Nikolai Ge’s Ancestry and Family - An Investigation

Svetlana Kapyrina

Magazine issue: 
#3 2011 (32)

Nikolai Nikolaievich Ge was a descendant of the old French aristocratic family of “de Gay”. His great-grandfather Mathieu (Matvei) de Gay immigrated to Russia in 1789, at the time of the French Revolution. He settled in Moscow, “joined the emigre community and began to live quite comfortably”; a little later he even started a factory. No information about his wife is available today; we do know he had children — a daughter Victoria (17751852) and son Joseph (Osip) (born between 1775 and 1776, who died before 1836.) They may have been twins, given that the years of their birth seem to be the same.

Victoria Ge was happily married to Ivan Hilferding (1771-1836), a German teacher. Their son Fyodor Hilferding (1798-1864) had a brilliant career in government service: he was director of the Russian Vice-Regent’s Chancellery in the Kingdom of Poland, then director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Archive (18511864) and a member of the Ministry’s Council; he was awarded the title of Privy Councillor in 1852. Fyodor Hilferding’s son by his wife Amalia (неё de Witt, who died in 1841) Alexander became a well-known historian and a collector and expert in Russian epic narrative poems.

Victoria’s marriage to Ivan Hilferding did not just produce remarkable offspring — it was also the cause of Matvei Ge’s bankruptcy: he was never able to pay off the significant debt he had incurred to provide for her dowry.

The artist’s grandfather Osip Ge served in the Cavalry Grenadier Regiment of the War Order as a warrant officer. The name of aide-de-camp Ge is on the list of French officers who were serving in the Russian army under oath of allegiance to their adopted country. On February 8 1793 Catherine the Great issued an edict requiring all 2,424 French citizens living in Russia to sign a pledge stating that they “denounce the atrocities of the revolution and swear on the Holy Gospels their allegiance to the Crown as given to us by the grace of God”.1 The majority condemned the French revolution and confirmed their loyalty to the House of Bourbon — only 18 of them refused to sign the pledge and were subsequently deported. Ge’s grandfather was among those who signed.

Ge’s regiment was stationed in the province of Poltava. According to family legend, the gallant aide-de-camp had a happy disposition and could charm his way into the heart of any society beauty. His visits to Poltava were marked by boisterous carousing and romantic conquests. However, Osip Ge found the love of his life in a small place called Batki — desperately in love, he snatched his bride, Darya Korostovtseva (who died not earlier than 1836) and married her on the same day.2 Hoping for a quick restoration of the French monarchy, Osip Ge had his heart set on returning to Paris and introducing his beautiful wife, fresh from the provinces of “Malaya Russia”, into high society. This plan had to be quickly amended when his father went bankrupt. Osip Ge retired from the army and settled down at his wife’s family estate near the village of Batki in the Zenkovsky parish of Poltava region. Though he never became truly Russian, he no longer felt French either, having severed his ties with his native land.

The genealogical records of Poltava province list six children born to Osip and Darya Ge: two sons, Nikolai and Grigory, and four daughters: Ksenia, Alexandra, Maria and Minodora. By the 1815 designation of the Poltava Assembly of the Nobility all of them were listed as gentry.3 Osip Ge lived on the estate for the rest of his life; his loved ones remembered his heartfelt prayers in his last days — in French. His widow Darya spent a few years in Voronezh taking care of her grandchildren whose mother had died suddenly, the future artist Nikolai Ge among them.

The artist’s father Nikolai (17961855), Osip Ge’s eldest son, was born on the estate in Batki. He went to private boarding school in Zenkov and was enlisted in the Noble Regiment (later, the Konstantinovskoe Military Academy in St. Petersburg). We do not know of any record of Nikolai Ge’s involvement in the war of 1812 with Napoleon; however, we do know that in 1814 he took part in the Russian advance into France and capture of Paris, which “earned him the absolute confirmation of his family’s Russian citizenship”.4 After spending a few years in France, Nikolai Ge came back to Russia and “became the first Russian in the Ge family”.5

The artist’s mother, Yelena Sadovski (who died in 1831) was the daughter of a Polish gentleman who was exiled to Voronezh. Very little is known about her: a document was found in the archives which states that Yelena and her possibly younger brother Filozov Sadovski were orphaned as early as 1815. The 12-year-old boy was sent to Tambov Gentry Corps to “finish his education and instruction in sciences”.6 Yelena stayed in Voronezh where she married Nikolai Ge and had three sons with him: Osip, Grigory and Nikolai. We do not know what the artist’s mother looked like; the artist did paint his father’s portrait, now in the collection of the Kiev Museum of Russian Art.

