An Artist's Journey

Galina Churak

Magazine issue: 
#1 2013 (38)


The artist's life and art both belong to the end of the 19th - beginning of the 20th centuries, a time of extraordinary talents and brilliant individuals. Later in life, Nesterov would acknowledge: "I think I was born an artist,"2 even though his family's traditions had not predetermined his career path. The artist's grandfather, who founded the family trading business, and his father, who continued it, were both men of outstanding abilities and true business acumen, respected and honoured in Ufa. The family life was well-ordered; holidays like Christmas, Easter, and Trinity Sunday succeeded one another, creating a special atmosphere of solemn anticipation. While strictly observing the church calendar, the family had wider interests. Nesterov's grandfather Ivan, who was generous and hospitable, held amateur theatre performances at his house. Later, the entire family would go to the local theatre; the family played music at home, and the joy of reading was instilled into the children. The artist had fond memories of the springtime walks he and his mother took to the floodplain meadows by the Belaya River, to Chertovo Gorodishche (literally, the Devil's Fort), to the foothills of the Urals. "One can see so far from there! What sweet longing one feels looking into those far, alluring distances! How beautiful God's world is! How beautiful my land is! How could I not have loved it?"3 These impressions filled the child's soul and cultivated a sensitive response to all that he saw, heard, and lived through.

"Wanting in any gift for commerce", the young Nesterov showed complete lack of interest in the family business, which probably decided his future. As a student at a grammar school in Ufa, the town of his birth, in 1872-1874, he was mostly drawn to drawing; when he was enrolled in the K.P. Voskresensky Secondary School in Moscow (1874-1876), his passion for drawing flourished. It was becoming obvious that he had to transfer to the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, which he did in 1877. At the time, the School was experiencing its golden age, thanks to its outstanding professors, Vasily Perov and Alexei Savrasov, as well as their talented students, who became Nesterov's friends - Isaac Levitan, Sergei Svetoslavsky, Sergei Ivanov, Andrei Rya-bushkin, and the brothers Konstantin and Sergei Korovin.

Both as an individual and as a painter, Nesterov was highly influenced by his favourite teacher, the celebrated artist Vasily Perov. Under the spell of Perov's personality, the young apprentice experimented with genre painting. However, the main lesson he learned from his mentor was the ability to reveal the "soul of the matter" and the "living human soul." Elements of genre painting were also present in Nesterov's historical works (he painted many such studies); Perov "praised" them, but Nesterov was not satisfied. In autumn 1881 he decided to go to St. Petersburg and enroll in the Academy of Fine Arts in the hopes of defining his sphere of interests. After the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, the atmosphere at the St. Petersburg Academy felt stiff and cold. Nesterov's teachers, Professors Vasily Vereshchagin and Pyotr Shamshin, "seemed lifeless", and their instruction felt too formal. Even Pavel Chistyakov, with his resounding fame as the best art professor, failed to engage Nesterov, who unwittingly and unfavourably compared Chistyakov to his beloved teacher Perov. Even meeting Ivan Kramskoy, and the master's friendly and sound advice, still failed to change Nesterov's attitude towards the Academy and St. Petersburg. It was only his visits to the Hermitage to copy paintings by the old masters that "elevated [his] conscience" and helped the artist see that well-memorized techniques could become routine, and understand the need to develop new associations. However, Nesterov did not discover his individuality immediately, either in terms of his subject matter or his painting techniques. He left the Academy and returned to the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in 1883. The artist turned to a historical theme for his graduation work, "Petitioners to the Tsar" (1886). In this painting he wanted to rival Vasily Surikov's dramatic historical canvases: "'Streltsy' and 'Menshikov' fascinated me with their dark and noble tones. I saw them everywhere." The artist used the dark shades of twilight and complex lighting to convey in his painting the mysteries of the distant past. Even though Nesterov received a silver medal for his painting, as well as the rank of "class artist" in 1886 upon graduation, he was less and less satisfied with painting historical and genre scenes. He kept looking for a subject matter that would become his own, moving constantly from one theme to another; he created a great number of illustrations, work that he called "rubbish", done "for a daily wage". He did, however, treat some of those jobs with genuine interest, such as his illustrations of Pavel Melnikov-Pechersky's novels "In the Forests" and "On the Hills" (Nesterov had been immersed in these books when he was a student at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture). Another example was "The Brothers Karamazov" by Fyodor Dostoevsky, one of Nesterov's favourite literary works; the artist also kept returning to illustrating Alexander Pushkin's novellas and fairy tales. Nonetheless, his artistic identity needed a different outlet and a different expression.

