"He Did Not Live His Life in a Shell..."

Tatiana Karpova

Magazine issue: 
#3 2011 (32)

There have been four solo exhibitions of Nikolai Ge’s art in his homeland in the period since his death in 1894: a posthumous one in St. Petersburg in 1895; then another from the Ukraine museum collections in Kiev in 1956-1957; the third one in 1970-1971 which toured in Leningrad, Moscow, Kiev and Minsk; and the fourth from 1981 which was held in Moscow. The most extensive exhibition was that of 1970-1971, already 40 years ago, but it did not feature works from foreign museums and private collections. That exhibition’s catalogue, prepared by Natalya Zograf, was most comprehensive and informative, but had very few illustrations. Two new generations of the art-going public have little knowledge of this outstanding master, so to introduce Ge’s legacy to the contemporary viewer will bring new attention back to his work.

Due to the ideological pressures of the Soviet era, Ge’s art based on subjects from the New Testament — a theme that is a bridge between his early works and those of his later period — was not well represented in the exhibitions of the 20th century. Themes from the Gospels do indeed dominate his work, but it was the period of Ge’s life when he was part of the “Peredvizhniki” (Wanderers) movement that received greater attention at those shows. One such example was his painting “Peter the Great Interrogating Tsarevich Alexei at Peterhof” that was included in all schoolbooks and remains his best known work to this day. In contrast, Ge’s “Gospel Series” based on the themes of the New Testament, the high point of his career as an artist, was largely neglected. The new Tretyakov Gallery exhibition aims to shift that emphasis. Its aims are to show Ge’s art free of the ideological taboos and aesthetic prejudice that remained in the 1970s-1980s, to give recognition to the New Testament theme as central to the artist’s life, to single out the “Gospel Series” of paintings and sketches, and to give a broad picture of the artist’s late creations.

A certain negative attitude towards Ge’s art was already apparent in his lifetime — his approach to painting technique and his artistic goals were misunderstood, and the public was not ready to accept his subject matter or his presentation. One of the “myths” that originated in the 19th century was that Ge lacked painting skills and was careless in his work. The art critic Sergei Makovsky called him an “awkward painter”; he was chastised for his perceived indifference to the artist’s craft and technical perfection by Pavel Chistyakov, Ilya Repin, and Pavel Tretyakov. Another aspect of this phenomenon is the tendency to consider many of Ge’s paintings unfinished, even though he himself regarded them as completed. The objective of this exhibition is to remove this stigma by showcasing Ge’s innovative approach as a challenge to the 19th-century aesthetic value system.

Ge (1831-1894) did not live a long life, but his art evolved breathtakingly from academic classicism to the expressive paintings of the 1890s, that are full of pain and passion. He is at once a follower of the romantic school of the second half of the 19th century, and a pioneer of expressionism in Russian art.

In the 1930s, the artist Nikolai Ulyanov, who knew Ge in his youth, wrote that Ge was still “having to prove himself”. Pavel Tretyakov summed up his polemics with Leo Tolstoy regarding the late paintings by Nikolai Ge with the phrase, “Only time will tell”. It is our hope that Ge’s art has withstood the test of time, that its moment has come, and we are finally ready to appreciate him as a great artist.

For many viewers this exhibition offers the first chance to see such fascinating, large-scale paintings by Ge as “Messengers of the Resurrection” (1867, Tretyakov Gallery) and “The Judgment of the Sanhedrin: He is Guilty!” (1892, Tretyakov Gallery). For many years these landmark works were not displayed due to their poor condition. Today they have a new lease of life thanks to the work of the Tretyakov Gallery restorers.

The fact that these paintings will be displayed as part of Nikolai Ge’s anniversary exhibition is a gift to viewers and a revelation for art professionals — historians and restorers alike.

The new exhibition brings together paintings, drawings and sculptures by Ge; they represent the full diversity of his art — historical and religious canvases, portraits and landscapes (almost 240 pieces in all). More than 100 of these are drawings, and there has never been a more comprehensive exhibition of this aspect of his work. 15 Russian museums loaned works, as well as three from other countries — the Kiev Museum of Russian Art, the Belarus National Arts Museum in Minsk, and the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. “The Crucifixion” (1892, from the Musee d'Orsay) has already been displayed in Moscow twice, every time attracting great interest from the Russian public. It is only fitting that this painting would become an important part of this exhibition and give wholeness and closure to the so-called “Gospel Series”.

Ge’s sketches and studies (both for paintings he later finished and those that were never realised) form a considerable part of his body of work, and are landmarks in his journey of tireless exploration and experimentation. His wandering from one subject to another is a testimony to his discontent, to the harrowing process of self-discovery, and his emancipation from academic expression and external influences. Impulsive, exceedingly hard on himself, he would start a painting and then abandon it in disappointment. Many of Ge’s paintings were never finished, but the preliminary sketches survive, and it is from them that we learn how his ideas developed, and how he evolved as an artist. They give us a feeling of vibrant, living, original thought and emotion — the “hot magma” of the artist’s creative process. Ge’s sketches and studies are often more interesting than his finished work. They are where we find the breakthrough to a new aesthetic — the aesthetic of proto-expressionism. This exhibition allows the viewer to compare the artist’s finished pieces with his sketches from different periods of his life.

The sensation of this exhibition is the return of 55 drawings by Ge to Russia, that were formerly in the private collection of Christoph Bollmann. The drawings had been taken out of the country to Switzerland by Ge’s son, Nikolai Ge the younger, and were acquired by the Tretyakov Gallery with the help of VTB Bank on the eve of the exhibition. This acquisition gives Ge a chance to be seen as a great Russian graphic artist as well as a great Russian painter. All the drawings from the Bohlmann collection will be reproduced in the exhibition catalogue, so it will be possible to incorporate them into the framework of Ge’s entire body of work, comparing them with his paintings and other drawings, and fill in the gaps in our understanding of the artist’s legacy.

The structure of the exhibition reflects Ge’s biography and consists of six sections: the Imperial Academy of Arts. The Beginning. 1850-1857; Italy. 18571870; St. Petersburg. Among the “Peredvizhniki” (Wanderers) 1870-1875; “Khutor” (The Farm). Ukraine. 1876-1890s; Ge and Tolstoy. 1882-1900s; and the “Gospel Series”. 1880-1894. The paintings and drawings are to be presented together within the sections, which will allow the viewer to witness the artist’s creative path from preliminary sketches to finished canvases.

Among the documents presented at the exhibition, viewers will be able to see rare photographs of the artist and his circle on loan from the collection of the Tolstoy Museum, the manuscript department of the Tretyakov Gallery, the Kiev Museum of Russian Art, private collections, as well as other archives.

Viewers can also see radiographic images of Ge’s paintings from different periods — the result of many years of work by the scientific department of the Tretyakov Gallery. They represent a kind of “research laboratory” and allow us to enter into the fascinating world of the artist’s creative quest: from under the surface of the pictures a lower layer of paint emerges (sometimes more than one), revealing images of prior paintings, which for whatever reason did not satisfy the artist so that he painted over them. These images bear witness to how merciless Ge could be toward his own creations. He thought that clinging to imperfect achievements prevented an artist from moving on. This is the first time that the public can view the results of such “excavation”.

It is to be hoped that this exhibition of Ge’s work, with accompanying publications and educational programmes, will help to bring to full light his unique legacy as one of the most original of Russian artists — the creator of masterful historical paintings, outstanding portraits and emotional landscapes, passionate, and tragic and confessional religious art. And that this exhibition provides a fresh look at Ge’s art, leading to new research into his legacy, that would help re-evaluate his place in the context of 19th but also 20th century art, both in Russia and Europe.

Nikolai Ge holds a special place in Russian art of the 19th century. The boldness of his compositions, and his uninhibited manner did not fit into the accepted academic techniques. He approached and challenged the aesthetic boundaries of that century.

His evolution as a painter did not coincide with the stages in development of late-19th century Russian art. In the late 1850- 1860s Ge developed the romantic tradition, in particular that of Karl Bryullov and Orest Kiprensky — at the very time when all young artists, Ge’s contemporaries, detested Bryullov’s art and turned their backs on him. Ge, however, remained true to that moment when he first saw “The Last Day of Pompeii” and was moved to become an artist. The 1870s became the golden age of democratic realism, but for Ge they were years of crisis and failure. The 1880s, a time of decline for many of his fellow artists, saw his talent soar, his artistic expression renewed, and his self and his art mature.

