A Blooming Craft

Thanks to Russian craftsmen from the village of Zhostovo near Moscow, metal trays painted with floral patterns have been transformed from everyday objects into real works of decorative and applied art. Millions of trays have been painted over the past 200 years, yet no two are alike.

A Unique Art Sanctuary

The name of Zhostovo village located in the Mytishchi district of the Moscow region is firmly entrenched in the name of the entire trade even though craftsmen from nearby villages — Ostashkovo, Novoseltsevo, Sorokino, Khlebnikovo, Chiverevo, Troitsky — did do that same pained art on metal and papier-mache as well.

It is believed that the Zhostovo factory dates back to the workshop of the Vishnyakov brothers, peasants who bought their freedom, opened in 1825. Back then the brothers had no slightest idea that they founded a new handicraft, which was destined to become one of the brightest in the Russian folk culture. 

The first trays there were made of papier-mâché, just like jewelry and snuff boxes. At first, the themes for trays were pretty much the same — landscapes copied from engravings and paintings, such as summer and winter troikas of horses, and at the tea table scenes. In the 1830s Zhostovo began to produce metal trays. At that time, there was a great demand for them in cities in places like taverns, pubs and hotels. By the middle of the 19th century, 12 workshops were already operating in the Moscow region, which laid the tradition of metal trays painting. 

In 1928, several artels in the Zhostovo village, formed on the basis of workshops after the revolution, merged into one Metal Tray artel, that became the Factory of Decorative Art in 1960. Painted trays got the status of a unique pieces of folk art and began to be displayed at international exhibitions, when ever increasing attention was being paid not only to mass production, but also to one-of-a-kind pieces.

From Papier-Mâché to Painting on Metal 

Trays are made of sheet iron by cold forging or stamping. Initially, they were made exclusively by hand. Over the history of the craft, the craftsmen have come up with about 150 different forms of trays. In our days, the factory makes a fifth of these forms by stamping, and the rest are still made by hand with a pair of metal shears and special hammers. 

The most common Zhostovo trays are oval and round in shape, but there are also rectangular, square, triangular and even polygonal trays, as large as a table top or just about the size of a saucer. 

The tray blank is covered with a special primer, then carefully polished and several layers of black enamel applied. After that, the most fascinating work begins — the hand-painting of the tray.

Zhostovo Bouquet: Flowers on Black Background 

The trays are painted with oil paints in a certain sequence: artist draws outlines, then paints shadows followed by small details. The Zhostovo painting is based on a free brushstroke never using templates. Artist paints from imagination, according to well-learned rules honed in the long practice of many generations. With a wide brush, the artist sketches the overall composition on the tray. The main motive of the Zhostovo art to this day is a flower bouquet. Creating it, the artist watches for the beauty and expressiveness of the silhouettes of flowers, buds, leaves and stems, the rhythmic arrangement of colors. Zhostovo bouquets are characterized by brightness of colors. As a rule, the flower bouquet is painted in the tray center, and the tray’s edge is decorated with a light, openwork floral ornament. 

Berries and colorful birds sometimes are painted instead of bouquets, or scenes from folk life and landscapes. Traditionally, the patterns are painted on a black background, but other options are possible, for example, a bright red, blue or dark green background. 

It does not take a long time to paint a Zhostovo tray. Data shows that a professional craftsman can paint up to 10 pieces per day, and none of them would be alike due to the variety of color combinations and their arrangement on the tray.

Mark of quality

Nowadays, Zhostovo trays can be found in many museums around the world. However the most striking examples of the craft, which is a significant phenomenon in Russian decorative and applied arts, are on display in the Museum of Trays in Zhostovo. Many local residents are still engaged in this folk craft, because the demand for trays with unique ornaments remains extremely high over the years. Festive and bright, they are used not only in everyday life, but also as a room decor or souvenirs. 

Today not only metal is pained in Zhostovo style, but also ceramics, glass and even leather. One thing remains unchanged: regardless of the surface, the paintings are done in multiple layers. 

Zhostovo trays are very popular, so they are often counterfeited. In order to assure the authenticity of the product, you first need to look at the edge of the tray — it should be perfectly smooth and even. Almost every vintage item has the hallmark of the workshop in which it was made. From it you can find out the name of the owner and even determine the time when the tray was created. On the reverse side of modern pieces, be sure to look for the trademark of the Zhostovo factory — a flower and a tassel.

Alena Ishchenko