Nesterov's first independent experience was a modest painting, his 1886 "Bride of Christ", permeated with his emotions after his young wife's sudden and untimely death. "What a sweet feeling I had when working on this painting. I felt as if I were a musician playing the violin - [a musical piece that was] so touching it brought me to tears, something Russian, maybe by Dargomyzhsky."4 When he created the image of a young woman in a state of reverent silence and contemplation, ready to leave this vain world for a lifetime of monastic seclusion, prayer and serving God, Nesterov was thinking of Masha's youthful features. His love for her and "losing her made me an artist, gave my art the substance that it had been missing, and the passion, and the soul,"5 he said later. This was the first of the artist's female images that would soon be called "Nesterov's women". Many years later, he remembered: "Everything I lived through back then was my spiritual rebirth, and in due time led to the creation of such paintings as 'The Hermit', 'Young Bartholomew', and many others that followed them, [the works that] made me into the artist that I remained all my life."6

Nesterov's work on "The Hermit" (1888-1889) developed and deepened the theme he had outlined in the "Bride of Christ"; he knew that the painting was an important milestone for his artistic quest. The lone figure of the elderly monk against the quiet late autumn landscape expresses one of the most important aspects of human experience - the happiness and harmony of being at one with nature. The pensive silence of the northern landscape and the subject's peaceful, serene state of mind are brought together by an unhurried and contemplative life -this is the motif that would be at the basis of many of Nesterov's paintings. The artist bonded with his subject through the years of working on the painting. "My old fellow shared his life's secrets with me. He talked to me, he revealed the mysterious world of a hermit to me, a world where he was happy and content; he delighted me with his humility and service to God."7 Russian life, too, offered similar themes. Wanderers, "onlookers", hermits, pilgrims and holy fools, people "not of this world" were a big part of the national experience. Looking for truth and a better life, they walked the endless roads of Russia from one monastery to another, from one hermitage to the next. These "eccentrics" and righteous men formed an important part of Russia. Nikolai Leskov gave Russian literature the most expressive images of pilgrims and righteous men, but it was in Nesterov's"visual narrative" that this image gained its convincing distinctiveness.

Having started painting "The Hermit", Nesterov knew that he was definitely going to show it at the "Peredvizhniki" (Wanderers) society exhibitions. This creative "statement" was very important to him. In the 1880s and through the beginning of the 1890s the society was still quite a "tight-knit family", and the young artist was eager to join it. However, both the logical development of Russian art and Nesterov's own evolution kept pulling him away from his "senior" colleagues; his interests developed towards themes different from those of the society's members, and he found his own style. Pavel Tretyakov acquired the painting before the exhibition, and Nesterov's name became instantly famous; more than that, the artist established himself as a member of the group of those young artists who determined new trends in Russian art.

Nesterov painted his works dedicated to one of the most revered saints in Russia, the Venerable St. Sergius of Radonezh, with special feeling. Remembering his childhood in Ufa, the artist wrote that St. Sergius "was especially loved and respected in the family" and was "a daily presence in our spiritual life."8 While painting "The Hermit", Nesterov was already mentally "preparing for St. Sergius", whose image remained with the artist during his four-month trip to Europe in 1889 - alongside sketches of Italy, the artist's albums contain quick drawings of his ideas for the future painting.

Upon his return to Russia the artist settled near the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, where the proximity of the monastery, observing monastic life, and most importantly nature evoked images of local folk beliefs and legends, including those of the figure who gave his name to the monastery, St. Sergius of Radonezh. For his painting, Nesterov turned to the very beginning of "The Life of St. Sergius", the vision to young Bartholomew (St. Sergius' given name before he became a monk) of an elder ascetic who prophesied that the boy would "be great in the sight of God and man for his virtuous life."

Nesterov worked selflessly on his "The Vision of the Young Bartholomew". "My painting was everything to me," he wrote. "I lived in it, in its atmosphere of a miraculous vision, of a miracle that was to happen."9 Landscape studies for the painting were done in the surroundings of Abramtsevo. "Once, looking out of the terrace of the house in Abram-tsevo, I suddenly saw such a beautiful sight of the Russian autumn. Rolling hills on the left, with a winding river (Aksakov's Vorya) below them. In the distance - the pink vastness of autumn, malachite cabbage patches; on the right, a golden woodland. A few changes, some additions - and the background for my Bartholomew could not be better," the artist remembered.10