Researching these archives revealed some interesting facts about the life of the artist’s parents. There is a case registered in the archive of Voronezh civil court dated 1829 regarding a loan of 3,500 rubles that a province clerk A.V. Belokopytov took from Yelena Ge; the loan was guaranteed by his house in the Vvedensky parish. Belokopytov did not pay off his loan or interest on it in time; as a result of a civil lawsuit, the Voronezh province government awarded Yelena Ge ownership of the “said house with all the attached structures and land”.7 The mansion house — quite a comfortable one — became for a short period of time a real family home for the Ges. A list of real estate and other assets is attached to the civil suit: a wooden house on stone foundation, wood siding painted light brown, nine “warm chambers”, eight Dutch ovens, a stone kitchen. There was also a stand-alone kitchen on the estate, built from pine wood, a coach house, a granary for storing oats, a stable for ten horses, and a garden. All the furniture is also listed, as well as the size of the estate — 28.5 sazhen (200 square feet). Another attached list is that of the household serfs; it is there that we find the name of “maiden Natalya Alexeevna, 15 years old”, the daughter of the widow Avdotia Ilyinishna. It is very likely she was to become Ge’s beloved nanny, someone he remembered fondly.

Thus we have a detailed description of the estate where Nikolai Ge spent his early childhood. In the middle of the 19th century, the walls of the wooden mansion house were covered with brick. Parts of the house, as well as the gate to the estate, survive to this day at Vvedenskaya street, number 7-7B. Archival documents tell us that this estate belonged to the Vvedensky parish. Consequently, it can be assumed that both Nikolai Ge and his brother Grigory were baptized in the Vvedensky church (now on Osvobozhdenia Truda street, number 20). This cathedral is one of the most beautiful architectural sites of the late 18th century; its white-and-blue exterior recalls the Andreevsky cathedral in Kiev.

Another interesting document in the Voronezh archives, dated 1835, states that Court Councillor Nikolai Osipovich Ge was appointed guardian of his underage children Osip (Joseph, aged seven), Grigory (aged five) and Nikolai (aged four) after their mother’s death. This document provides us with the exact date of Yelena Ge’s death (June 24 1831) as well as the birth dates of her children. We also learn that their father becomes the executor of “real property belonging to the underage Ge children”. Nikolai Osipovich Ge was a captain in the Supplies Department of the Military Ministry; his work required so much travel that he was not in a position to raise his small children properly, so in 1835 he resigned from his post and decided to sell the estate, formally informing the Noble Board of Trustees of the fact.

He remarried and in 1836 moved his family to Kiev; soon after that he purchased an estate near the village of Popelukhy in Mogilyev county, in the Podolsk province. He turned out to be a hard-working landowner: within the next ten years, he doubled the size of the estate and raised its profits tenfold. In 1851 he bought a wine distillery.

Like his brothers, the artist’s oldest brother Osip (1828-1892) went to the 1st Kiev grammar school, and later graduated from the physics and mathematics department of St. Petersburg University. He probably became an engineer, as he went on to develop airships. However, his political views were radical, and in 1863 he was exiled from St. Petersburg for ties with Polish revolutionaries. His place of residence or his occupation before 1882 is not known. However, there is information about his daughter Maria in the archives of the Police Department, who “belonged to a revolutionary and propaganda worker’s group in Warsaw, was arrested twice, jailed in the Warsaw Citadel and exiled to Siberia in 1882, where she died at age 24”. Osip’s wife Josefa is also referred to in these documents: she “was questioned and charged with propaganda activity; during a search, banned writings were found”.8 Osip Ge was probably not allowed to live in either capital, so in 1882 he settled at his brother Nikolai’s farm and spent most of his time beekeeping. There is a mention of his son Vladimir in the Podolsk province Noble Genealogical records in 1897, five years after Osip Ge’s death.

The artist’s older brother Grigory (1830-1911) was a well-known public and cultural figure. As a young man, he was a squadron officer of the Grodno Hussar Regiment and “took part in the Western Campaign in the war with Hungary” in 1849.9

After he left military service due to poor health, Grigory and his family settled in the estate he had inherited from his father in Podolsk province, near the town of Mogilyev. He was an active member of the Working Committee on Initiative to Improve the Life of Serfs (1855-1865), and freed his own serfs as early as 1855. He sold his estate in 1865 and moved to Kherson where he took up a position with the Excise Department of Kherson province (1865-1879) and was awarded the Order of Saint Anna of the 3rd class for “zealous service and outstanding achievements”. An active member of the community, he was one of the founders of the Library Society; he also opened a public library in Kherson.

Grigory’s private life was not as successful as his public career. He and his wife Maria (nee Kareeva) had four daughters, Maria, Olga, Vera and Zoya, and one son, named Grigory after his father (the Christian names Nikolai and Grigory were favoured in the Ge family). Having five children between them did not stop the spouses from separating, and in 1874 Maria Ge took the children to Paris. They lived there for two years and came to know resident Russian artists like Alexei Bogolyubov, Ilya Repin, Vasily Polenov, and Konstantin Savitsky. Many years later, in 1937, Grigory Ge’s daughter Vera wrote a memoir about that time in their lives, about Russian artists in Paris and the Tuesday gatherings of Russian emigres in Bogolyubov’s studio. In his letter to his family from Paris, