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Matryoshka – Russian nesting dolls

The first Russian nesting doll was born in 1890 in the workshop “Children’s Education” situated in Abramtsevo estate new Moscow. The owner of Abramtsevo was Sava Mamontov – industrialist and a patron of the arts. The end of the 19 century in Russia was a time of great economic and cultural development. Mamontov was one of the first who patronized artists who were possessed by the idea of the creation of a new Russian style. Many famous Russian artists worked along with folk craftsmen in the workshops of Mamontov.

Nesting Dolls- perfect Slavic souvenir

 Once at a tradition Saturday meeting somebody brought a funny Japanese figurine of a good-nature bold head old man Fukuruma. The doll consisted of some other figurines nestled one another. It had 7 figurines. That was the fist known nesting doll. On other hand there was a legend that the first doll of such type (nested wooden doll) was brought on the Japanese island Honshu (where Fukuruma was made) by unknown Russian monk. Really, this type of nesting toys was well known before – Russian crafter’s turned wooden Easter eggs, apples.

One of artist of Mamontov’s artistic surrounding Sergei Maliutin was intrigued by the Fururuma nesting doll and he decided to make an something similar but with Russian peculiarity, an own Russian nesting doll. The doll should have its own Russian spirit and to represent specific Russian cultural and people art traditions. So Sergei Malytunin made a sketch of such doll and asked to help him to make a wooden form for the nesting doll the crafter by name Vasiliy Zveydochin. Zveydochin turned at his lathe the first wooden nested dolls of soft linden wood.

The principle of making dolls remains unchanged until the present time, keeping all the tricks of turning skill of Russian craftsmen. Usually a turner uses such wooden materials as lime and birch. Timber that is intended for the manufacture of dolls, usually is cut down in early spring, purified from the bark, leaving in some places of the log rings of bark to prevent during drying cracking of the wood. Prepared in this way the logs are stacked in piles, between them there is a gap for air flow. Usually timber is kept in the open air for several years to bring it up to a certain condition, avoiding not proper drying. Only an experienced master can determine the readiness of the material. Ready to process the logs are sawn into billets for future dolls. The doll blank overcomes though up to 15 operations in the hands of a turner before becoming a finished doll.

The first Russian matryoshka

Maliutin painted the dolls in accordance with his own design. The first Russian nesting doll described a peasant family – a mother with her children. The nested doll consisted of 8 pieces. This set and some other ones old matryoshkas are displayed in Sergiev Posad at the Museum of Toys . There in the museum we can see many old Russian nesting dolls like “An old man”, set of 8 pieces matryoshka, “Getman”, 8 pieces se of nested doll, matryoshka “The tale about turnip”.

Why it is called “Matryoshka”

It happened so that the wooden toy was Matryoshka (or Matrioshka, if you wish) and there is no information who was the first to call the nesting doll by this name. Definitely the name Matryoshka goes from Russian female name Matriona. In old Russia among peasants the name Matriona or Matriosha was a very popular female name. Scholars says this name has a Latin root “mater” and means “Mother”. This name was associated with the image of of a mother of a big peasant family who was very healthy and had a portly figure. Subsequently, it became a symbolic name and was used specially to image brightly painted wooden figurines made in a such way that they could taken apart to reveal smaller dolls fitting inside one another.

“An old man”, 8-p. matryoshka, beginning of 20 century

“Getman”, 8-p. doll, beginning of 1900

Matryoshka “The tale about turnip”, 8-p., beginning of 20 century

Poked (burned) nesting doll, 5-p., 1990-s.

Painted nesting doll, Sergiev Posad, 1998

Painted nesting doll, Sergiev Posad, 2002

Nesting doll Ruslan and Ludmila, Sergiev Posad, 1998

Sergiev Posad style of Russian nesting dolls

Until the end of 90s of 19 century the nesting dolls dolls were made in Moscow studio “Children’s education,” and after its closure production of nested dolls have moved to the training and demonstration workshops in Sergiev Posad near Moscow.

Sergiev Posad was a place where the first nesting doll was made. This old Russian town is located 73 km (about 45 miles) from Moscow. It has grown up around famous Trinity-St.Sergius Monastery. In 1340 the monk Sergius founded a small temple lost in the midst of the wild thick forests. In time it was developed into the biggest monastery of Russia.

