, rubbed with linseed oil and then the second stage begins: the artist now draws the details using a thinner layer of paint. After that all operations are repeated, and then the stage, called glazing, comes – further clarification and elaboration of the image with the use of semi-transparent colors, more vivid and bright. And then, the final stage – "highlighting", i.e. the last strokes of light, almost white paint rendering the play of light and dark on the objects.
But the most original Fedoskino technique is the so-called "transparent" manner of painting which involves application of light-reflective materials (metal powder, gold leaf or Dutch foil) on the surface before painting. Sometimes the boxes are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The mother-of-pearl plates are pressed into the papier-mache surface and fixed with casein glue, while metal powder, gold leaf or Dutch foil is glued onto the dried lacquer. These unique backgrounds shine through transparent layers of glazing, rendering the images depth and causing an amazing glowing effect. Traditional Fedoskino miniatures organically combine "solid" and "transparent" techniques which results in extraordinary decorative effect. In addition to painting, lacquer boxes are decorated with filigree (a pattern of small stamped metal elements (pieces of foil) of desired shapes laid out on a wet lacquer), "sun-rays" (brilliant wavy rays radiating from the center of the box; these patterns are scratched through the varnish down to the metal background fixed on the surface), or "tartan" (a complex scale, applied in liquid ink with a help of a ruler). Boxes can be also stylized to imitate tortoise shells, malachite, mahogany, and so on. After the artists have completed their work the items are passed to varnishers and polishers. The items are covered with three coats of a light oil varnish with the obligatory drying and cleaning after application of each layer. After the fourth layer of varnish has dried the items are smoothed with grain pumice and polished first with the Tripoli powder (made of burnt earthenware), and then with a piece of beaver lamb fur.
The main subjects, favored by Fedoskino artists – country landscapes of the Moscow region, characters from Russian folk songs and fairy tales, characters of Russia’s heroic past, troika outings, tea parties, scenes from peasant life. The most prized chests and boxes were decorated with complex multi-figured compositions, copied from well-known paintings by Russian and Western artists.
Despite strict canons and rules that prescribe the use of certain patterns, ornaments, and color palettes, it is impossible to find two identical handmade Fedoskino miniatures.