Russian culture in the Gzhel craft through the pages of history.


History of Gzhel, the true wealth of the nation is its culture: values, traditions, creativity, folk art. They will always be the sources of modern culture: colorism and design, decorative urban design and household always draw ideas from folk art. Talking about the variety of types of Gzhel products, it is necessary to turn to history, because their appearance has changed many times under the influence of the country and the craft history. You will learn about the history of Gzhel: the emergence of craft, its development, especially items making process, and historical figures that have had a significant impact on the creation of a worldwide famous brand.

The emergence of the Gzhel pottery.

The first mention of Gzhel as a locality dates to the XIV century: it is found in the will of the Moscow knyaz Ivan Kalita in 1328. This fact suggests that at that time there was a volost (a traditional administrative subdivision in Eastern Europe) with a name that reflected the main occupation of the population: the word “Gzhel” possibly comes from the Russian verb meaning “burn”, or “burn clay”. Thanks to the unique deposits of local clays that come to the surface, pottery production here has been engaged since the first settlements of people. So, small crafts in the villages became the main occupation of the population and this is reflected in the name of the volost. It can be assumed that the driving force for the development of pottery production was the accession of the Gzhel lands to the rapidly growing Grand Principality of Moscow.

Ivan Kalita

Archaeological excavations on the territory of Gzhel confirmed the existence of a developed ceramic industry at that time. Starting with Ivan Kalita reign, Gzhel, as one of the most profitable volosts, was inherited in the family of the great Moscow princes and tsars, bringing them a considerable income for centuries.

Development of production of Gzhel ceramics.

In the middle of the XVII century, during the reign of Alexey Mikhailovich Romanov, Gzhel became the exclusive supplier of Apothecary and alchemical vessels for the Apothecary’s order in Moscow. They had to comply with increased quality requirements. This was the beginning of ceramic production in Russia. The uniqueness of this area is also in the fact that there has never been serfdom, since Gzhel belonged to the Imperial court. Craft was the main occupation of the local population. This allowed population to fully focus on honing skills and improving production technologies. In 1744, it was tried to test the suitability of Gzhel clays for the porcelain production.

A special commission was sent to Gzhel, which included Afanasy Grebenshchikov, the owner of a ceramic factory in Moscow, and a connoisseur of Gzhel clays – Dmitry Vinogradov. Vinogradov and Grebenshchikov examined four samples of local clays. Those samples were delivered to St. Petersburg, where Vinogradov received the first sample of porcelain mass from Gzhel clay. In 1749 Vinogradov stayed in Gzhel for about 8 months. By mixing Orenburg clay with Gzhel black earth, Vinogradov got a real clean and white porcelain. As a result, Gzhel became one of the main centers of ceramic production in Russia. In addition, Gzhel gave Russian masters the creative energy and impulse to make something new. For example, founders of the Kuznetsov porcelain Empire came from Gzhel.


Simple pottery was replaced by the production of multi-colored majolica, painted in different bright colors, with a gold outline on white enamel. Gzhel with Lubok appeared and was distributed in the XVIII century. At that time, many masters were taught at the Grebenshchikov factory in Moscow. All the dishes were painted with ornaments made in green, yellow, blue, and purple-brown colors on a white background. They usually depicted pictures in the style of the popular Lubok. Lubok is a type of graphics, an image with a caption, characterized by simplicity and accessibility of images. Often it was a bird, a house, later- people and animals in the center of the drawing. Bright, rich colors were beautiful but glazed clay, baked at low temperatures, did not differ in durability and soon this type of Gzhel painting was lost.

Transition from majolica to faience and porcelain.

Under Peter I, the fashion for blue-and-white painting on faience came to Russia from Holland. The famous Delft faience was also liked by the Gzhel masters who brought Russian soul to it and created the white and blue painting in a new way. The Dutch masters once did the same: they borrowed the idea from the Chinese painting and developed their own technique. Blue-and-white patterns were later transmitted to porcelain. Since then they have changed many times in content of paints and technology but stayed the most favorite Gzhel style.

Tea Cup and Saucer “Winter village”
Tea Cup and Saucer “Winter village”

In 1814-1820, there were already more than 30 industries where faience products were painted with blue decor. They also produced fine porcelain dishes with colored overglaze paintings (paints are applied to the glaze). The technique is complex and very time-consuming. Such products are fired three, or even more times. If the product contains parts of dark blue color, the underglaze cobalt paint is applied after the first firing. After glazing and high-temperature firing, the product is painted with colored paints and then fired at a lower temperature. The painted product is decorated with gold and put back in the oven for final fixing of the drawing.

Porcelain Cobalt Coffee Cup and Saucer
Designer Porcelain Tea Pot with Hand Painting

The heyday of the Gzhel art craft occurred in the second half of the XVIII – first half of the XIX centuries. The first large porcelain factory was founded by a local entrepreneur Yakov Vasilyevich Kuznetsov and his sons Terentiy and Anisim in the village of Novo-Kharitonovo in 1810. This family immediately set up industrial and manufacturing production of ceramic products, organizing it in a completely new way. Family traits of the Kuznetsov family allowed them to develop their business and quickly expand it far beyond the Gzhel region. At the same time, they never forgot their roots – the office of the “Partnership of M. S. Kuznetsov” was located in Novo-Kharitonovo until 1917. By the middle of the XIX century, Gzhel was known as “Russian Staffordshire”, the world-famous ceramic center of England. Products from this period can be seen in the country’s largest museums-in the Historical, Russian, the Hermitage, and the Museum of the Gzhel Union.

Gzhel ware in the first half of the XX century.

The industrial revolution in Russia, with its transition from manual labor to machine industry, caused general economic recovery in the second half of the XIX century, but at the same time actually destroyed the Gzhel folk art industry with its manual molding and painting. Companies switched to the production of technical porcelain for the pharmaceutical and electrical industries. Many secrets and features of artistic craft were forgotten and lost.

In 1918, all ceramics enterprises preserved in Gzhel were nationalized. It was difficult to revive the ceramic industry. By 1925, 6 state-owned factories and more than 30 private small enterprises were operating in Gzhel, producing anti-artistic products made of poorly baked clay, with cold painting: clay toys, piggy banks, cats with bows, hares with carrots, and so on. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, artels of commercial cooperation began to appear to produce artistic ceramics. In 1937, there was a merger of several small scattered workshops into a large artel called “Art ceramics”, which produced porcelain.

The united artel “Art ceramics” had a few advantages: qualified personnel of hereditary masters, a clear organizational structure, experienced managers. The activity of the artel gradually expanded, production volumes and assortment grew, skills improved. But the artistic side of the products remained at a low level for a long time. Parts of the former skill, the living creative process were preserved only in the cheapest, popular products — in the so-called “agashka” (form of the name Agafya-the artist who invented the pattern): a modest flower painting, applied with quick brush strokes on the product. This is still one of the favorite patterns of Gzhel masters.

Revival of Gzhel ceramics.

Three wars of the first half of the twentieth century, devastation, lack of fuel and raw materials could finally bury the artistic traditions of the Gzhel craft. But Gzhel as a Phoenix rose from the ashes in the middle of the twentieth century.

Alexander Saltykov

The modern stage of development of Gzhel ceramics began in the difficult post-war period. Art historians, artists, and technologists of the Research Institute of the art industry joined the work. “The revival of Gzhel ceramic craftsmanship began with the development of techniques and motives of painting on faience, the closest to the porcelain technique that is now used in Gzhel,” wrote Alexander Saltykov. Saltykov is an author of the largest historical study of the development of the Gzhel craft. He studied its traditional heritage comprehensively, developed a methodology for Gzhel painting, created an “alphabet” of brush strokes and thus made traditional painting available for masters. All the experience of the past was put at the service of the new art.

The largest collection of Gzhel products in the State Historical Museum, previously known to a small circle of specialists, helped the artists. Saltykov also attracted the artist N.I. Bessarabova to revive almost lost techniques and to produce porcelain products with cobalt underglaze painting. Their initiative was taken up and continued by a galaxy of talented artists who later became classics of the modern Gzhel style – T.S. Dunashova, L.P. Azarova, Z.I. Okulova and others.

Natalia Bessarabova

Natalia Ivanovna Bessarabova came to the art of ceramics, having the experience as a theater decorator and sculptor. When Natalia designed performances of folk dances, she turned to the study of folk art. All this helped in the work on the craft, which, according to the artist, became the main business of her life.