It is hard to find another Russian artist of the 19th century whose path would have so many ups and downs, such contrasts of success and obscurity, with public admiration juxtaposed against total rejection. The spectacular success of “The Last Supper” was followed immediately by the failure of “Messengers of the Resurrection”; viewers’ admiration for “Peter and Alexei” gave way to their bewilderment with “Catherine at Empress Elizabeth’s Coffin”. The paintings of the “Gospel Series” were met with ambivalence both in official circles and by his artistic contemporaries.

Ge “sang out of tune” and “marched out of step”, but was lucky to end up in the epicentre of public discourse three times: his paintings “The Last Supper” (1863), “Peter the Great Interrogating Tsarevich Alexei at Peterhof” (1871) and the “Gospel Series” (1888-1894) all touched an important nerve in the public conscience, and caused a wave of concerned commentary and heated debates; Ge’s art awakened hearts and souls from their slumber.

Many a time Nikolai Ge changed the direction of his life. A film about him would be an exciting epic, a whirlpool of backgrounds, sentiments and idols: from Kiev, studying mathematics and physics at the university there; then to the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts; further to Italy, where Ge spent 13 years and painted his celebrated “The Last Supper”, where he met Alexander Ivanov, Alexander Herzen and Mikhail Bakunin. Then his return to St. Petersburg, taking part in the creation of the “Peredvizhniki” (Wanderers) movement, his fascination with Russian history, and the success of “Peter and Alexei”. Later came disappointment with his artistic and social circle, and the move to the khutor (farm) of Ivanovsky in the province of Chernigov, and his engagement with agricultural work, when Ge was virtually forgotten by the art community. There he became fascinated with the work of Leo Tolstoy and Tolstoy’s philosophy; he painted his “Gospel Series”, his art reaching a new high point, and he returns to cultural life as a spiritual leader of the artistic youth, and the founder of his own school of students and followers.

Ge was often criticized — not only the public but also his fellow artists found his paintings too technically “sloppy”, too poignant and edgy. His unexpected and innovative compositions were considered misguided, and there was always doubt and a feeling of danger in discussions of his art. However, the passage of some significant time allows us to appreciate it as a unique “cohesive” phenomenon, in which substance and expressive means form a natural bond. The so-called “sloppiness” of Ge’s paintings is an integral part of his concept of the “living form”, a protest against the deadliness of conventional craft. Ge disagreed with Alexander Ivanov’s approach, which looked for perfect elements for “perfect form” — and then combined them through meticulous design to achieve a “prefect painting”. In opposition to the academic concept of “perfect form” Ge proposed his idea of “living form”.

His personality, like his art, was a rare example of heart and mind in perfect, contented balance. He was an emotional man, sincere and passionate — and possessed a strong consciousness and cultured intellect. Through all the trials of his personal and artistic life, he was always passionately seeking the truth, a moral ideal, a “living form” that could express the “living essence”. This exceptionally kind man was capable of childish admiration for others and was gifted with the grace of empathy; his path in life and art was that of a dissenter and pioneer — a path that is taken by very few. The paintings of the “Gospel Series” were banned by the Synod of the Russian church, removed from exhibitions, and accompanied by scandal. Ge showed his “disgraced” art at his friends’ private homes, as if heralding the “apartment art shows” of the Soviet underground movement.

Ge was older than most of the “Wanderers”, but creatively closer to the young generation of artists. His emotional, restless and expressive manner was a premonition of the future language of the visual arts. Not surprisingly, he does not so much close the door on the 19th century, but rather opens the door of the 20th century.

He was always seeking for freedom, hating any form of oppression, and his best portraits distil the sense of the subject’s inner freedom. The experiences of his childhood and youth left in him a desire and commitment to “never oppress anyone”. Just like Kiprensky, Shchedrin, Bryullov, and Ivanov, Ge yearned to leave St. Petersburg for the freedom of Italy; he considered the moment in 1861 that the serfs were liberated in Russia a day of personal happiness. As a member of the “Peredvizhniki”, Ge saw his aim in freeing the artist from his dependence on paying clients, whether private citizens or from the establishment, by giving the artist a chance to support himself by charging for admission to exhibitions.

Ge was very morally rigid, something for which some admired him, while others were repelled. His is somewhat of a tragic figure among the artists of the late 19th century, his fate almost a premonition, a forewarning of the heartbreaking, sad destiny of Mikhail Vrubel. At a time when art was being drawn into the orbit of commercialization, Ge assumed the principled role of a non-commercial artist. He paid a dear price for his love of liberty and the luxury of always remaining himself — poverty, lack of public recognition, severe censorship of his art, and the life of a hermit on his farm in the province of Chernigov. Few others were attracted to such a path.

