Monday, December 1, 2014

Mikhail Nesterov

In Rus. The Soul of the People
oil on canvas
206 x 483 cm
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

This is the last religious symbolic painting he painted before the Russian Revolution in 1917. The picture depicts the Russian people following a young boy, while in the background a Russian religious figure, an old holy fool, stays aside, praying ecstatically, wearing no clothes and possibly warning the people.

“The death of Masha made me an artist” (Nesterov)

Mikhail Vasilyevich Nesterov (1862-1942) was a major representative of religious Symbolism in Russian art. He was born into a merchant’s family and was set to follow in his father’s footsteps, but soon it became clear that he was not destined to become a successful businessman. At the technical college in Moscow, he failed all his exams except drawing, calligraphy, and religion, and went to the non-classical secondary school instead. The schoolmaster noticed his gift for painting, and talked him into entering the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.

His early works were dedicated to everyday life. Later, he began to paint Russian history, becoming a rather well-known, though not affluent historical painter. The famous artist Ivan Kramskoy criticized his paintings during this period, saying that history was not really Nesterov’s thing and that Nesterov should keep looking for his real vocation.

In 1885 he married, and a year later his beloved wife "Masha" died in child birth. This tragedy made him rethink his life, his art, and experience a spiritual transformation. “My love for Masha and the loss of her turned me into an artist and put the sense, emotion, and soul I was missing before into my art; in other words, everything that people valued and value in my paintings”.

The first significant piece created by him after Masha’s death was The Hermit, painted in 1888-1889. It depicted an elderly monk, cautiously walking along the lakeside. Upon seeing The Hermit, critics acknowledged him as one of the best artists of his time. The painting was bought by the art patron, the owner of the Tretyakov Gallery. With the money he earned, he went to Europe, visited Italy and was deeply inspired by the inner spiritual forces of Renaissance art. In 1890, he moved to Kiev, and spent twenty years painting the walls of Kiev churches.

The Bolshevik regime banned religious art. As a devout Orthodox Christian, he did not accept the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, but remained in Russia until his death. After the revolution he painted mostly portraits and self-portraits. He loved this genre too. In his last years, he also worked on a book of memoirs, which was published several months before his death. He died in 1942, and was buried at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow.