Nesterov and Ufa

Svetlana Ignatenko

Magazine issue: 
#1 2013 (38)


Ufa, an old city in the Urals that appeared on the map of Russia in the second half of the 16th century, was hometown to many extraordinary cultural figures - Sergei Aksakov, Mikhail Nesterov and Rudolf Nureyev were born there. This constellation of stars would not be complete without mention of Fyodor Chaliapin -though not a native of Ufa, Chaliapin gave his first solo concert there, and later became a close long-term friend of Nesterov. Another person with whom Nesterov always felt strong spiritual kinship was the writer Sergei Aksakov; in the 190os-191os the artist painted a few versions of "Aksakov's Homeland", paintings that expressed Nesterov's admiration of Aksakov's literary talent.

Unlike Aksakov, whose parents moved away from Ufa when he was just six years old, Nesterov's life would remain connected to Ufa until 1914. After all his Ufa relatives had died, he took one last trip there in 1914 "to finish with the sale... of the estate."1 From that moment on, Ufa would remain in his memory as the town of his childhood: wooden, old-fashioned, with hundreds of churches and merchants' houses -such was the town to which he wanted to be bound with blood ties. Nor would Nesterov forget the wondrous nature of the Urals, a nature that he worshipped, and whose blessing he kept seeking.

The future artist was born into a wealthy family of merchants. He was born in the spring, his favourite season, during a quiet evening, his favourite time of the day. He spent his childhood in Ufa and began drawing here; as a twelve-year-old boy, blessed by his parents with the icon of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, he left for Moscow, where he enrolled, albeit not immediately, in the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. Even when Moscow became his home, Nesterov did not sever ties with his native city. For decades he kept writing to his family, both long letters and short notes, to tell them about his life in the capital, about his successes as an artist and new, exciting plans; it was with both tenderness and pride that all his family members shared these letters. It was in Ufa that Nesterov met his future wife Maria Martynovskaya and fell desperately in love with her; it was there that they spent many happy days together. After Maria's death, their daughter Olga (Nesterov's favourite child) was raised in the loving and affectionate Nesterov home in Ufa until she began her education at the Kiev Finishing School. Finally, it was in Ufa that Nesterov painted the works that brought him fame: "The Hermit", "The Vision of the Young Bartholomew", and the "Portrait of Olga Nesterova", also known as "Amazon", or "Woman in a Riding Habit." It was no accident that it was to the city of Ufa that he donated his own "art collection".

In 1913, "desiring to promote art education among his compatriots", the artist donated a collection of Russian art of the second half of the 19th-beginning of the 20th centuries. The 102 works included paintings and drawings by Ilya Repin, Ivan Shishkin, Vladimir Makovsky, Nikolai Yaroshenko, Vasily Polenov, Isaak Levitan, Konstantin Korovin, Alexander Golovin, Alexandre Benois, Abram Arkhipov, Nicholas Roe-rich, and other remarkable artists.

Nesterov's idea to establish a museum of fine art in his hometown dated back to 1905, some years before he made his donation to the city. Later he remembered those times: "These days I dream of establishing a museum in Ufa. I have vacant land to use for that. We would only have to cut down some of the trees in our garden where it borders Gubernatorskaya Street, and we have a spot for the museum in the very centre of the city. Shchusev, still very young, promises to draw up the plan; I am trying to imagine 'the architecture'. The museum will have a collection of paintings, studies, and sculpture that I received either as gifts or in exchange [for my works] from my friends and contemporaries. My dream is that, when the museum is ready to be opened, I will donate it to the city of Ufa. Later it all happens differently. The city mayor Maleev suggests that I set my collection up in the Aksakov People's House that he envisioned.2 That is exactly what I do in 1913, with all the paperwork in good order."3

Setting up the collection at the Aksakov People's House did not end up being that simple. Nesterov remembered that when he visited Ufa in June 1914, "the Aksakov House was finished. However, its opening had to be postponed until the war was over."4 For "the donation of his personal art collection"in 1914 Nesterov "was elected Honorary Trustee of the Ufa museum, which was also given [his] name".5 In reality though, the Bashkir State Museum of Fine Art would only start using Nesterov's name 40 years later, in 1954.

