March 26, 2020

This painting is on the lid of a Palekh lacquer box (only 4 inches x 6 inches!) from the Museum’s permanent collection. Palekh lacquer is a traditional Russian craft. But what is this guy in fancy dress doing with a frog? The fancy dress is easy since he is a Tsar’s son, and the frog is in fact a princess under a magic spell. So tells the Russian fairytale “Frog Princess.”

Here is how it goes:

Once upon a time, there lived a Tsar who had three sons. One day, the Tsar said, “Dear sons, draw your strong bows and let your arrows fly; in whatever court it falls, in that court there will be a wife for you.” The arrow of the oldest son fell near a nobleman’s house; the arrow of the second son flew to the porch of a rich merchant’s daughter. The youngest, Ivan, sent his arrow into a forest. He wandered far and wide looking for his arrow and found it in a swamp. A frog had it. He was a little bit upset he had now to marry a frog, but he did, being a man of his word.

But when, after a series of events, Ivan learnt she was a princess, he quickly ran home, found her frog skin and burnt it. When Vassilissa (that was the name of the princess) came back, she was very sad. “Oh, dear Tsarevich, what have you done? There was but a short time left for me to wear the frog skin. Now I must bid you good-by. Look for me in a far-away country, at the palace of my father, Kashchei the Deathless.” Vassilissa turned into a dove and flew away.

We all have done it – burnt the frog skin when it was not the time. And today, some people may push us to do so: “Let’s burn the frog skin and pretend the virus is defeated in a couple weeks. And then our economy will turn into a beautiful princess she was before.” Will it or will it fly out the window on us?

– Dr. Masha Zavialova, Chief Curator & Head of Collections, The Museum of Russian Art