The Palekh iconographic school as an independent art movement dates back to the late 17th century. As early as the beginning of the 17th century, the Moscow iconography, and, later, the Suzdalian icon-painting had been affected by the naturalistic trends of European art that would eventually reflect themselves in the Palekh icons.
While adopting the new artistic influences from Moscow, the Palekh masters preserved the old stylistic features, thus causing the development of a new regional iconography school that reached its peak in the 18th century. Other sources for the Palekh icon-painters until the late 19th – early 20th century were the 15th century Novgorodian iconographic style and the Stroganov painting. Monumental, meaningful and peaceful images, laconic composition and color scheme betray the influence of the Novgorodian style. A complex composition, miniature figures, the wealth of varieties of landscape elements, low horizon, thin linearity, clothes and ornaments, richly decorated with gold suggest the proximity of the Palekh art to the Stroganov school.
Naturalistic trends in the 17th century Moscow iconography manifested themselves in the fryazh manner of painting that, to the full extent, had reached Palekh as late as the 18th century. The Palekh “fryazh” painting can be classified into two categories: “golden background” and “blue background.” The former movement represents the icons, where haloes, edges and a background were covered with a smooth golden layer upon which ornamentation was chiseled and lacquered with color enamels. The second movement appeared in the late 19th century. While the background was predominantly blue, the crowns and edging were gilded and covered with chiseled ornamentation. The late fryazh painting, to a great extent, experienced strong academic influence that manifested itself in naturalistic landscapes.
The Palekh-style icons were noted for more complicated compositions which included a great deal of various elements, multiple figures and, in hagiography icons, numerous border scenes. At the same time, the shapes of the “local” icons were distinguished by symmetry and perfection. The figures of the saints depicted in free turns had elongated proportions, yet they possessed substantiality; being physically part of the earthly world, spiritually, they were already in the heavenly world. The Palekh iconography is noted for thin multi-layers of paint (plav) and underpainting (roskrysh), reddish-golden shades, light execution of faces, and architectural decorations executed in the manner close to the Stroganov painting style.
A restoration of the murals in the Cathedral of the Elevation of the Cross (Krestovozdvizhensky) in 1907 was the last major work by the Palekh iconographers. Upon return from the First World War fronts, the masters began to organize artels to produce painted wooden boxes. In 1924 they founded the Palekh Medieval Painting Artel. The masters of the miniatures realized that the most valuable in their work was the pre-revolutionary iconographic art style. Using technical iconographic methods, they began to create paintings featuring completely different subjects.
Nowadays, Palekh is a center of numerous iconography workshops that tend to hold to local school traditions.
1) Зиновьев Н. Искусство Палеха. - Л., 1968.
2) Кондаков Н. П. Современное положение русской народной иконописи. // Памятники древнерусской письменности и искусства. - СПб, 1901.