World War I made it impossible to transport the collection from Moscow to Ufa, so Nesterov turned to his friend, fellow Ufa native and a graduate of the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, the renowned Moscow architect Ilya Bondarenko with the request to store the collection at the Historical Museum. The war was followed by the Revolution, and it was only in 1919 that Bondarenko delivered Nesterov's gift to Ufa. Bondarenko, who was later to become the first director of the Ufa Museum of Fine Art, remembered: "All the paintings were transferred into my safekeeping with the understanding that as soon as it became possible I would take them to Ufa. All the arrangements were made. It was 1914... and the war got in our way."6 It was only "on October 4 1919 that I took 16 boxes from Moscow to Ufa by boat, along the Moskva, the Oka, the Volga, the Kama and the Belaya rivers. The paintings arrived in Ufa at the end of October."7

In search of a suitable space for the new museum Bondarenko literally turned the city upside down. He finally chose the house that had belonged to M. Laptev, a timber merchant; built in 1913, the Art No-uveau mansion was designed by A. Shcherbachev, a famous architect from Samara. The Laptev mansion was a gem, one of the city's main attractions. The museum was opened to the public on January 5 1920. Its original collection fitted into three halls: the first one presented Nesterov's own works along with the other pieces he had donated to the museum; the second one was dedicated to "Russian Antiquity", and the third showcased the works of Ufa's own artists, as well as paintings by David Burlyuk, "the father of Russian Futurism", which he had executed during his stay in Bashkiria in 1915-1918.

Of all the pieces that Nesterov donated to the museum, the most valuable were his own 30 works, which included portraits, landscapes and genre compositions. The museum went on to actively pursue new acquisitions, both through purchases from the artist and his family members, as well as their gifts. Today the Nesterov Bashkir State Museum of Fine Art is home to the largest collection of Nesterov's art in Russia - it houses 108 works by its founder, including 88 paintings and 20 drawings. This collection is unique because most of the pieces are small in size - many of the paintings and studies came from the family collections of the artist and his relatives. Consequently, the collection is intimate and autobiographical: Nesterov's early works (which go back to his participation in the "Peredvizhniki" (Wanderers) exhibitions) are also to be found here; other Russian museums have next to none of them. There are also paintings and drawings that reflect the artist's spiritual journey and his soul's lyricism; some compositions are clearly influenced by Art Nouveau. Every piece in the Ufa museum's collection offers a glimpse of the artist's state of mind that eventually led to his famous, landmark paintings. Another unique feature of this collection is its inherently limited timeframe: its core is comprised mostly of works dating back to 1878-1919, the time when Nesterov's ethical and aesthetic worldview was being shaped and gradually realized in his art - the idea that spiritual revival is achieved through living the life of a hermit, alone with nature, and in harmony with it.

Throughout his life Nesterov took great efforts to keep expanding the museum's collection. With the help of his friend Alexander Tu-rygin, the archivist of the Russian Museum, in 1929 he was able to secure the transfer of several remarkable works of art from the Russian Museum to its counterpart in Ufa, including paintings by Nikolai Ghe, Ivan Stefanovsky, Alexei Kharlamov, and Nicholas Roerich, as well as a watercolour by Aleksander Ortowski. Nesterov made sure that his own works were also among the museum's acquisitions, as evidenced by the museum's purchases and the artist's own gifts of the 192os-193os. Those included a graphic sketch for the 1891 painting "Youth of St. Ser-gius of Radonezh", which joined the museum's collection in 1927, "Portrait of an Old Man" (1878), which Nesterov painted when he was 16 years old in the advanced class of the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, and five studies of male models dating back to the end of the 187os-1885, when Nesterov was a student at the Moscow School and the Academy of Fine Arts. In 1937 the artist also donated seven of his own works to the museum, including the first, unfinished version of his "The Vision of the Young Bartholomew" (1889) and a large-scale study for "Resurrection" (1890), an altar fresco in the north chapel choir gallery of the Vladimir Cathedral in Kiev.

The museum's close relationship with Nesterov's relatives provided another source of acquisitions. In 1969-1970 the artist's youngest daughter Natalya donated many pieces, such as Nesterov's studies for the fresco "The Way to Christ" (1908-1911) for the dinner hall at the Church of the Protection of Our Holy Lady at the Martha and Mary Convent, 18 studies of hands for the painting "In Rus' (The People's Soul)" (1914-1916), and several portraits: "Ye.P Nesterova in a Scarf" (1919), "Portrait of A.M. Nesterov" (1919) and "Shepherd. Portrait of N.M. Nesterova" (1922). "Boy Sitting" (1889) was also a gift to the museum from Natalya Nesterova in 1980. In 1994, she donated a collection of Russian art, which included some works by her father. Both she and Nesterov's granddaughter Irina Shreter gave the museum some personal items of Nesterov's, a valuable addition to the museum's memorial collection, which may without exaggeration be called unique. In the 1980s and 1990s the museum acquired a number of truly invaluable pieces from Irina Shreter - a graphic sketch "House Arrest" (1883, now at the Tretya-kov Gallery), and pencil portraits of the artist's mother Maria Nesterova, completed in Ufa in 1894 during the last days of her life; a sketch of a figure for the wall paintings at the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Abastumani (1899-1904), and one of Nesterov's last works, "Portrait of Olga Nesterova-Shreter", painted in 1941 right after Olga's return from exile in Dzhambul.

