The elegant art of lacquer miniatures on black boxes has brought fame to this small village in Ivanovo Province. How far back the settlement goes is uncertain, since there was no monastery in the area to keep records. But an entry in a church chronicle from the first half of the 17th century confirms that Palekh, a property of the Paletsky princes, was in existence earlier than 1400.
A daughter of Dmitry Paletsky was the wife of Yury, a brother of Ivan the Terrible. In the 17th century the little village, a crown property, was given to Ivan Buturlin. Icon painting was done as a folk craft in Palekh, and the presence of a well-developed icon-making guild is documented as early as the first half of the 17th century. Old clan genealogical records show that many of Palekh's icon-painting dynasties (Korins, Butorins, Dydykins and Zubkovs, among them) were in the village at least as far back as the 17th century. The popularity of icons among rural families, sold by so-called ofeni and khodebshchiki (peddlers serving small cities, villages and towns), led to the development of cheap, standard icons and their production in large quantities in villages that lay along the traders' routes. A document from 1668 notes that, "along with people from Kholui and Kinesh, people from Palekh" were notable in the icon trade. Perhaps because of Palekh's inaccessibility by road and its distance from rivers, ofeni did not visit often, and so Palekh, in its isolation, developed its own style of icon painting based on ancient models. Its expressive language of fine lines made with a fine layer of gold on a black lacquer background shows its kinship with the school of Vladimir-Suzdal. Because Palekh's serfs did not owe the master labor but only some of the fruits of that labor and could be absent from the village, they were able to do work (including church wall paintings) in the most distant parts of Russia. In 1814 Goethe inquired about the icon painters of Suzdal, and in answer to his question was told by the governor of Vladimir Province: "Among the icon-painting villages, the village of Palekh is especially notable." Sent along with the answering letter to Weimar were two icons by the Kaurtsev brothers, "Twelve Feasts of the Christian Year" and "The Mother of God."
Independent icon-painting studios emerged in Palekh in the middle of the 19th century. The studios, including those of the Safonovs, N. Korin and others, remained active until 1917. The icon painters then had to find other ways to earn a living. Some returned to farming. Others went into housepainting or stage design, but some began painting toys and wooden dishes. The decisive role in the ultimate revival of Palekh was played by Ivan Golikov (1886/87— 1937), an icon painter from the studio of A.A. Glazunov. Before the revolution, Golikov studied at the Baron Stiglitz Art School in Saint-Petersburg, and, after the revolution, worked on propaganda posters and handbills and as a designer for the Shuisky Theater. Visiting Moscow at the invitation of Glazunov, his former master and brother- in-law, Golikov saw a display of lacquer boxes from Fedoskino at the Handicraft Museum. It seemed to him that Palekh's artists, with their ability to paint multiple "scenes" (kleima) on a single icon, might be able to create quite original miniatures on papier-mâché stock. This might be the way to preserve the ancient technique of tempera painting...
Glazunov, as it happened, had in his possession a store of black papiermâché photographic film boxes. Shearing off the edges, Golikov immediately set to work. His first test miniatures on the flat bottoms of the film boxes marked the start of the Palekh miniature. The date was 1922. On his first box, the artist painted a landscape based on a Bible illustration, "Adam in Paradise," by Gustave Dore. The painting was done entirely in gold and silver. The Golikov experiments were supported by the Handicraft Museum in Moscow, and his first works (although they were signed "Glazunov," in accord with the system that prevailed during the NEP period; it called for the owner of an enterprise to put his name on all its goods) were shown in 1923 at an exhibition of the State Academy of Art Sciences, and Golikov took a first-class certificate. That same year, on the initiative of the historian and popularizer of folk art, Anatoly V. Bakushinsky, a number of experimental paintings on wooden boxes and dishes on themes from Russian songs and stories rendered in the spirit of the village's icon-painting traditions were attempted in Palekh.