The painting achieved a harmonious union of the real, albeit slightly stylized, Abramtsevo landscape, the story from the life of the Venerable St. Sergius (we see him as a movingly delicate boy) and the old monk's mystical prescience. The painting embodies the spiritual experience of prayer and exaltation that the artist was aiming to express. Years later, Nesterov wrote: "I wanted to paint autumn in such a way that the viewer would hear cranes calling out high up in the sky... but would it be possible to paint like that?"11 For the rest of Nesterov's life, this painting remained his favourite creation. As an old man, he would go to the Tretyakov Gallery to see his "Bartholomew". Nesterov shared his joy with his friend Sergei Durylin: "There he is! Thank God, alive and well! And what a miracle - they [people] look at him! There are even those who do not just go past him, but stop and look!"12

Both Russian artistic tradition and Nesterov's impressions from classical and contemporary European art were reflected in this painting. Jules Bastien-Lepage and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes were among the contemporary artists to whom Nesterov felt most connected. The Russian artist never made a secret of how, profoundly moved, he stood for hours in front of Bastien-Lepage's "Joan of Arc" and thought about the possible creative solutions for his own painting. The smooth musical compositional rhythm of "Young Bartholomew" and its pale, "melting" palette make the landscape and human figures seem ethereal and remind the viewer of Puvis de Chavannes. Conventional forms within the artist's own visual and plastic system are characteristic of Art Nouveau, the style that came into its own during that decade, having previously captured the European art world.

Nesterov was anxious when he sent his new creation to St. Petersburg for the 1890 show of the "Peredvizhniki". The painting caused a heated debate and was emphatically not accepted by the older generation of the society's members. Two paintings faced off at the exhibition - " What is Truth?' Christ and Pilate" by the seasoned Nikolay Ghe and Nesterov's "The Vision of the Young Bartholomew". This juxtaposition was a testament to important changes that were taking place not only within the society but also in Russian art as a whole. The statement that Ghe's painting was making, with its questions about the ultimate meaning of existence, inspired thought and stirred up feelings, compelling a search for an answer to the question "What is Truth?" Nesterov's canvas was the polar opposite and appealed to the human soul in a different way, through the expression of spiritual strength and divine inspiration, the theme that the young generation of artists was gradually turning to. All artists strove to understand the major mysteries of life. It was not only among the artists of his generation that Nesterov found support and understanding: Pavel Tretyakov had acquired the painting for his gallery - a fact that was especially important for Nesterov - before the exhibition opened.

"The Vision of the Young Bartholomew" became the first of the series of paintings that Nesterov dedicated to St. Sergius. The artist was working on these paintings in 1892, when the nation was commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Saint's death. Nesterov's hope was to approach the spiritual origins of the people's faith through this historical and religious figure, one of the most revered in Russia.

Following his "Vision", Nesterov painted the large-scale "The Youth of St. Sergius" (1892-1897). The main motif of this painting was the sweet bond between man and any kind of animal, any forest creature, a companionship that makes nature rejoice. A human being is let in, is "included" in the virgin woods, the backdrop for the hermit's life in the wilderness. Alexandre Benois called this landscape "an entire poem of the northern forest"13 while simultaneously chiding Nesterov for the "salon mannerism" of this and other works. The artist brings St. Sergius's image closer to that of an icon by peeling away the details of everyday life and giving the image a hagiographic quality. This explains the inevitable elements of convention and stylizing, "mannerism" according to Benois, misunderstood and rejected by the "elders" of the "Peredvizhniki".

Epiphanius the Wise, the author of "The Life of St. Sergius of Radonezh", called him "the labourer", and the Saint's life was not different from the work and everyday existence of ordinary people. Nesterov's triptych "The Labours of St. Sergius" (1896-1897), more that the artist's first two paintings, brings the Saint's image closer to the story and life of the real Sergius, who set up a skete in the middle of the forest, worked as hard as his brethren on building their church and cells, and carried water and baked bread. The triptych format allowed Nesterov to bring his narrative together within a single work of art. Early spring, summer and winter are united not just semantically, but also by the common colour scheme comprising rather cold purple and silver tones, so characteristic of Nesterov's palette. It is this colour scheme that brings the painting close to the expressive idiom of Art Nouveau.

