Gorodets pictures painted on wooden boards is considered one of the best national Russian art crafts. It originated in the middle of 19th century in villages located on the river Uzols in the vicinity of Gorodets (Nizhniy Novgorod province) in connection with manufacture of wooden distaffs.
It should be noted that the history of Gorodets, a town located on the left bank of the river Volga is much more ancient than the history of the handicraft named after it. The first settlements appeared in these places in 12th century. The geographic location of the town stimulated development of various crafts: a famous Makariev fair, the largest in Russia, was traditionally held nearby. Among residents of Volga towns there were many blacksmiths and weavers (as the neighboring fields always provided good harvests of flax), but mostly the local craftsmen liked to work with wood. They produced various wooden articles but their distaffs enjoyed the biggest popularity and were sold at local fairs all over Russia, even into its most distant parts. It was the distaffs that became the first object for the famous Gorodets painting.
Unlike the widely spread type of distaffs that were cut out of a wooden monolith, Gorodets distaffs consisted of two parts – the bottom and the blade. The bottom was made of a wide board narrowed towards one end that had a small hole into which the leg of the blade was inserted. When the distaff was not worked upon, the blade was taken out of the hole, and the bottom board was hung up on a wall, becoming an original decoration.
As production of this popular item increased, the original local style of decorating the bottom distaff boards took its shape – at first decorative figures were cut out from woods of other species and inserted into corresponding hollows. The inserts, made of dark fumed oak, stood out boldly against the lighter surface of the bottom board. Thus, using only two shades of wood and a set of simple tools, the local craftsmen transformed the surface of the board into an object of beauty. In the middle of 19th century inlaid decorations of the bottom boards were replaced by painting. This process begins with toning the background and carving out ornament to which colorful pictures are later added. The bright combination of yellow that stand out nicely against the dark oak, livened with specks of blue, green and red make the boards elegant and colorful. The earliest bottom board, decorated in such technique was made by Master Lazar Melnikov in 1859.
The necessity to increase production of distaff bottom boards inevitably led to simplification of decorative techniques. From the second half of 19th century the labor-consuming techniques of inlaid wooden decorations began to be replaced by easier carvings with subsequent painting of the patterns and from the 70-s of 19th century Gorodets distaffs were mostly decorated by painted scenes only. Due to the simplicity and smaller labor input painting soon completely forced incrustation out. This easier and more democratic technique made it possible to tackle new subjects and to master the original free style which allowed artists to create pictures without preliminary outlining of the contours. Since the bottom boards did not require thermal processing artists could use a full palette of colors and shades.
In creating painted ornaments Gorodets masters used the same popular subjects they had earlier exploited in inlaid decorations and the same generalized way of rendering objects. Later the specter of the subjects considerably widened as artists started to derive them from lubok prints (popular prints featuring brightly-colored pictures drawn in primitivistic style).
The greatest peculiarity of Gorodets paintings lies in the informative character of the pictures. Scenes from everyday life were the most popular genre. Images were conventional in nature, free and decorative in form, sometimes bordering on caricature. They represented life of the peasantry, merchants, wedding scenes with grooms on horsebacks, traditional tea drinking, festive walks, scenes from urban life, characters of folk tales, battle scenes inspired by the Russian-Turkish war, riders, carriages, ladies, soldiers, dogs, varied scenes of romantic promenades of gentlemen and their ladies.
Particularly striking is the traditional rendering of a hot-tempered, strong horse that personifies the idea of beauty as vigor and strength, as well as a rooster in a proud, warlike posture. Next to realistic representation of people and animals one can also see decorative images of birds and animals. There are even exotic lions and leopards, usually painted in pairs, heraldically facing each other. A significant place is occupied by floral motifs – lush rose bouquets; painted in a bold, decorative manner, various flowers, scattered among garlands and bouquets. Wherever the plot allowed, Gorodets masters liked to use the motif of a lush curtain, tied up by a tasseled cord.
