Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Nesting Mothers



QUESTION: My mother has a substantial collection of what I call “Nesting Mothers.” These are the little Russian nesting dolls that often appear at flea markets. One day, this collection will be mine, so I’d like to know more about them. When and where did they originate? Are they valuable? And are there different kinds?

ANSWER: Those are all good questions. First, the correct name for your mom’s Russian nesting dolls is Matryoshka dolls, also sometimes referred to as Matreshka dolls. And while they’re commonly associated with Russia, they didn’t originate there.

A professional artist and folk crafts painter named Sergei Malyutin, who worked on the Abramtsevo estate of Savva I. Mamontov, made the first sketches of a nesting doll based on one his wife brought home from a visit to Honshu, Japan, in the latter part of the 19th century. However, the Japanese say that it was a Russian monk who first brought the idea of making nesting dolls to Japan. Whatever the case, Russian craftsmen liked the idea, and Matryoshka dolls came into being.

The first dolls looked a bit different than the ones made today. Malyutin intended his doll to depict a round-faced peasant girl with beaming eyes. He dressed her in a sarafan—a floor-length traditional Russian peasant jumper dress held up by two straps—and gave her carefully styled slicked-down hair largely hidden under a colorful babushka or bandanna. He placed other figures, either male or female, each smaller then the one before, inside the largest doll, dressing them in kosovorotkas, or Russian blouses fastened on one side, shirts, poddyovkas, or men’s long-waisted coats, and aprons. He planned to have the smallest, innermost doll, traditionally a baby, turned from a single piece of wood. But it was Vasily Zvyozdochkin who made the first doll set in Moscow towards the end of 1890 and made the Matryoshka doll a reality.

Mamontov's wife presented the dolls at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, where they won a bronze medal. Soon after, craftsmen in several other Russian towns began making them and shipping them around the world.

So where did the name for these dolls come from? At the end of 19th century, Matrena was one of the popular female names in Russia. Derived from the Latin root matrena, it means, "mother," “respected lady," or "mother of the family." Placing one figure inside another was also a fitting symbol of fertility and perpetuation. People also refer to these dolls as "babushka dolls", "babushka" meaning "grandmother" or "elderly woman" and also the name of the bandana worn by peasant women at the time.

Matryoshka dolls aren’t easy to make. It requires a lot of skill. Many a craftsman has given up after trying to create one. In the beginning, those who did know how to fashion these dolls kept the process a secret. 

First it’s important to choose the proper type of wood. Because of its softness, lime wood is generally chosen, less often alder or birch. It’s important to cut the wood at the right time, when it’s neither too dry nor too dump. Only an expert can determine when it's just right. Each piece of wood goes through as many as 15 separate operations. The craftsman creates the smallest doll in the series—the one that cannot be taken apart—first.

Once the smallest doll has been made, the craftsman starts on the next figure into which that first doll will fit. He cuts a piece of wood to the necessary height and then cuts it in half to form a top and bottom section. He works on the bottom section of the doll first, removing the wood from the inside of both sections of the second doll so that the smaller doll will fit snugly inside. A skilled craftsman, by the way, doesn’t bother to make measurements but relies solely on experience. Afterwards, he repeats the process, making a slightly larger doll into which the previous two will fit.


When the craftsman finishes each doll, he covers it with starchy glue that fills in any hollow areas in its surface. Then he polishes the dolls to a smooth finish to enable the painter to spread the paint evenly. After fashioning and finishing the wooden dolls, the craftsman hands it on to a painter who then gives the dolls their inimitable style.

The number of dolls held one inside the other varies from 2 to 60. There’s no limit to the size of these dolls. Some made today are quite large and hold many others within.

Much of the artistry is in the painting of each doll, which can be very elaborate. The dolls often follow a theme which may vary, from fairy tale characters to Soviet leaders. Originally, doll makers used themes drawn from tradition or fairy tale characters, in keeping with the craft tradition, but since the 20th century, they have embraced a larger range, including flowers, churches, icons, folk tales, family themes, religious subjects, and even Soviet and American political leaders.

The craft of making Matryoshka dolls gradually spread from Moscow to other cities and towns, including Semenov, Polkhovskiy Maidan, Vyatka, and Tver'. Each locality developed its own style and form of decoration.

As with other crafts, the Russian Government under Communism strictly controlled doll making and selling. But political changes at the end of the 1980s gave artisans new possibilities and freedoms. They could now make their dolls without fear.

A painter named Sikorsky was one of the first whose dolls became popular with the public. His dolls bring the highest prices, with individual sets costing as much as $3,000. His access stimulated other artists, and since then, Matryoshka doll making has been on the rise. 


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