The last painting of the "St. Sergius series" is the large-scale "The Venerable St. Serguis of Radonezh" (1899). Here, Nesterov painted St. Sergius as an old man, with a long life behind him, years that had been filled with work for the betterment of Russian life and contributed to the "moral rebirth of our motherland." In the artist's own words, he painted "the best man of ancient legends." (The series included other works not mentioned here; for example, a study for an unfinished painting "St. Sergius of Radonezh Blesses Dmitry Donskoy Before the Battle of Kuli-kovo." (1897), as well as a number of works Nesterov executed in the 1920s, when he occasionally returned to this theme; St. Sergius's presence in them is indirect: "Peresvet and Oslyabya (1920s), "Three Hors-men. The Legend." (1932), which tells the story of the Trinity Lavra defense led by the venerable St. Sergius, and "The Watch" (1932).) Nesterov cherished his paintings of St. Sergius of Radonezh and thought of them as highly significant. The artist was anxious to hear Tretyakov's opinion, as he was secretly hoping that they would be acquired by the Tretyakov Gallery. The collector's restraint regarding "The Youth of St. Sergius" and "The Labours of St. Sergius" distressed him; it did not, however, weaken his resolve to see the paintings at the national museum. In 1897 and 1898 Nesterov donated both paintings to the Pavel and Sergei Tretyakov City Gallery, along with the study for "St. Sergius of Radonezh Blesses Dmitry Donskoy Before the Battle of Kulikovo."

One of Nesterov's most"mystifying" and poetic works, "The Murdered Tsarevich Dmitry" (1899), is stylistically close to the St. Sergius series, yet stands apart. It was born of the themes that consumed the artist in the 1890s: St. Sergius, images from church murals and icons. Apparently, whatever Nesterov found lacking in his work painting church interiors (the artist repeatedly said that it was not his primary vocation), he channeled into his easel paintings. "The Murdered Tsarevich Dmitry" stands at the junction of easel painting and the icon. Nesterov described it by speaking of his "reverent dreams", or rather his "d reams of a dream ."14

The artist thought that he "saw" Dmitry in the same way the Russian people see him, revering the Tsarevich as a martyr and a passion bearer. The painting's image stems from old legends, the story of the innocent boy martyr in Pushkin's "Boris Godunov"; from the artist's trip to old Russian towns on the upper Volga; from icons representing Dmitry'simage; and from the shroud honouring Dmitry's memory, embroidered with silk and gold, and traditionally attributed to his mother. Nesterov's personal feelings - his anxiety over his oldest daughter Olga's illness and his fear of losing her - were also reflected in the painting. A lot came together in this painting, and the artist's "reverent dreams" were visually expressed here, too.

Nesterov's "reverent dreams" found their fullest expression in the harmony of the human soul and nature, which is achieved by "creating the complete experience that amazes us in the great works by the masters of the Renaissance. The 'soul' is asimportant in a painting as form and colour are," Nesterov wrote to Durylin.15 The painting's serene spring landscape "gives the feeling of sharing in the quiet grief and the innocent suffering of Tsarevich Dmitry, who, "like a disappearing cloud, silently and invisibly... glides above the earth, visiting places where his short mortal life took him."16 In the catalogue of his 1907 exhibition, the artist accompanied his painting with the following annotation: "According to popular belief, the souls of the deceased dwell on Earth for nine days, so as not to abandon their loved ones."17

There was another theme that was important to Nesterov and found expression in a number of interrelated paintings, that of the Russian woman, the dramatic turns of her fate, and the nature of a woman's love. Starting with the artist's early work "Bride of Christ", this theme developed through new creative solutions.

This "novel in colour", as the artist called this series, was based partly on Nesterov's impressions and partly on the storyline of Melni-kov-Pechersky's epic novels "In the Forests" and "On the Hills". Without being true illustrations - Nesterov repeatedly pointed out that they were not - the paintings were narrative in nature; the artist's approach to his images and their psychology reflects the general atmosphere, stories and certain characters (especially female) from the novels. Nesterov's personal impressions from his trips to the Transvolga region and his knowledge of his native western edge of the Urals also informed his "pictorial novel." A personal tragedy - a love that was not meant to be and the sudden death of his beloved18 - added to Nesterov's emotional approach to depicting the trials of a woman's soul.

The artist conceived of five canvases that would tell the story, of which he painted three. The first "chapter" of Nesterov's "novel" was his 1898 painting "On the Hills", depicting the inexorable longing of a young woman's soul. The next one (never executed) was to tell the story of two lovers who happened to meet at a monastery where they had come on a pilgrimage. The third painting, "Beyond the Volga" (1905), tells of their discord. The female character of Nesterov's "novel" came to be called Flenushka, after Melnikov-Pechersky's character (this was the way the artist refered to her on numerous occasions).