On the occasion of the museum's 85th anniversary in 2005, Nesterov's granddaughters Maria Titova and Tatiana Titova made their first visit to Ufa, bringing a gift for the museum, Nesterov's graphic portrait of their mother Vera Titova. In 2010, to mark the museum's 90th anniversary, Maria Titova donated several more pieces to the museum, and in 2012, on the 150th anniversary of Nesterov's birth, the museum purchased from her a pencil portrait of Yulia Urusman, which was a study for Nesterov's painting "Beyond the Volga" (1905), now housed at the Astrakhan Art Gallery.

Nesterov came from a long line of merchants who were always involved in the town's social causes and government. Nesterov's grandfather Ivan was the mayor of Ufa for 20 years; he was so well regarded that "for a long time the citizens of Ufa retained the order established under Ivan Andreevich Nesterov and cited his example to the officials who came after him".8 The artist's father Vasily Nesterov was as respected as his grandfather, his fairness, integrity and honesty recognized by all. He was a successful merchant, but trade was not his calling: history and literature were much more interesting to him than business. Having realized that his only son and heir showed no interest in commerce and aspired towards a very different career, that of an artist, Vasily Nesterov closed down his business and dedicated himself to another field, even though it brought him no financial gain and was only of benefit to the public: he became one of the founders of the Ufa Public City Bank and was elected its associate director. Nesterov's very name was a guarantee that "there would be no waste or any other dirty tricks at the bank". In this capacity, one very agreeable to him, Vasily Nesterov "performed his new duties with all the thoroughness for which he was known".9

Successful merchants, the Nesterovs were always keenly interested in art, and many family members were also indisputably gifted artistically. They staged theatre productions at home; Nesterov's uncle Alexander was a decent violinist and recited poetry, and his aunt Anna Yasmeneva was an accomplished watercolour artist. Nesterov remembered: "as a child, I admired her watercolours,"10 "it made me very happy to be given one of her drawings. There is no doubt that her drawings left a mark on me in my childhood."11 It is possible that Nesterov depicted his aunt's watercolours on the wall of his Ufa house when he painted "Father's Study" (end of the 1870s, in the Bashkir Museum). Nesterov would again turn to the images of his Ufa home when he depicted the interior of a room (painted from life) in both his painting "House Arrest" and the graphic study for it.

The Nesterov family kept the old ways: they believed in God, went to church, observed lent and joyfully celebrated religious holidays. St. Tikhon of Zadonsk and St. Sergius of Radonezh were particularly revered. It was Father Fyodor Troitsky of the Church of St. Sergius in Ufa who introduced the future artist to the Orthodox Church and faith - beloved by young and old alike in the Nesterov clan, the priest was affectionately nicknamed "Father from St. Sergius'". Nesterov would go on to link all experiences of his childhood - his joys and sorrow, his perception of the ultimate truth, of pure love and perfect beauty - with his faith.

In his book "Days Long Gone"12 the artist recreated scenes from his blissful childhood in the family home with nostalgia. He wrote about celebrating Christmas and Easter, about the joyful sleigh rides and the festivals of Pancake Week, and the Great Blessing of Waters Procession from the old Trinity Church to the Belaya River at Epiphany. It was not only in his memoirs but also in a small painting, "In Ufa", that Nesterov expressed his touching affection for his native city. The painting, housed at the museum, depicts wooden houses and carved gates in a quiet corner of the old town.

Nesterov writes equally nostalgic accounts of his outings with his mother and sister Sasha (Alexandra), when they took a horse-drawn carriage to go beyond the Belaya to gather Bird Cherry fruit; about going, "as a reward", to Chertovo Gorodishche (Devil's Gord) and Shikhan (literally, hill) - one could see Bogoroditskoye from there, the village so close to the monastery! "How far one can see from there! The Urals begin there; what sweet longing one feels looking into those irresistible distances!" the artist remembered.13 "I remember well the winter evenings, too. My mother's room and the nursery are quiet; the hanging lamp is burning by the icons. The elders have gone to the service, in church or at the Saviour's... I feel so nice, so calm... They will be back soon, we will have supper, and [someone] will put me to bed and tuck me in."14 And the famous February Fair in Ufa, coming after the All-Russia Fair in Nizhny Novgorod! The Fair took place in the Trade Rows, where the artist's father had a shop.

