One can hardly believe that these fairytale-like paintings on lacquered black caskets, which seem to be popular exemplars of something “old-Russian”, in some way owe their appearance to the notorious revolution of 1917. Let alone the centuries-long icon-painting tradition of Palekh masters, of course.
Palekh miniature is a Russian folk handicraft of tempera painting on lacquered articles made of papier-mache; based on the local icon-painting tradition, it appeared in the village of Palekh of the Ivanovo Region not until the early 1920s.
Icon Painting came to Palekh in the 17th century, reaching its heyday in the 18th-early 19th century. The local style developed under the influence of Moscow, Novgorod, Stroganov and Yaroslavl schools. Palekh icons were famous for the special exquisiteness of painting with intense use of gold on painted attire of saints and in ornaments.
The process of icon painting consisted of several steps, each of them performed by different craftsmen: one of them grounded the board, the other outlined the contour of the future icon, the next one painted the composition but for faces, hands and other bare parts of the body, which were the job of yet another artist. The names and texts were put down by another master, a “subscriber”. Finally, the work was completed by a “varnisher”, who covered the icon with drying oil.
In the mid 19th century several workshops were operating in Palekh. By the end of the 19th century there were 418 local people who were into icon painting in the village. Lots of icon painters worked in Moscow, in workshops owned by Palekh natives.
Along with icon-painting, Palekh dwellers were engaged into renovation of monumental painting and took part, in particular, in restoration of cathedrals and the Faceted Chamber of the Moscow Kremlin, churches of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, the Novodevichi Monastery, etc.
After the revolution of 1917Palekh icon-painters faced the necessity of finding new ways for implementing their creative potentials. In 1918 craftsmen teamed into Palekh Artel of Decorative Art, which started manufacturing non-religious papier-mache items, mainly caskets, decorated with lacquered miniature painting.
The authentic style of Palekh miniature can be recognized by refined and smooth painting, mainly against black background, with rich golden shading, clear silhouettes of flattened figures, with the painting often spreading over the entire surface of the cover and the walls of caskets. Ornamentality of landscape and architecture, gracefully elongated proportions of figures, and the palette based on combination of three main colours – red, yellow and green – are rooted in traditions of old Russian icon painting. The composition is usually framed into exquisite tracery, which is painted in gold.
The art of miniature painting is still alive today. Nowadays there are workshops of the Artistic Fund of Russia, as well as small private studios and independent artists in Palekh. Palekh miniature artists are trained at the Palekh Art College founded in 1935.
Works by Palekh masters are kept in numerous museums of Russia and abroad. The State Palekh Art Museum in Palekh boasts the biggest miniature painting collection, comprising over two thousand works.