The painting that completed the series, "Taking the Veil" (1898), was also the most significant in terms of its subject matter and the most beautiful. It tells the story of the ancient church tradition of taking the veil. Nesterov's heroine makes a conscious decision to leave the world behind for a hard life of strict seclusion in an Old Believers' convent. Along with "Young Bartholomew", Nesterov thought of this painting as his best. The female figures in the procession, the rhythm of their movement, their inclined heads, the slight turns of their bodies, the sharp lines and alternating black and white colours (the principal colour scheme of the painting) are all echoed by the landscape of thin birches, a sad willow, and a young pine tree in the foreground; everything in the painting builds towards a solemn and tragic mood. The new nun and the young girl (a lay sister at the monastery - Nesterov called her "a pure dove") leading the procession help us feel "the elegy of a woman's unfulfilled happiness." The last "chapter", also never executed, of Nesterov's narrative was to be a painting showing his heroine, in her despair, throw herself off the high bank of the Volga. For decades after finishing his work on this series, Nesterov continued to return to female images. In his later works, this theme became more elegiac: the narrative was losing its tragic framework. The artist admitted that he "did not like portraying 'strong passions', preferring our quiet landscape and people at peace with themselves."19

In comparison to Nesterov's other works, this series was the most connected to the literary and narrative traditions of the Wanderers; at the same time, flat colour spots, accentuated sharp lines, and strongly pronounced rhythmic basis placed Nesterov's art outside the boundaries set by the "Peredvizhniki". They defined him as an artist who was creating a new tradition and his own unique style. Nesterov, who came of age within the realist tradition of the Russian school of art and cherished his membership in the "Peredvizhniki" society, was beginning to be acutely aware of how routine the work of the older generation had become. At the same time, artists from the St. Petersburg "Mir Is-kusstva" circle were actively pulling him in, including his paintings in their shows, and promoting his work at the newest international exhibitions. The duality of Nesterov's art, clearly rooted in realism but displaying modern tendencies as well, tied him to the new, "young" trends in Russian and European painting.

In 1895 Nesterov finished painting frescoes for the Cathedral of St. Vladimir in Kiev; in 1892-1897 he worked on mosaics for the Church of the Resurrection (Cathedral of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood), in St. Petersburg. Excited by new proposals to paint the interior of the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Abastumani (1898-1904), he was also working on paintings that were not commissioned by the Church, as well as nurturing the idea of an "all-encompassing painting" that would bring together all his experiences and his understanding of the special world of Russia, its past and present. Nesterov realized this concept in his three important works: "Holy Russia" (1901-1905), "The Way to Christ" (1908-1911), and "In Rus'. (The People's Soul)" from 1914-1916. As he began working on "Holy Russia", he knew that "it will be a complicated painting in every way; having finished it, [I] may go ahead and retire - everything that is important will have been said."20 From that moment on, the artist could not get the painting out of his mind. He mentions it in almost all his letters, complaining that he was too busy painting for various cathedrals to move beyond "his intent" to work on it.

Nesterov witnessed how Russian culture was developing the tradition of the large-scale painting - the kind of work that would incorporate an artist's reflections and opinions of the past and the present: Vasily Perov's later historical canvases, Ivan Kramskoy's "Christ in the Wilderness", Ilya Repin's "Religious Procession in Kursk Gubernia", and Vasily Surikov's epic folk scenes were all painted in his lifetime. Nesterov did not quite agree with Vasily Polenov's concepts as the latter presented them in his "Life of Christ" cycle, and completely rejected Nikolai Ghe's tragic interpretation of this important theme in his "Gospel Series" of paintings.

Nesterov discovered his Orthodox Russia through his own artistic quest and reflection. As he began working on his first "all-encompassing" painting, Nesterov was not only contemplating the works of his contemporaries, but principally Alexander Ivanov's great painting "The Apparition of Christ to the People." "I love everything Alexander Andreevich Ivanov painted, but I prefer 'The Apparition of Christ to the People' to everything else as a testament of what he was a witness to." Nesterov thought that in Ivanov's painting Christ appears as "our Christ, modern, Russian."21 With this noble image in his mind, Nesterov strove to paint a "Russian" Christ, with Russian people coming to him in prayer and hope from all over Russia. It is also significant he painted a winter landscape, so typical of Russian nature. In a letter to Maxim Gorky, the artist shared his thoughts about his painting: "Exhausted with grief, passions and sin, with naive hope people seek absolution in the divine 'poetry of Christianity'. That is what my painting is about."22 Soon after that, Nesterov would write to Alexander Turygin: "the painting will probably be called 'Holy Russia. (Mystery).'"23

