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MatryoshkaAt one time or another, most of us have been fascinated with the colorfully painted matryoshka (ma-TRYOSH-ka; plural ma-TRYOSH-kee}or nesting dolls. They come in a variety of sizes, characters and number of dolls nested one inside the other. How did the matryoshka come to be and why? First of all, the name, also spelled matriosha, was a popular name for girls. It is believed that it was derived from the Latin word, mater, which means mother or, more to the point, grandmother. A peasant mother of old Russia often tended to a large family. The largest doll is the grandmother with future generations of dolls tucked inside her. This symbolizes the hope and value of life and the family; the heart an soul of Russian people. While not known for certain, it is commonly agreed that this is the image which resulted in the matryoshka. Traditionally, a matryoshka was given to newborns to wish them a long and prosperous life.

Matryoshka first appeared in Russia in the late 1800's. However, the concept of nested items did not originate in Russia. Nested boxes are known to have been produced in China as far back as the 11th century. In the 1700s, nested dolls appeared in China and Japan. These sets were incredible with the smallest doll being about the size of a grain of rice. The popularity of the matryoshka spread quickly. Today, it is the most sought after Russian souvenir and you can, also, find nested dolls in countries such as Poland, Germany and Italy.
The matryoshka's timing was no accident. The late 1800s was a time of both social unrest and emerging world identity for Russia. Art and new trends were of great interest and the Russian style was developed. Prominent artists were determined to create a style that was distinctively Russian but, also, represented Russia's folk heritage and traditions. Many of these artists fathered artistic and cultural centers and studios.
S. I. Mamontov was a wealthy industrialist who inherited his fortune and business from his merchant ancestors. He is credited with being one of Russia's first patron of the arts. A studio was established, on his estate near Moscow, where masters worked along side folk artisans, sharing their skills, techniques and traditions. The finer techniques of the Russian style were merged with old folklore to create the first Russian matryoshka.
The Mamontov family were art collectors and very interested in the preservation of folk art andMatryoshka peasant toys. S.I. Mamontov's brother, Anatoly, owned a shop called Children's Education where folk toys were created and sold. Anatoly's shop was best known for its ethnic dolls which wore traditional costumes of the various indigenous peoples of Russia. He was, also, a publisher and art collector who provided employment for many a talented and creative artisan. To encourage the imagination of his craftsmen, Anatoly decorated the studio with folkart and toys from all over the world. Oriental arts and crafts were very much in vogue at the time. As a result, the forerunner of the matryoshka was brought to Anatoly's workshop from the Island of Honshu, Japan's main island. This particular nested doll was in the form of Fukuruma, a kindly, old, pot bellied Buddhist monk.
Anatoly Mamontov's shop and childrens' book illustrator, Sergei Maliutin, created the first Russian matryoshka. Maliutin's first matryoshka included eight pieces. The largest was a peasant girl with a rooster. She was dressed in brightly colored and delicately detailed traditional costume. Her round endearing face was framed by a bright scarf. The second through seventh pieces were alternating peasant boys and girls. The smallest doll was an infant donning a diaper. Maliutin was an expert in Russian ancient and folk art. Like the Momontovs, his ancestors were traders and merchants. Maliutin painted with gouache, a paint similar to, but heavier than, watercolor. Gouache was used throughout Europe, in the late 1800s and was preferred for its coverage and quick drying characteristics. This paint was made by mixing dry pigment with water and gum for thickness. Today, matryoshkas are made using the same techniques developed by Maliutin. Traditionally, the wooden pieces are lime, birch aspen or alder. Trees for the matryoshka shops are cut in the spring, stripped of their bark and laid out to dry. This process takes about two years.
We often don't think about what it takes to make the matryoshka forms. Turners such as Vasiliy Zviozdochkin, who created the forms for the first Russian matryoshka, must process equal, if not greater, patience and talent as that of the painters. When the wood is adequately dried, the craftsman cuts the logs into workable sized pieces. Using a lathe and chisels of various sizes and shapes, the craftsman begins foMatryoshkarming the desired number of matryoshka pieces doing the smallest one first. This piece is the easiest because it does not come apart.
Each of the remaining pieces are shaped to the proper size and shape, typically without the aid of measuring tools. When each shape is created, the top of the piece is cut off, a ring is carved into the bottom piece so that the top will fit securely on it. Each piece is hollowed out just enough to accommodate the nesting of the next smaller piece. Once all of the pieces of the matryoshka are carved, the exterior surfaces are primed with a glue which provides the perfect painting surface. After each piece is painted, to the artist's satisfaction, they are finished by a heavy layer of lacquer. This brings out the colors of the artwork and, also, protects it by forming a hard, transparent shell.
In addition to the finely detailed painting, many matryoshkas include poker work. This technique of burning the wood was used to outline and further define various elements of the painting, such as the face, hair or the design on the character's scarf, etc.

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