Mstera, a village in Vladimir Province, stands on the banks of the Klyazma River. The first written references to the village (then the Bogoyavlensky Sloboda) date from 1628—1630. By the middle of the 19th century, the village was known for its art-related goods: fine whiteon-white embroidered cloth, hammered ware in copper and silver, icons. Mstera's icon painters, experts in the ancient techniques and styles, were famous countrywide.
Mstera's production of icons antedates that of the village of Kholui and is distinctive in that most Msterans were Old Believers. This Old Believer religious commitment underlay these artists' strong adherence to the rules for painting icons that had developed in the second half of the 17th century. Through the traveling peddlers known as ofeni and korobeiniki, Mstera was in touch with Old Believers throughout Russia, who made orders for icons in the particular styles of the Stroganov, Moscow and Novgorod schools. The artists of Mstera were known as the best restorers of icons and frescoes.
By the middle of the 19th century, Mstera's high-priced "ancient" icons were coming from just a few workshops. The village also was home to lesser workshops, so-called "hard-labor" or "prison" (katorga) shops, that turned out cheap icons (krasnushki) by the thousands. These bore a close resemblance to cheap, popular prints known as lubok. Mstera was a center of lubok production. This business was headed by a serf belonging to Count Panin, the village owner. The serf was I.A. Golyshev (1838—1896), an archaeologist and zealous collector of folk materials. The Golyshev prints were illustrated foldout books with texts of an uplifting character. Local women and juveniles handcolored the illustrations. The poet Nekrasov specially visited Golyshev in Mstera in connection with the publication of his works in the Red Books series and their distribution among the folk by ofeni-peddlers.
The Mstera artists also produced personalized, non-canonical icons, the socalled sebyakinsky icons, in which they let their fantasy take over and expressed a particular love for their native soil. Art historian A.V. Bakushinsky saw great promise in the sebyakinsky paintings of the Mstera icon painters, especially in those of Klykov, which are very closely related to lubok.
Developing capitalism had its adverse effects on the craft of icon painting. Icon production became concentrated in the hands of major entrepreneurs. The latest technological innovation — galvanoplasty — began to be used to produce the "holy images." Workshops using the new mechanical techniques called into question the value of the ancient arts of icon painting. Inexpensive, crudely stenciled icons, dressed up with colored foils, crowded painted icons from the field. Another, even more serious negative influence was the development of lithography and the printing of icons on sheet metal and paper. The machine-produced icons of the Moscow firm of Zhako and Bonaker, whose specialty was boxes for shoe waxes, both met its customers spiritual needs and brought a handsome profit besides.
Icon painting in Mstera ended in 1917. Some masters of the craft roamed the country in search of work. Some joined a union, Workers in the Arts (RABIS), in Mstera. On July 23, 1923, a group of 11 Mstera artists organized a cooperative, or artel, called Drevnaya Russkaya Zhivopis (Ancient Russian Painting). Using wooden forms obtained in the town of Semyonov, they tried painting boxes and other objects, including matryoshka nesting dolls, employing a variety of techniques that included burning to tell their stories. Demand was strong among ordinary buyers for the emotionally affecting compositions of simple scenes painted in oils on wall-hung canvas rugs. Such work surely could not satisfy the artistic needs of Mstera's highly skilled icon painters and restorers. In 1925 the artel had 30 members. Three years later, it had 60. Other former icon painters worked at a local linoleum factory and the Metalloshtamp (metal-stamping) factory.
The art scholars Viktor Vasilenko and Anatoly Bakushinsky helped Mstera's artists develop their style. Msteras lacquer miniatures reflect influences from Western European painting, especially Dutch painting and its rendering of distance; Persian miniatures and their carpetlike decorativeness, and, of course, Russian popular prints.
Inspired by the success of Palekh's artists, the Mstera artists also worked on lacquer miniatures: eggtempera paintings on papier-mache boxes. On June 22, 1931, N.P. Klykov, A.I. Bryagin (1888—1948), Ye.V. Yurin, I.A. Serebryakov (1888—1967) and V.I. Savin (1880—1957) united as the Proletarian Art cooperative.
The principal distinction of the Mstera style is its greater liveliness, compositions developed on colored backgrounds rather than the black backgrounds of Palekh. Whitener is employed under almost all of the painting. The entire surface is treated as a color field. Traditionally, Mstera work has reflected two contrasting color tendencies: cold blue-grays and ochre yellow-cinnabar reds, the former conveying space and depth, the latter for flat and ornamental designs.
Nikolai Klykov, a great specialist in the various "styles" of icon painting, was one of the most outstanding representatives of the first tendency. He brought landscape to the Mstera miniature, and his landscapes have local characteristics. At first, he used the familiar blue-silver pallette for his scenes of everyday peasant life. Later, he used multiple colors but always with effects that are cold and restrained. The second tendency is less realistic and uses a great many of the traditional elements of icon painting. It was the road taken by A.I. Bragin and A.F. Kotyagin.
The late 1930s through the end of the 1950s was a time of great difficulty for Mstera. Every liberty taken by an artist was branded as formalism and denounced. The basic output now became sentimental and saccharine naturalistic copies of paintings. Themes from the marketable rugs of the 1920s began to show up in the work of Mstera's masters. Many artists felt at a dead-end and gave up. In 1960 the artel became a factory.