The notion of"Holy Russia" has formed a strong association with images of Nesterov's art. However, this concept was born at the time of oral epic folk narratives and is closely associated with the idea of Russia as the keeper of the true Christian faith, of moral and religious ideals. This concept was used in the traditional epic poems, by anonymous authors of spiritual poetry, by lonely and "enchanted" wanderers. Slavophiles turned to the idea of Holy Russia in the 19th-20th centuries - they saw it as a reflection of the Russian people's best qualities and their love for their country. At the turn of the 19th century, such Russian philosophers as Vladimir Solovyov, Vyacheslav Ivanov, Sergei Bulgakov, Nikolai Berdyaev and Vasily Rozanov tied the notion of "Holy Russia" to another concept, that of the "Russian idea", which was perceived as the nation's spiritual conscience and became the talk of intellectuals and philosophers in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Nesterov was close to the elite circles of educated and intellectual Russians of his time and attended the meetings of the Russian Philosophical Society, so he was well acquainted with their search for ideas and ways for Russia and its people to achieve spiritual revival.

As an artist, Nesterov examined such philosophical concepts and expressed them in his work. He truly knew Russia's heartlands and the real life of its people, but needed to keep immersing himself in its tides as he created his "eccentrics" and his old friends, the pilgrims; he needed to go back to nature, the life-giving source of any true understanding of Russia. The artist called the painting his "swan song" and believed that it would become the sum of his "best intentions and the best part of who I am." "Holy Russia" was shown at Nesterov's solo exhibition of 1907 to mixed reviews. Reviewers were critical of Nesterov's interpretation of the image of Christ; they made comparisons to "an Italian singer", and pointed out that Christ came across as cold and detached from the people who had come seeking his help.

Vasily Rozanov defined his impression from the painting by giving it another name - "Russia Praying": "It is not Christ that forms the moral centre of the painting; it is 'Holy Russia' herself, praying on her own. These old men and women, this possessed woman, the monk, the hermit - one cannot forget them! ... We know this Russia... The artist merely brought it all together for eternity, all the bits and pieces that we have once admired separately."24 Leo Tolstoy also voiced his impression of the painting: "This is a requiem for the Russian Orthodox faith."25 Nesterov disagreed: "... Orthodox faith is stronger than my painting... Orthodox faith is our people's poetry; it is only possible to take it away by substituting it with a different poetry - but which one?"26

Even before he exhibited "Holy Russia" in 1907, in 1906 Nesterov painted a study for another painting and called it "Christians". As he continued working on the painting, he changed the title several times before he settled on the final one, "In Rus'. (The People's Soul)". It carries on and develops the theme of the first large-scale canvas. It was to be a long road - the artist did not finish the painting until 1916. While contemplating the painting and collecting materials for it, Nesterov was expanding on the same theme in his fresco for the dinner hall at the Church of the Protection of Our Holy Lady at the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent, titled "The Way to Christ." The fresco was dedicated to the same passage in the New Testament as "Holy Russia": "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Mathew 11:28) The church, located in the Convent of Mercy, dictated certain conditions for Nesterov's paintings. The church versions became more calm and serene. As he was working on the fresco, the artist knew that his most cherished painting was still to come, and it would have to encompass all his deepest thoughts about the people of Russia, their faith, their fate, and the fate of their country, which he loved most sincerely -a true patriot of Russia, he did not shy from talking about it.

In this future great painting, Nesterov strove to sum up the many years of contemplating the mystery of faith - what is it that people seek through faith? Why do thousands of them walk the endless Russian roads to receive spiritual guidance from the elders at the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, Optina Pustyn, and the Valaam and Solovetsky monasteries? The artist's choice of the Volga bank as the site of his last "mystery" is deliberate: the river flows throughout Russia and brings together all its lands and peoples. The artist brought all the diverse Russian people into the space of the painting. "There are lots of people, all kinds; some are better, some worse, all are busy with their labour - their faith. They all 'believe' sincerely, from their hearts, in the best way they can. None may be accused of not believing well enough, as everyone believes in the only way they know how. Still, all and every single one of us should remember that 'except ye [be converted, and] become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven'," Nesterov wrote to his friend Turygin when everything on the large canvas had already taken shape: "I have thought of everything... it seems it is alive and stirring."27

A boy is walking at the head of this slow procession; he is the embodiment of the words from the Gospels that the artist chose to represent in the painting. Christ is not depicted in it. Nesterov admitted that he had a hard time painting Christ both in his works for various churches and in "Holy Russia". Perhaps out of his fear of failure the artist chose to paint Christ's image only on the icon carried by the faithful.