Created with the help of a unique technique, the style of the carved Gorodets distaff bottoms was characterized by the following features. The inlaid figurines of horses and people made from the bog oak were enriched by various motifs - tree trunks and branches, silhouettes of birds, etc. Compositionally the surface of the bottom board was divided into two or three tiers. The upper tier usually depicted two riders on both sides of a flowering tree with a bird sitting on a branch, and some dogs beneath it. The middle part was decorated with an ornamental stripe, while the lower tier was used for depicting scenes from everyday life. Gradually more distinctive techniques of Gorodets style emerged – these involved multi-stage process close to professional painting. First of all the artist toned the background (this also served as a primer). On the colored background the first rough painting ("underpainting") was made with a large brush to accentuate the basic color spots and only after that the artist, using a fine brush, carefully drew out the details. The painting was completed with light brush strokes of white and black colors that united different parts into a harmonious whole.
The finished picture was usually framed by graphic lines. In Gorodets paintings many simple ornamental motifs were used – roses, flower buds, grass stalks.
The decorative character of the ornaments was emphasized by the choice of colors and manner of painting. The favorite colors selected for the background were bright green, intense red, deep blue, sometimes black, which particularly nicely contrasted with juicy splashes of the multicolored Gorodets palette. The whitened tones added to the abundance of rich hues. The paintings were made by brush only, without any preliminary drawings, with a free, luscious stroke. The stroke was quite diversified – from broad touches to fine dabs and masterfully executed outlines. The artists worked quickly, using generalized, primitivistic techniques. Each master used his favorite colors and their combinations (paints were mixed with liquid carpentry glue). Though Gorodets artists were quite free in choosing their own individual style, they observed generally adopted procedures for selecting professional color combinations. As a result the finished items demonstrate a harmonious balance of colorful spots masterfully placed over the surface. The painted Gorodets items, while remaining true to the traditional style, have with time become even more colorful, technically refined and up-to-date.
Bright, laconic Gorodets painting, made with a free brush stroke and finished with black and white outlines, decorated distaffs, needlework cases, wooden trunks, pieces of furniture, and various objects of peasant life - baskets, salt shakers, wooden toys, as well as shutters, doors and gates.
The period of 70-90-s of 19th century, associated with the rapid growth of commercial activities in the woody areas around Volga, is marked by maturing of the Gorodets style of painting. As this craft developed (by the end of 19th century people from a dozen villages were involved in it), decorative painting became enriched with new subjects.
The peak of the craft’s popularity fell on the 90-s of 19th century, when production of distaff bottoms reached 4000 pieces per year, but by the beginning of 20th century the craft fell into decline and during the First World War almost ceased to exist. The modern revival of the Gorodets painting is associated with the name of artist I. Oveshkov who in 1935 opened a public workshop in the village Koskovo, bringing old painters together. Oveshkov not only took over the leadership of the workshop, but also organized courses of professional training for younger artists. Under his guidance the range of decorative items began to expand.
In 1951 in a village of Kurtsevo he established an art workshop named "Stakhanovets" headed by painter A. Konovalov, a descendent of a well-known artistic family. The workshop manufactured furniture decorated with traditional Gorodets painting. The range of products - though rather slowly – began to increase. The famous Gorodets hobby-horse was first made at "Stakhanovets", the long-forgotten subjects and plots were brought back to life.
In 1960 the workshop was turned into a factory and renamed "Gorodets ornaments". In 1969 an experimental art laboratory was created at the factory, which worked on creating new subjects and compositions. Despite hard times that marked the Russian economy at the end of 20th century Gorodets painting has survived. The topics changed with time, involving new, less conventional, more modern motifs. At present Gorodets painting keeps developing while still observing the old artistic traditions and styles of 19th century. Though functional applications of the Gorodets products have changed, for the larger part their ornamentation still involves traditional images – long-legged horses, riders, magical birds and flowers.
Since 1995 an icon painting workshop has been successfully operating; here they are trying to revive iconographic techniques of 14th-15th centuries with full observance of the Orthodox iconographic canon. Gorodets masters are also trying to preserve principles of the famous Gorodets carvings that nowadays are used in making coat-of-arms, carved icons and unique works of art.