We have all seen the Russian matryoshka or stacking dolls in the shops. While they look old and traditional the Russian matryoshka dolls did not actually appear until 1890. These Russian stacking dolls are widely collected and can be purchased in many countries, not just in Russia. Their main appeal lies in the eye-catching and colourful design as well as the fact that you get many dolls for the price of one.
While we know that the first of the Russian matryoshka dolls was exhibited at the Paris World Exhibition in 1900 by the wife of the rich Russian landowner Sava Mamontov, we do not know when the dolls were first made. After the doll won a bronze medal at the Paris World Exhibition the idea took hold and and it wasn’t long before matryoshka dolls were being made in many places in Russia. The names stems from the popular Russian name Matryna which means mother.
The style of the matryoshka dolls varies depending on which area of Russia they are from. The version we most often see in the shops is the red and yellow doll with a floral design but over the last twenty or thirty years many other patterns have emerged. The characteristics of the Russian matryoshka dolls are always the same: a round face with a round stomach and no separate legs. They usually wear shawls over their heads and have rosy cheeks. The most important characteristic of the matryoshka dolls is the number of pieces, being five, seven, ten or fifteen.
The paint most used was gouache but tempera, acrylic or watercolours were also used, you might even find gold leaf on the more expensive dolls. If you are thinking of collecting Russian matryoshka dolls you will have a wide choice and where you start really depends on your budget. If you are buying the dolls for a child as a toy you might want to start at the cheaper end and there are many bright attractive sets to be had. If you are a serious collector and are looking for something special you should check out the work of Tatiana Andreeva who works with acrylic paint and also uses gold leaf, beaded crowns and jewellery. Tatiana makes some of the finest matryoshka dolls in Russia often featuring national dress and also cats, dogs and birds.
The price of Russian dolls has increased dramatically over the last few years and in the UK it is difficult to find worthwhile pieces. If you want to collect Russian dolls you need to go to a specialist shop or try the internet, but make sure the online traders are reputable. As Russia has become more affluent the talented Russian artists know the value of their work and you will not get a bargain. It is also hard to find older Russian dolls as, before the collapse of the Soviet Empire, little was exported. If you do find an old set of dolls you should snap them up as they are a rarity and are likely to be a real collectors’ item. A tell-tale sign is that the outside will be faded while the inside dolls will look as good as new – an indication that it has been displayed somewhere for a number of years.
While most of us would like to own a set of the high end Russian matryoshka dolls it is likely that we don’t have the budget and will have to settle for one of the less expensive versions. They are still beautiful and would be a fun piece in your collection.