It is impossible to form a comprehensive idea of Ge’s art without a thorough examination of his portraits. Ge is rather indifferent to the possibilities that the genre offers for the outwardly beautiful, the decorative; he is reserved about its “costume opportunities”. This may be the reason why many of his portraits appear so modern, as if the patina of time was invisible. He looks at his subjects through the lens of love, and does not analyse the model. He sees the person he is painting with the trust of someone who is in love, and the viewer can almost physically feel the current of affection flowing between the painter and his subject. Ge’s portraits are not meant to be carefully scrutinized — instead, the viewer is instantly emotionally affected by them. In the artist’s own words, “A painting is not like a word; it gives one but an instant, and everything has to take place in that instant; if it does not, there is no painting ... one look, and that’s it — like that moment when Romeo and Juliet first see each other...”1

Ge’s portraits are a reflection of the world of ideas and the world of personalities. The portraits he painted “for himself” — those of Alexander Herzen, Mikhail Bakunin, Nikolai Nekrasov, Alexei Potekhin, and Leo Tolstoy — personify Ge’s moral objectives, his spiritual beacons. The community of the artist’s subjects reflects his intense, diverse spiritual life.

Twice in his creative career Ge fell in love with the landscape genre — in Italy and in Ukraine. In his later years, Ge used to say to young artists: “The landscape is not what you think; God Almighty dwells in it, the most transcendent and eternal.”2 Ge saw nature as the universal source of existence and aspired to express it in his art. His images of nature are simultaneously philosophical and emotionally charged. One of the goals of this new exhibition is to bring Ge’s landscape art out of the shadows of his historical and religious paintings and to introduce it to the general public.

It was in Italy that Ge first turned to painting landscapes and created art of breathtaking emotional quality, inner light and uninhibited technique. The artist spent his springs and summers in the most picturesque parts of Italy; he took his sketch-book to the sea shore and into the mountains. Vico, Frascati, San Terenzo, Lerici, Livorno, Carrara, Portovenere, Sorrento...

Of all such locations, one has to single out La Spezia — the coast of the so- called “Bay of Poets”, where Byron and Shelly lived in 1822. In the summer of 1867 a whole colony of Russian artists and writers settled there, Nikolai Ge and Grigory Myasoyedov among them. The choice of this particular place was not accidental, as the area was not only famous for its sandy beaches but also of cultural significance in the history of European romanticism. It was there that Ge painted most of his Italian landscapes. It may also be that the Russian artists learned about the “Bay of Poets” from the Italian painter Telemaco Signorini of the Macchiaioli3 group who lived there at the time. There was an exhibition of the Macchiaioli group in Florence in 1861, and Ge may have met the artists.

Such “old” and “new” approaches are merged in Ge’s Italian landscapes: the emotionally charged romantic landscape tradition with its fondness for depicting natural light at dusk and night — and the proto-Impressionist penchant for clean colours, painting en plein air, as well as the desire to capture the breathlessness of the moment in a rush of quick brushstrokes.

In 1875 Ge bought a farm, or khutor, at Ivanovsky, in the Borzensk area in the province of Chernigov, a little more than three miles away from the railway station of Plisky. In 1876 the artist and his family made it their primary residence.

As Ge returned to the themes of the New Testament, he also resumed his work with landscape, the genre that had fitted his talent so naturally back in his younger years in Italy. While living in St. Petersburg, it seemed as if nature no longer spoke to the artist, and in the 1870s he did not engage with that genre. Living on the farm, surrounded by the Ukrainian countryside, brought back the landscape artist in him. A tree-house became his open-air studio where he painted his landscape studies. Of contemporary Russian landscape artists Ge especially admired Arkhip Kuindzhi.

Most of his night landscapes Ge painted from memory. He is quoted as saying that it was Fyodor Vasilyev who first revealed the life of the night sky in Russian painting. The same is true about Ge’s own landscape art. Vast and alive, the night sky over the Ukrainian steppe fascinated the artist with its splendour — whether calm and starry, or stormy and cloudy, lit by moonlight.