The studio now began to attract the most experienced of the Palekh artists — Alexander Kotukhin, Ivan Bakanov, Ivan Markichev, among them. In the spring of 1924 miniatures by Palekh artists were exhibited at the World Exposition in Venice, and the city of Venice even proposed creating a school of the new lacquer miniatures in Italy. In December 1924 Palekh saw the organization of the Cooperative of Ancient Painting (Artel Drevnei Zhivopisi) by seven artists: Golikov, Bakanov, Alexander and Ivan Zubkov, Alexander and Vladimir Kotukhin and Markichev. At first, the costly semi-processed bases — the papier-mache boxes — were purchased from the Fedoskino guild. But soon manufacture was underway in Palekh: for the purpose, the woodworker-autodidact I. Babanov was brought in from the village of Podolino. In 1925 the work produced by the artel drew special mention at the International Exposition of Decorative Arts in Paris.
From the first, the pioneer creators of Palekh's miniatures were concerned about training others in the fundamentals of the new art. Officially (with the support of Yakov Ganetsky of the Foreign Trade Commissariat), the Artel, or Cooperative, won the right to prepare students: a trade school was organized in Palekh in 1928. The fledgling Soviet government was highly interested in the development of the craft and the sale of its products: the boxes were a source of much-needed hard currency for the Soviets. Maxim Gorky played a major role in the Palekh story. The proletarian writer had as a young man worked in the studio of Palekh artists in Nizhny Novgorod.
Through his efforts, Palekh not only got specific commissions but was put under the wing of the Art Foundation (the craft shops of Kholui, Mstera and Fedoskino were then under the Ministry of Local Industry). Ganetsky not only assisted with the sale of Palekh ware but saw that the artists were relieved of any obligation to do field work. Money from the sale of lacquer objects helped the Palekh collective farm buy machinery.
In 1930 the Cooperative was made part of the Vsekompromsoyuz organization. In 1932 Palekh miniatures were exhibited in Moscow in a show called "The Art of Palekh" (Iskusstvo Palekha). At the same time, Bakushinsky published his "The Art of Palekh," with a foreword by A.V. Lunacharsky, the former commissar of enlightenment. On the initiative of Gorky, a library and special space were created for outstanding examples of Palekh ware. This was the basis for a museum, the State Museum of Palekh Art, which opened in 1935. That also was the year when the Artel of Ancient Painting became the Tovarishchestvo, or "Comradely society," of Palekh Artists, and the trade school was reorganized as an art technicum. In 1932 the Academia publishing house asked Golikov to design an edition of the Slovo o Polku Igoreve (The Tale of Igor's Campaign). The artist not only illustrated the classic of ancient Russian literature, but the entire text is in his hand. The book was published in 1934.
Besides historical subjects, Palekh's artists also turned to contemporary themes: the revolutionary struggle, major construction projects, holidays... and scenes of rural life — threshing, harvesting, hay-mowing.
The political repressions of the 1930s and 1940s were felt in Palekh. There were hostile reminders of the artists' icon-painting pasts. Many artists were arrested. A.I. Zubkov, the chairman of the cooperative, died in a prison camp, accused as a spy.
On April 23, 1947, Palekh was recognized as a "working village," and a contingent of artists, led by N.M. Zinovyev, helped in the restoration of the exterior frescoes of the Uspensky Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin. Another postwar restoration project undertaken by Palekh artists was re-creation of the Lacquer Office in Mon Plaisir Palace in Peterhof. In 1954, the Tovarishchestvo of the Artists of Palekh was reorganized as the Palekh Art-Industrial Workshops of the Art Foundation of the USSR. The first director was A.G. Bakanov. In 1989, it gave rise to the Palekh Tovarishchestvo, the Obyedineniye (Association) of Palekh Artists and the Paleshanye Creative Workshop. In 1992 the Obyedineniye opened its own school. In addition to the State Museum of Palekh Art, the village is also the site of house-museums at the former residences of I.I. Golikov, P.D. Korin, N.M. Zinovyev and N.V. Dydykin.