Looking at the painting, the viewer sees Russia, its faithful and its history. A Tsar, a Patriarch, a military leader with his troops, a holy fool, peasant women, a young nun holding a candle, a nurse helping a blind wounded soldier - they are all here, representing the connection between Russia's present and centuries past. This slow, extraordinary "historical religious procession" includes Russia's best sons, the most prominent religious philosophers: Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Vladimir Solovyov. They represent the Russian intelligentsia, the people who are concerned about both their country's history and its search for truth and integrity. Nesterov knew that the painting was greater than everything he had done in the past 10-15 years, that it concluded a theme that was so dear to his heart, the theme he had started developing with his "Holy Russia": "... the subject is almost the same for all three [paintings], and I believe that it was only in the third composition that I was able to realize it, almost fully."28 However, in the same letter the artist admitted that he was thinking about another painting that would help him focus even deeper on the subjects of"our faith, the soul of our people, our sins and our atonement."

The events of 1917 caused an abrupt change in the artist's creative plans; he was saddened that he would have to "evidently, abandon them forever." However, in the years following the Revolution, beginning in the 1920s, Nesterov painted a number of small-scale compositions, which he called "The Wayfarer" (1921) and "Beyond the Volga. The Wanderer" (1922). They were also dedicated to the idea of the "Russian Christ", a lone Wanderer in the poor land of Russia, who consoles and blesses its sufferers, travellers and children, who are as lonely as He is. It was not only on much needed commissions that the artist painted those small canvases (as he urgently needed to do during the years of famine in Russia), but also because painting them satisfied his inner need to keep turning to this still "unresolved" subject.

All Nesterov's paintings, large or small, seamlessly incorporate a landscape, and the artist's landscape paintings make up an powerful and striking part of his oeuvre. Alongside Isaac Levitan, the artist created mood landscapes that offered a unique, so-called "Nesterov" interpretation. For Nesterov, the nature of the Russian north, with its soft serenity, its "stillness", is a key to understanding the meaning of life and the soul of his countrymen, as well as the essence of artistic representation. The viewer will not find a sunlit scene or nature in its full bloom in either his compositions or his pure landscapes. It was not by accident that during summer 1901, which the artist spent on the Solovetsky islands, he preferred to paint his landscape studies at night: during the White Nights in the north, "days in Solovki were short, feeble and pale, but at night, from 10 or 11 till dawn (around 3 in the morning), it was easy to work with paints."29 He would later use his impressions from that summer in Solovki to paint one of his subtlest landscapes, "Silence" (1903). Nesterov felt most connected to nature in early spring and late autumn, when naked birches and rowans, young pine trees and spruces seem especially soul-stirring and defenseless.

Landscape became an important part of many portraits that Nesterov painted in the mid-1900s. Many of his earlier portraits were smaller studies used for his paintings. Thus, Nesterov painted his portrait of Maxim Gorky (1901) as a study for his "Holy Russia", and the portrait of Leo Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana (1907) was a study for "'In Rus'. (The People's Soul)". Whilethe artist was not a follower of Tolstoy's philosophy, he was captivated by the writer's personality. Nesterov thought of Tolstoy as a 'great symbol' of the Russian people, with all the complexity, all the downfalls, atonement, pride and humility, rage and tenderness, wisdom and greatness of genius - in a word, with all the moral qualities that are so inexplicably intertwined in our people."30

Conceived as a study, Nesterov's portrait of Tolstoy "grew" into a complete, analytical representation of the writer's image. It belongs to the series of portraits that was begun in 1905 with two works, the first of the artist's wife Yekaterina, and the second of his daughter Olga. These two portraits are executed in a reserved palette of navy blue, black and white; for the first time, Nesterov favours clear, crisp lines. A year later, in 1906, Nesterov paints both his wife and daughter with a landscape in the background, and the landscape defines the tonality of these two beautiful canvases. Olga's portrait is especially expressive; it has become known as "Amazon" (sometimes referred to as "Woman in a Riding Habit".) Evocative of the Russian Art Nouveau, the style of this and other Nesterov's portraits earned him the title of "our Whistler."