Nesterov had equally vivid memories of going to the theatre as a young child - it played an important role in shaping his heightened emotional sensitivity and empathy, which later led the artist to paint the portrait of a famous Ukrainian actress Maria Zankovetska. The young boy's drawing and calligraphy classes with Vasily Travkin, a teacher at the Ufa grade school, had the same strong emotional effect on him. The boy liked his teacher and bonded with him - Travkin was glad to help his student improve his first drawings, and together they drew "a large wet ink drawing on Bristol paper" that Mikhail gave to his father on his saint's day.15

The atmosphere of goodness, love and peace at his parents' home and early exposure to art ensured that the highly impressionable child quickly came into his own - one just has to look at the paintings Nesterov created in his studio at the house in Ufa: "The Hermit" (18881889, Tretyakov Gallery), "The Vision of the Young Bartholomew" (18891890, Tretyakov Gallery) and "Amazon" (1906, Russian Museum).

"The Hermit", which followed "Bride of Christ" (1887) and "Love Potion" (1888), became central to Nesterov's art in the 188o-189os. The painting was conceived during summer 1888 in Sergiev Posad (where Nesterov painted all the studies for it) and finished in Ufa, where the artist spent the winter of 1888-1889. While "Bride of Christ" was painted in the wake of love so tragically lost, "The Hermit" introduced Nesterov's own unique theme. Nesterov gave the most accurate definition of this in a letter he wrote in 1898: "... the poetry of my art is the poetry of loneliness, of a passionate quest for happiness, inner peace and serenity."16

Nesterov began working on "The Hermit" at a time when he often found himself at the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius. There, in the heart of the Russian Orthodox faith, historically and spiritually connected with the life and labours of St. Sergius of Radonezh, Nesterov became more and more convinced that he had chosen the right direction for his art: the theme of a wandering monk, the idea of a hermit's life in the wilderness took on a meaning that was truly and originally Russian. The monastery's beautiful surroundings also provided an ideal "model" of Russian nature - the landscape of central Russia is understated, muted, quiet but stately, the "Russian landscape that helps better and clearer understand the meaning of both Russian life and the Russian soul".17 Nesterov met the Mamontov family in summer 1888, visiting them in Abramtsevo, and forming close ties with the famous Russian artists who belonged to the Abramtsevo circle; all these events completed his spiritual journey to his beloved subject matter of Russia. The atmosphere of provincial and patriarchal Ufa, which the artist had known since childhood, also played an important role, and made it easy for Nesterov to absorb the Russian "feel" of Abramtsevo (the estate had previously belonged to Nesterov's fellow Ufa native, Sergei Aksakov) practically "at the door". (The 189os-190os, the years of "Russian revival", would come soon.) The idea behind "The Hermit" - a life of solitude in the wilderness that was ideal for spiritual rebirth and clear understanding of one's life's purpose - found a continuation in Nesterov's painting "The Vision of the Young Bartholomew", with its strong message of a harmonious union between a human being and nature.

Nesterov began painting "The Vision of the Young Bartholomew" and "The Hermit" in the environs of Abramtsevo, in the village of Ko-myakino, and finished both paintings in Ufa. He missed his family, and his mother's dumplings, so he rolled up the canvases and went to Ufa, where he began painting his "Bartholomew" in the study of his parent's home. When the top part of the painting (depicting the background landscape) was finished, Nesterov had an accident which he described in some detail in his letter to Ye.G. Mamontova: "I got little comfort from my trip to Ufa: I arrived ill, the notorious influenza kept me in bed for a week. I was still weak when I went back to my work, and it seems I was unlucky, too... I felt dizzy and fell off the stand I was sitting on, and in doing so, tore my painting..."18 But Nesterov's "involuntary vacation" did not last long: the new canvas (a much better one) arrived a week and a half later, and Nesterov quickly began painting again and finished his work in Moscow in January 1890. This was the version that was shown at the 18th "Peredvizhniki" exhibition in 1890, first in St. Petersburg, and later in Moscow. The first, unfinished version remained in Ufa, and thanks to the efforts of Nesterov's sister Alexandra, was preserved and later became part of the Bashkir Museum collection.

Only the top part of the Ufa version of "Bartholomew" was painted - the landscape with Abramtsevo's "little miracle church". The rest remained a coal drawing; however, it is exactly that factor which is especially valuable, because it allows the viewer to see the artist's creative process. We can see that Nesterov's technique was very close to that of icon-painting: without under-painting, right on top of the drawing, with the utmost attention to detail and with the harmony of the total image in mind. The drawing itself is light, nimble and lively, and is characterized by that excellence that comes as a result of brilliant education.

