Matryoshka Dolls: The Storyteller

When I say "Russia", what images conjure in your mind? Maybe it's Saint Petersburg's Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood, the classic Ushanka-hats, or our favorite childhood movie, Anastasia? For how vast the culture is in Russia, one object stands out as an icon, the Matryoshka doll. Matryoshka dolls, or Nesting Dolls, are a wooden toy that opens up to reveal a smaller doll and, in turn, has a doll inside, and so on.

"Sisters in Green" by Emilie Henthorne

For being such an iconic staple of Russian craft, Matryoshka dolls are not that old. They were first created in the late 1890's in Russia, but were influenced by a figurine of one of the seven Japanese gods of luck, the deity of scholarship and wisdom, named Fukurokuju. This figurine was displayed during an 1896 exhibition of Japanese art in Saint Petersburg.

Similar Fukurokuju doll to the one seen at the exhibition

Around 1850's, the start of the Russian avant-garde art movement started to creep into the public consciousness. Russian Artist were trying to move away from Western influence, rediscover the quality and spirit of medieval Russian, and ultimately redefine their nationality through different types of art. This resulted in individual, but inseparable, art movements like Suprematism, Constructivism, Russian Futurism, Cubo-Futurism to name a few. Different art colonies were also established during this time with artists, writers and musicians all working together to explore these new creative ideas.

"Dynamic Suprematism No. 38" by Kazimir Malevich

One of these colonies was call the Abramtsevo Colony, who was eventually owned by the wealthy industrialist, Savva Mamontov. The Mamontov family were interested in preserving folk art and peasant toys, along with other types of traditional arts. His brother, Anatoly, established a workshop called the Children's Education to make and sell toys. Out of this workshop, Vasily Zvyozdochkin carved the first Matryoshka doll form and Sergey Malyutin painted the design. This doll had eight figures. The biggest was the traditionally dressed mother holding a rooster. The smaller were her children, both boys and girls, and the innermost was her baby. In 1900, the wife of Savva presented the dolls at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, earning a bronze medal. Soon after, Matryoshka dolls were widely produced in Russia and shared around the world.

The First Matryoshka Dolls

The most common design of Matryoshka dolls will have traditional-dress peasant girls. Others will depict folk or fairy tales characters or religious themes, emphasizing nature and floral designs. Besides being heavily symbolic in it's imagery, the actually doll is use as a metaphor. Matryoshka dolls are seen as a symbol of femininity and is associated with family and fertility, which works with the traditional depiction of the Mother and her children, Matryoshka dolls are often seen as family legacy and an illustration of the unity of body, soul, mind, heart and spirit.

I carry this heritage as I work with on my dolls. Keeping with designs centered in nature and femininity, I like to dig deeper with my creativity bringing in creatures, goddesses and other imagined symbolism. Usually depicting a matriarch then her wards, each doll is uniquely painted to differ from her counterparts. When you open them, you'll then have the excitement of a surprise in each individual doll. I am fond of trying to convey a story in each set of dolls that the viewer can explore. I like to think that have such bizarre characters will help the viewer push their artistry by placing them in a personal imagined world.

"Goddesses of the Sun" by Emilie Henthorne

I deeply enjoy hearing people's stories about the dolls they had as a child. I personally had a set of dolls growing up with cats on them. Children are fascinated with these dolls. Montessori schools and other educators will use Matryoshka dolls to develop different skills with children such as counting, sorting, sequencing, ordering, fine motor skills - even vocabulary and storytelling! Most people know someone who is as enchanted as me when it comes to these simple but beautiful toys.

My family's cat Matryoshka doll set

It's delightful to work with this medium and bring nostalgia and history to a piece of art that can be passed along through generations. I would love to hear about your Matryoshka dolls!

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