On July 11, Nick Nicholson, the Russian History Museum’s Director of Development and a specialist in Russian decorative art, presented a lecture on the world of Russian lacquer that existed before the revolution, lacquer work from the Soviet, and present day lacquer centers of Palekh and Mstsera. The lecture was presented online as part of the museum’s Second Saturday lecture series.
While the Russian border with China would seem a likely way for the art of lacquer to have passed from east to west, in fact, it was Peter the Great’s first sighting of faux lacquer in France and Germany during his trips abroad which started the Russian craze for lacquer.
Peter I imported ‘faux lacquer’ artists from the west and commanded that a group of icon painters become apprentices to them so that the craft would flourish in Russia. Peter commissioned a unique work of lacquer, but the trained artisans went on to found an industry which would reach its height in the 19th century. The two most famous firms, Lukutin and Vishniakov, created lacquer products of every description which became ubiquitous in every Russian household. This panoply of objects ranged from cups and beakers to cigarette cases, humidors, fan boxes, sewing kits, jewel caskets and album covers, many depicting works of art and popular engravings.
The lacquer objects themselves became expressions of Russian national identity, a means to disseminate images of famous works of contemporary art, and a unique calling card to the rest of the world. Prized as souvenirs, works of Russian lacquer were even sold abroad at Tiffany & Co. In New York – the inability to keep them in stock caused Louis Comfort Tiffany to refer to them as “Black Gold.”