Matryoshkas are Russian painted wooden nested dolls, one of the most popular souvenirs among foreign tourists coming to Russia.
Some sources say that the general opinion of the matryoshka being an old Russian plaything is just a myth. Research indicates that the first Russian matryoshka was patterned according to a design of a Japanese toy from the island of Honshu (the eastern tradition was the focus of interest in Europe and Russia in the early 20th century). The original Japanese nested doll contained various images of Fukuruma, a good-natured wise man. In the hierarchy of Japanese gods Fukuruma was responsible for happiness, prosperity and wisdom. Other sources of inspiration for the future matryoshka came from China and India, with their own versions of nested dolls. Yet there are no clear indications as to where the Russian version of the nested dolls came from. Before the first matryoshkas appeared, Russian craftsmen carved and painted nested Easter eggs. It can be safely said that the matryoshka as we know it today is a truly Russian national treasure because the Russian doll has its own distinct purpose.
Matryoshkas were so-called after the then popular Russian name Matryona. The wooden beauty was given a diminutive form of the name, matryoshka as her sobriquet. The name goes back to the Latin name, Matrona, meaning “a wealthy lady, mother of the family”.
The first Russian matryoshka was made in the form of 8 boy and girl dolls of various sizes, from the eldest sister (the largest doll) to the youngest, still an infant. The first matryoshka was made in the 1890’s in one of the toy factories in Sergiev Posad. Its author was Sergey Malyutin, a famous professional artist who painted the first doll in the Russian style. The first matryoshka was a round-faced rosy-cheeked girl in a colorful kerchief and a sarafan, with a black rooster in her hand. The doll itself was made by Vasily Zvezdochkin, a master turner.
At the turn of the 19th and the 20th centuries Russian folk art was on the rise. The matryoshka doll signified eternity of the world and wealth, fertility and the motherhood spirit of the Russian land: a mother gives birth to a daughter, then her granddaughter is born, and so life goes on. Most matryoshkas were made in the early 20th century. Manufacturers appeared in response to the growing demand. In just a few years after the appearance of the first matryoshka the charming nested dolls were made throughout Sergiev Posad. The city had enough experienced turners, and an abundance of excellent birch and linden wood. The dolls were painted by family artels, from children to older members of the family. Matryoshkas were in such great demand, and the business was so profitable that several matryoshka-making communities appeared in many regions of Russia.
The first Russian matryoshkas usually depicted young girls and women: rosy-cheeked, robust, wearing Russian sarafans and colorful kerchiefs, and carrying baskets, flowers, and welcoming gifts, dogs and cats, etc. Male figurines could sometimes be found inside. The smallest of the dolls was usually that of a small child. Later versions of matryoshka dolls bore images of shepherds with their reed pipes, bearded men, brides and bridegrooms. These were followed by thematic collections, such as dolls showing literary and fairy-tale characters. Matryoshkas popular today often depict historical and political leaders, and other celebrities, such as famous athletes.
As the first matryoshka came from the Moscow region, the first dolls were painted in traditional Moscow region costumes. As the dolls spread throughout Russia, regional versions of matryoshkas were usually painted wearing local clothes.
Detskoe Vospitanie (Children’s Education) artel made their first matryoshkas for children. The doll was quite expensive, yet in great demand. Matryoshkas were used to teach children to count and helped young children develop their motor skills. Fitting the patterns together was sometimes not easy even for adults. A children’s plaything, the matryoshka was used to teach children about shape, color, quantity and size. Matryoshkas from various regions could be used to teach children about culture, daily life and ethnography.
In 1900 the wife of Savva Mamontov, a famous Russian entrepreneur and patron of arts, who provided support to Russian folk crafts, took the dolls to the World Fair in Paris, where matryoshkas received a bronze medal. The Russian matryoshka became so popular that new orders soon followed from abroad where the doll was soon very popular. Matryoshkas were especially popular in France and Germany, where the first imitation versions appeared. Several German companies carved their own versions of matryoshkas and painted them, selling them afterwards as genuine Russian-made dolls.
Matryoshkas today are manufactured in various workshops. Much skill and patience goes into making a set of matryoshkas, and each craftsman has his own professional secrets. The general technology, however, is the same. First the craftsman selects the wood. Linden wood is preferable because it is quite soft. Other types of wood used for matryoshkas are alder, birch and aspen, but they are used much less frequently. The wood must be uniform, without knots, and the tree is best chopped in the late winter or early spring so as it must be as dry as possible. The wood is then debarked, but not all the bark is removed so that the wood does not break during the drying. After that the wood is stored for two years in a well-ventilated area to dry. The wood is processed when it is neither dry nor excessively moist. Craftsmen say that the right wood has “a ring” to it. A total of some ten operations are performed in sequence. The smallest of the dolls is made of a whole piece first. When the smallest doll is ready, the craftsman proceeds to making the next doll. A piece of wood is selected and cut in half. The lower part is made first. Some of the wood from inside the second doll is removed so that the first doll can fit there tightly. The same process is repeated for each of the larger dolls. Each matryoshka is covered with starch-based glue to cover up all the rough spots. After drying and polishing the surface the artist proceeds to applying an even coat of color, over which the pattern is later drawn, unique for each separate matryoshka. The craftsman uses a pencil to draw the contour of the mouth, the eyes and the cheeks. Then the matryoshka’s clothes are added. Usually the matryoshka is painted with gouache, watercolor and acrylic paints. Each district has its own canons, colors and shapes.
Previously, matryoshkas were famous for the quality of the artwork, attention to detail and laconic patterns. There were no excessive decorative details, elements or ornaments. The first matryoshkas were covered with wax. Craftsmen began covering them with lacquer when matryoshkas were first used as children’s toys. The lacquer protected the paint and kept it from chipping and breaking and retained color. Interestingly, the first matryoshkas had the contours of the face and the costume drawn in the pyrography technique. Even when the paint came off, the burnt outline still remained.
In our time matryoshka dolls can be found to fit any taste and budget. They come big and small, in the classic and avant-garde form. The most popular matryoshka model contains from 5 to 6 dolls. Often you can find sets of 3, 7, 10 and even 15 dolls. The record matryoshka was made in 1913. The set contained 48 nested dolls. Some matryoshkas come in spherical or pyramidal forms, as chests or bottle holders, but cylindrical dolls imitating the shape of the woman’s body, are still most popular. Sergiev Posad dolls are usually plumper and shorter than the dolls from Semenov. Matryoshkas usually have painted arms. A matryoshka is well-made when the dolls fit snugly into one another and the two parts of each doll fit closely. The painting must be straight and solid, and the doll must be a beauty. For many years matryoshkas have served as sources of joy and surprise and that mission remains unchanged to this day.