The technique Nesterov first used in his daughter's portrait - a figure with a landscape in the background - became common in other portraits he painted during that decade. He also used it in his 1915 self-portrait, as well as "The Philosophers" (1917), the double portrait of two men to whom Nesterov was close, Pavel Florensky and Sergei Bulgakov. A quiet moment in the grim conversation they are engaged in betrays their thoughts and opinions, which Nesterov largely shared. He called Florensky and Bulgakov "our best and most gifted religious philosophers", men "of ideas and feats."31 In the portrait, we see Florensky deep in thought, while Bulgakov appears filled with turmoil and anguish, and the image seems to foretell the looming crisis in the life of the country, as well as their fate. In Nesterov's portrait of the philosopher and scholar Ivan Ilyin, we see intense thought, maybe even the birth of an idea. The portrait was painted a few months before Ilyin was forced into exile in 1922, and left the country on board the infamous "philosophers' ship."

In the complicated years after the Revolution, the artist fell silent; he did not accept the changes in Russian life. "I live entirely (as an artist, too) in the past. Poetic, but it does not always match my character, my restless nature," he wrote bitterly to Yelena Prakhova, a long-term friend.32 It was during that time that he kept returning to the lyrical themes of his earlier works: "Nightingale's Song" (1918), "Beyond the Volga. A Shepherd" (1922), "Lel'. Spring" (1933). During that time Nesterov also painted his dramatic composition "Holy Week". In 1924, he wrote to Durylin about his doubts regarding the painting: "Will the Lord let me realize my images and finish the painting - I cannot tell now. A younger will is needed here, a firm will, and a number of favourable circumstances that I cannot count on now."33 Nesterov did finish this work in 1933, but dated it 1914 to maintain secrecy.

Nesterov's Russia is multifaceted. It dwells in the poetry of its nature, in the mysterious beauty of its women's faces, in its "eccentrics" and wanderers, in its historical myths of "good people" of the past, in the portraits of the artist's friends and loved ones, and in the images of his contemporaries, whose intellectual and artistic endeavours were so close to the artist's heart.

  1. M.V. Nesterov, "Letters. Selected Works", Leningrad, 1988, p. 166. (Further, Letters)
  2. M.V. Nesterov, "Memories of the Past, 1862-1917. Memoirs", Moscow, 2006, p. 29. (Further, Memories)
  3. M.V. Nesterov, "Days Long Gone. Encounters and Memories", Moscow, p. 21. (Further, Days Long Gone)
  4. Memories, p. 107.
  5. M.V. Nesterov, "Memoirs", Moscow, 1985, p.89. (Further, Memoirs, 1985)
  6. Days Long Gone, p. 65.
  7. Memoirs, 1985, p. 94.
  8. Days Long Gone, p. 29.
  9. Memoirs, 1985, p. 119.
  10. Memories, pp. 143-144.
  11. S. Durylin, "Nesterov in Life and Art", Moscow, 2004, p. 135. (Further, S. Durylin)
  12. Ibid, p. 190.
  13. A. Benois, "A History of Russian Painting of the 19th Century", Moscow, 1995, p. 372.
  14. Letters, p. 288.
  15. Ibid.
  16. S. Durylin, p. 281.
  17. "Mikhail Vasilyevich Nesterov". Exhibition catalogue, Moscow, 1907, #28.
  18. In the summer of 1897 Nesterov met L.P., a singer whose name he never disclosed, on tour in Kislovodsk. The artist admitted that "for the second time I experienced great love, its spell, its joy, misfortune and exhilaration; it was unexpected and passionate that I do not think I felt this way in my youth." Days Long Gone, p. 275. This "flash-like love" ended with L.P.'s unexpected refusal of Nesterov's proposal of marriage, and soon after that, her sudden death. "I suffered through this, too. Soon after that i started [painting] "Taking the Veil" Days Long Gone, p. 280.
  19. Days Long Gone, p. 30.
  20. Letters, pp. 181, 292.
  21. Ibid, p. 292.
  22. Ibid, p. 197.
  23. Ibid, p. 23. 24
  24. V.V. Rosanov, "Russia Praying. At the Exhibition of Nesterov's Paintings. Among Artists", St. Petersburg, 1914, p. 165.
  25. Letters, pp. 225-226.
  26. S. Durylin, p. 288.
  27. Letters, p. 259.
  28. Ibid, p. 300.
  29. Memoirs, 1985, p. 238.
  30. Letters, p. 288.
  31. M.V. Nesterov, "I Continue to Believe in the Triumph of Our Ideals". // Our Heritage, III, 1990, p. 22.
  32. Letters, p. 360.
  33. Ibid, p. 300.





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