Arts and crafts were flourished in the towns and villages who surrounded the monastery. Wooden toys, which were known as “Trinity” toys, became particularly popular. According to the legend the first “Trinity” wooden toy was made by the Prior of the Monastery, Sergius Radonezhsky. Sergiev Posad was a colorful, truly Russian town. The Monastery lent a unique peculiarity to it. The huge marketplace in front of the Monastery was almost always full of different people: merchants, monks, pilgrims and craftsmen were milling around. So this is natural that when craftsmen from Sergiev Posad heard about the funny wooden toy matryoshka some of them tried to replicate it and, as we can guess, they success ed in it and the new designs of nesting dolls were developed.

Professional artist made the first painted matryoshkas just for fun. The nesting dolls were very expressive and they won admiration of adults and children. In the initial period of matryoshka development particularly attention was paid to faces of matryoshka, clothes were not detailed painted as they are painted and decorated now. Such dolls depicted different characters and types: peasants, merchants, and noblemen.

The faces of the early matryoshkas of Sergiev Posad were oval and strict. The heads of many matryoshkas were greatly enlarged that’s why the face dominated the body. These dolls look primitive because of this disproportion but at the same time they are very expressive. The first politic matryoshka, the prototype of famous “Gorbi doll”, was born in that time. Matryoshkas like “German” (German was a political leader Governor of old time Ukraine, which was a part of Russian Empire) gave a soil to artist to design modern politic dolls.

Sometimes matryoshka portrayed the whole family with numerous children and members of households. Some matryoshkas were devoted to historical themes. The described boyars (old Russia noblemen), legendary heroes bogatirs (warriors), some dolls were devoted to book character. The matryoshka of Sergiev Posad consisted of 2 to 24 pieces. The most popular dolls consisted of 3, 8 and 12 pieces. In 1913 a 48-pieces matryoshka made by N. Bulichev was displayed at the Exhibition of Toys in St. Petersburg.

Development of matryoshka greatly depended on turners’ skill. Highly skilled masters turned matryoshkas with very thin sides, which was considered to be a special art of matryoshka turning. Apparently, painting was secondary. Professional artists who painted the first turned dolls did not treat it seriously enough. It was sort of entertainment. There are some matryoshkas – caricatures in the Museum Estate Polenovo. On other hand there were many independent workshops of Sergiev Posad where skilled artisans worked and they crated their own style of Russian matryoshka.

Folk art tradition was very important in the development of the present Sergiev Posad style. Due to widest layer of folk culture, nesting doll matryoshka continued to exist even after Russian style, developed by Russian professional artists was forgotten. Icon painters of Sergiev Posad contributed a lot to matryoshka pictorial style. Anthropomorphism, in other words, resemblance to a human being of the Russia “take apart” nesting doll turned out to be the continuation of ancient Russian art tradition. An artist focused mainly on the figure of a person, his or her face. This tradition of Russian ancient art came from Byzantine Empire, which had borrowed it from ancient Greek culture. The connection of certain early type of the matryoshkas of Sergiev Posad with the tradition of the local icon painting school is confirmed both stylistically and virtually. Along with the icons, matryoshkas were painted as well in the icon painting school of Sergiev Posad.

The matryoshka of Sergiev Posad has its own peculiarities: its top part flows smoothly into thicker lower part: it is painted with gouache and has a varnish surface. In spite of, or perhaps because of the popularity of the matryoshkas of Sergiev Posad, matryoshka-making center started to spring up in Russia.

Initially matryoshka types were rather different: they portrayed both male and female characters. There are some ethnographic matryoshkas: Samoyed (Eskimo), Gypsy Woman, American Man, Turk, Chinese, Lithuanians, and Tartar Family, Ukrainian and so on. Gradually female character became the main type of matryoshkas. The tradition of making special matryoshka proportion (1:2, that is ration between a matryoshka’s width and height) were worked out.

Larisa Soloviova, an author of a great book about Russian matryoshkas divided development of this type of dolls into three periods:
1) 1890 -1930-s
2) 1930-s – beginning 1990s
3) Beginning of 1990-s till this time.

The first period contributed us the first matryoshka and created a wide verity of different types of dolls. In 1918 the unique Museum of Russian and Foreign Toys was opened in Sergiev Posad. The first Russian matryoshka by S. Maliutin is a part of its exhibition. Soon afterwards the Toys Research Institute was organized there as well. The remarkable samples of toys were created in this institute including 42 pieces matryoshka. 60- pieces nesting doll is consider being the biggest one among the matryoshkas of Sergiev Posad. It was made in 1967.

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