At the beginning of the 1880s Ge became acquainted with Leo Tolstoy, an encounter that changed his life and had a fundamental effect on his art. Ge became Tolstoy’s close friend, a follower of his religious and philosophical principles, and an aid in many of Tolstoy’s undertakings. Ge’s relationship with Tolstoy was immensely significant for him, both on personal and artistic levels, and therefore a special section of this exhibition has been dedicated to it. Leo Tolstoy’s late work, written after his “spiritual awakening”, including “A Confession”, “What I Believe”, “The Gospel in Brief”, was little published in Soviet times, as Tolstoy the writer was intentionally contrasted with Tolstoy the thinker; the writer’s chief disciple Vladimir Chertkov proceeded with the publication of the edition of Tolstoy’s Collected Works, lobbying both Lenin and Stalin in his time, and the final volumes were only issued in the late 1950s long after Chertkov’s death. Tolstoy’s followers were persecuted not only by the Tsarist government, but also in Soviet times, meaning that many aspects of Ge’s friendship with Tolstoy never became part of published records.

In the 1890s the modest farm in the province of Chernigov became a place of pilgrimage for many seeking answers for life’s unrelenting questions; a kind of “Tolstoyan commune” formed around Nikolai Ge as his family and like-minded young artists, his students, flocked to his side. For many of the visitors, coming to the farm near the railway station of Plisky became a life-changing event that would define their lives as Ge “converted” them to Tolstoy’s beliefs. Tolstoy himself became an ardent advocate of Ge’s art, and after Ge’s death urged the creation of a museum dedicated to his work as part of the Tretyakov Gallery collection.

In the mid-1880s and at the beginning of the 1890s Nikolai Ge worked on his “Gospel Series” of paintings dedicated to the themes of the New Testament, the last chapter of Christ’s life. To this day, the works leave the viewer overwhelmed with their furious passion, and wide range of expressive means. “Christ and the Disciples Going Out into the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper”, “Conscience. Judas”, “The Judgment of the Sanhedrin: He is Guilty!”, “‘What is Truth?’ Christ and Pilate”, “Calvary (Golgotha)”, and “The Crucifixion” — Ge relentlessly seeks key compositional and colour solutions for each of these paintings. He never repeats himself — but how excruciating is his path to the final versions, how many sketches and studies, how many changes before the paintings were completed!

The “Gospel Series” is the embodiment of Ge’s experience of European culture, primarily that of Italy. Cimabue, Giotto, Fra Angelico, and Michelangelo were his “reference points” in art history. Religious art and sculpture of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance in Northern Europe were also an important inspiration to him — Ge was moved by and argued with this tradition simultaneously. The “Gospel Series” represents a complex fusion of the universal artistic traditions of the past, as interpreted by the painter, and the future aesthetic of the visual arts.

Nikolai Ge’s art is filled with his sharp appreciation of the futility of technical and economic progress without its being accompanied by spiritual and ethical progress. He creates paintings that appeal to viewers while they warn them of his tragic premonitions, of an impending disaster — the catastrophic demise of humanity in the 19th century. The artist’s humanistic message and his spiritual legacy remain more than timely today.

After his father’s death, Ge’s son Nikolai said: “He did not live his life in a shell ... there are no cliches in his art; his subjects are not made-up — he lived at a spiritual level that dictated those very subjects; that is why everything in his paintings appeals to us, as only the real, living things can...”4


  1. Nikolai Nikolaievich Ge. The Artist’s World. Letters. Articles. Reviews. Contemporaries’Recollections. Moscow., 1978. P. 182.
  2. Ibid. P. 293.
  3. The Macchiaioli (from “macchia” - a patch, or spot) - a group of Italian artists that formed in Florence in 1860. The name reflects the sketchy, spontaneous execution these artists were famous for. The members of the group (Telemaco Signorini, Giovanni Fattori, Silvestro Lega, Giuseppe Abbati, Giuseppe De Nattis, Vito D'Ancona; the mastermind of the group, the sculptor Adriano Cecioni, and others) were most of them former members of the national liberation movement of Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi. These artists were opposed to the rigid grandiosity of the academic approach to art, as well as to the abstract affectation of late romanticism. They wanted their art to be part of modernity, to reflect the present moment, to be democratic in its choice of subjects; they often worked en plein air. The Macchiaioli's subjects were down-to- earth and laconic, with seemingly casual composition, spare and sometimes sharp combinations of luscious patches of light and areas of shade.
  4. Paintings by N.N. Ge. Moscow, 1994. P. 1.





Download The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine in App StoreDownload The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine in Google play