When many years later Nesterov visited Sergiev Posad, he was overwhelmed with feelings and poured them into a letter to Turygin: "Here I am again, close to Moscow, visiting with 'Sergius'. I am delighted with the memories of my youth - almost every bump [in the road] and every bush reminds me of the past, my long gone youth, and my young art! Today I saw the original little spruce that I painted in 'The Hermit'; over the past 18 years it has turned into a real tree, curly and slender..."19 It is possible that Nesterov was talking about the little spruce that was the subject of a quick pencil sketch on a piece of paper (end of the 1880s, Nesterov Bashkir Museum of Fine Art), the spruce that eventually made it into "The Hermit", so as not to annoy "the huge Stasov with its youthfulness".20 The spruce was thin and affecting, not "small and sickly" as Stasov described it;21 Nesterov may have used it in his other paintings, too, such as those of the "Sergius series", or in "Dmitry, the Murdered Tsarevich" (1899, Russian Museum.)

The events of the 1905 Revolution, as well the anticipation of a crisis in his own creative process, pushed Nesterov in a new direction, towards the portrait genre. However, he did not paint simple portraits, but rather "portrait paintings", which reveal the psychology of the subject "in contact with" his or her surroundings, such as home furnishings or those special "Nesterov" landscape motifs. Nesterov painted mainly his family members and loved ones, friends and fellow artists. Portraits of his daughter Olga occupy a special place in his oeuvre; every one of them is an extraordinary achievement, a "golden" page in the story of the genre in Russia.

Nesterov's art of the pre-revolutionary period, while dedicated to a single main theme, is amazingly diverse creatively. The artist was known for the frescoes he created for churches as well as his paintings, which were united by their main themes - the quest for a national spiritual ideal, and the idea of spiritual revival through the life of a hermit. At the same time, Nesterov made his mark on Russian art with his inspired, fine Russian landscapes and his wonderful portraits. His ability to see and feel another person and reveal his or her inner world to the viewer allowed the "post-revolutionary" Nesterov to create a whole gallery of remarkable portraits of scientists and artists; however, their source was to be found back in pre-revolutionary Ufa, in the serene family home where Nesterov spent his childhood.

  1. The Nesterov family house in Ufa was located next to the "red line", which separated public land from privately owned lots, on Tsentralnaya Ulitsa, now Ulitsa Lenina. The Agidel Hotel has been built in its place, and a memorial plague commemorating the former location of the Nesterov house was installed on its facade on May 31 2012.
  2. The Aksakov People's House was renamed the Palace of Labour and the Arts in 1918, and in 1938 the Bashkir State Theatre for Opera and Ballet. The land intended for the building of the Aksakov People's House was blessed on April 30 1909, on the 50th anniversary of Aksakov's death. The ceremonial laying of the first stone took place on September 14, and building began the same year. The organizers' idea was to have a theatre, a library, a reading hall a natural history museum of the Ufa region, and an art gallery.
  3. Mikhail Nesterov, "Memoirs". Moscow, 1989, p. 300.
  4. Mikhail Nesterov, "Memoirs", p. 372.
  5. Ibid. P. 379.
  6. See archives of the Nesterov Bashkir State Museum of Fine Art.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Mikhail Nesterov to Sergei Durylin, Moscow, April 6 1923. Mikhail Nesterov. "Letters. Selected works" Leningrad. 1988, p.280.
  9. Letters, p. 30. Memoirs, pp. 24-25.
  10. Mikhail Nesterov to Sergei Durylin, Moscow, April 6 1923. Letters. P. 281.
  11. Mikhail Nesterov, "Memoirs", p. 30.
  12. Mikhail Nesterov. "Days Long Gone. Meetings and Memoirs ". Moscow. 2005.
  13. Mikhail Nesterov, "Memoirs", p. 38.
  14. Ibid. P. 32.
  15. Ibid. P.45.
  16. Mikhail Nesterov to M.P Solovyev, Kiev, January - February 1898. // Letters, p. 168.
  17. Mikhail Nesterov to Alexander Turygin, October 10 1915. Ibid, p. 262.
  18. M.V Nesterov to E.G Mamontova, Ufa, December 20 1889. // Ibid, p. 60.
  19. Mikhail Nesterov to Alexander Turygin. Sergiev Posad. June 3 1906. // Letters, p. 217.
  20. Mikhail Nesterov, "Memoirs", p. 302.
  21. Ibid.





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