Working in the storerooms of the Historical Museum – making numerous sketches of Gzhel products, studying the painting and its individual fragments, as well as the guidance of a wonderful expert A. B. Saltykov, allowed Bessarabova not only to understand the artistic features of Gzhel art, but also to help painters to learn the secret of traditional painting techniques. When Gzhel masters came to the Museum for the first time, Natalia Ivanovna awoke in them an interest in independent creative work. “Natalia Ivanovna and I have looked at old Gzhel items several times. Some things were adopted, then processed for their painting, ” recalls T. S. Eremina. Discovering these forgotten painting techniques, the masters learned to work with a brush in a new way.

Bessarabova, Dunashova. Vase, 1946.

Each painting has its own motif, its own decorative composition, as well as following traditions and artists’ striving to find own handwriting in a new art. This new art is, of course, unlike the old one, but at the same time it has become its continuation. Since the 1950s, professional artists have been constantly working on the craft.

Gzhel art today.

The new Gzhel ceramics “color” era began in the region in the early 2000s. Special recipe paints, changes in production technology, high-temperature firing at 1350 °C are needed for the manufacture of porcelain in underglaze color painting. Masters have experimented a lot, improved the recipe of paints and as a result, Gzhel gas begun mass production of colored porcelain. The talented artist Juliana Koshikhina actively participated in the revival of the tradition of colored underglaze painting and achieved excellent technique.

Tea Cup and Saucer “Blue Leaves”
Pot from tea set “Bellflowers”

The works of Larisa Sorokina also delight and fascinate with the brightness of their colors, amazing technique, and charming simplicity of plots.

Tea set “Mushrooms and Berries”
Dinning set “Mushrooms”

Many talented artists create miracles in Gzhel, to tell about them, a whole book is needed… Maria Morozova is also a part of this amazing world of art. Morozova (Kaligina) Maria Vasilyevna paints products of a thematic nature in the author’s style. A characteristic feature of her painting is the soft transitions of cobalt shades, combined with floral ornaments. There is a painted story with images of rural landscapes and birds. Maria’s works are in the collections of famous people around the globe. In 1993, she graduated from the children’s art school in Gzhel. Her teachers were famous artists: Simonov, Bidak, Ostashkova. She was a participant in international exhibitions in Berlin, Hamburg, London, and Edinburgh.

Tea Cup and Saucer “Flower Leaves”

Designer Cheese Dish “Mouse ch”

Gzhel corresponds to the trends in art and also tries to make this world a better place. For example, in order to reduce the consumption of plastic cups around the world and save nature (learn why this is important from our infographic), Gzhel started producing inexpensive porcelain coffee mugs. When porcelain is used by humans, it is neutral in both chemical composition and physical properties. This is the perfect zero-waste product. People are gradually becoming more aware of their consumption, they want to produce less household waste, so new coffee mugs for coffee to go are becoming more popular.


In summer, glasses in colored forget-me-nots by Juliana Koshihina create a great mood, in winter, glasses with cobalt trees and houses in the snow are very popular, which give their owner a new year’s mood. The best way to enjoy your hot drink is to use eco-friendly and sustainable coffee mugs.

Porcelain Coffee Mug with silicone lid

Porcelain Coffee Mug with silicone lid

Products with the complete cobalt painting are also popular all over the world. It seems that this is a “mirror image” of the usual blue-and-white Gzhel. Cobalt covers the entire surface of the product, then the glaze is applied. After firing, the drawing is applied with white paint and gold. Such products fascinate and charm with their incredible beauty and grace.

Designer Porcelain Sugar Bowl
Porcelain Tea Cup and Saucer Cobalt painting-Bestwonderstore-Exclusive Gifts Shop

Tableware, vases, candlesticks, boxes, fireplaces, chandeliers, teapots – this is a small part of the products that the Gzhel factory supplies. The blue-and-white painting successfully fits into the cultural code of the Russian mentality-a combination of blue sky, white churches, and Golden domes (in modern Gzhel painting, gilding is often used). But the main style-forming element is the signature brushstroke with shadows, which can create many subtle gradations of blue color. Today, the artists and masters of the “Gzhel Association” are the true children of the Gzhel traditions. Many of them are representatives of the Gzhel dynasties. They have kept and, at the same time, brought a lot of new things to the artistic image of the craft. Their products represent a sample of real skill and love of art.

Leave a Reply