Is it possible for something to be a toy AND a piece of art.  I suppose it’s not that unusual when you think of dolls, as many doll collectors would agree, I’m sure.  Well, Matryoshka, also known as nesting or stacking dolls, definitely fall into this category and is one of the things I love about them.

The first time I ever saw a Matryoshka I have to say, I was not impressed.  I thought it was a horrible, cheap wooden toy, and I never really thought much more about it.  Then, I visited Alaska and found myself in a Matryoshka store surrounded by them, and I was completely mesmerized by all the different artistic designs.

A Matryoshka doll is made out of wood and is sort of shaped like an hourglass, but with a smaller top portion or “head”, and it is hollow inside.    It is also believed that the shape of the Matryoshka is modified from the shape of an egg; the Russians had made artistically painted hollow wooden eggs for centuries prior to making Matryoshka.

The dolls have been marketed as the doll with “the surprise inside”, because the doll is cut in half in the middle so that it can be opened.  Smaller and smaller dolls are made which match, or are similar to, the largest one, and which fit inside of each other, so that when you first see the doll, it is only one, but when you open it up, there are between 3 and 12 dolls inside (typically).  The largest set, as recorded in the Guinness Book of World records has 51 pieces ranging in size from 1 foot tall to .125 in tall.

Ode to Matryoshka ... A Toy and an Artform

Matryoshka strictly translated means “little matron”, but sometimes the dolls are called Babushka because often the largest doll is in the design of an older lady rather than a young girl.  This is because traditionally, the largest doll was fashioned as a mother, and the dolls inside were her children.

The first Matryoshka doll was made in 1890 by a Russian woodworker named Vasily Petrovich Zvyozdochkin.  He used a design created by Sergey Vasilyevich Malyutin, an artist and an illustrator.  The set depicted a mother holding a rooster and her seven children.  The smallest doll is a baby and of the others, only one is a boy.  The mother and girl children are wearing kerchief-style scarves around their heads which are tied under their chins, and each dress is a different colour.  By today’s standards, it is old fashioned and simple in it’s design, but it is still impressive in the use of colour and detail.

The design of the original doll set came from both Japan and China.  The Chinese had been making nesting toys in the form of boxes for centuries, and the Japanese had been producing both a hollow wooden doll with nothing inside as well as a wooden doll with smaller dolls nesting inside, but in a much different shape than the design that has eventually become the traditional Russian Matryoshka doll.

Matryoshka have become highly identifiable as a part of Russian culture.  The first doll was made during a time when the country was looking for identity and fearing that some of their traditions would be lost as they became a more industrial nation.  I was enchanted to see huge dolls outside the Olympic Village in Sochi in 2014, and even on the ski hills.  I think if I were to travel to Russia (which I would like to do), I would spend most of my time in doll shops!

Ode to Matryoshka ... a Toy and an Artform

At the 1900 World’s Fair, in Paris, the Russians entered Matryoshka in many sizes, styles and designs into competition and won a bronze medal, which in turn, popularized the toy around the world.

The wood the dolls are made out of is typically lime, but sometimes alder and birch are used as well, because these are all very light and pliable woods.  Lime trees are also specifically grown to be made into Matryoshka.

The painted designs on the dolls come in many different styles.  The most common is floral.  They are also typically designed in clothing or dress style, depictions of Russian spired architecture, and another common design is the dolls holding something in their hands or arms.

Sometimes it could be a toy, food, flowers, a book or a small animal (rabbit, cat or dog; even a chicken or a rooster).  Matryoshka are often carrying bread and/or salt, as these are two symbols of hospitality in Russia.

Another thing that can figure very prominently is strawberries, because they grow wild in Russia.

One of things I find the most enchanting is the detail in the painting.  If a doll is turned to the back, it is as if you are looking 180 degrees around  to  the back of the clothing depicted on the front.  The clothing is also detailed in the use of painted lace, tassels on shawls, ruffles and crinolines.

Sometimes each doll in a set is styled the exact same way, or they can each be different.  They have been known to be styled as males, but this is rare, and interestingly the most common colour used in the making of Matryoshka is red.  A very recent trend in styling of Matryoshka is to burn the design into the wood of the doll and use the paint very sparingly to enhance the burnt-in design.  The shapes of Matryoshka are beginning to branch out too.  They are now being styled in the shape of a bell, as well as a pot-bellied version of the original shape.

Ode to Matryoshka ... A Toy and an Artform

At this point in time, the sky is the limit as far as how Matryoshka is styled.  Here’s an interesting list:

  • Disney princesses
  • the Beatles or other rock groups
  • heads of state
  • The most common colour used in the making of Matryoshka is by far red.
  • Matryoshka are sometimes make in the form of males
  • animals (especially cats and chickens/roosters)
  • famous singers
  • fairy tales told in the painting on the dolls
  • ballerinas
  • religious figures
  • dolls from different countries in cultural dress

Matryoshka are a very time honoured Russian toy and collectible with an interesting history.  Merchandising  has branched out too, and designs can be found on clothing, key chains, pens, fridge magnets, etc.

There is also a number of things that can be done with the doll themselves.  They are toys, art, they can be used to hide something or to give as a gift with another gift inside, or even to teach children to count.  Next time you see one, enjoy the detail that went into making them, they are truly something special.

Note:  If buying a Matryoshka as a gift for a child, make sure the child is over 3 or 4 years of age.  The smallest Matryoshkas can be pretty tiny, and you don’t want to give it to a child that is still inclined to put things in their mouth.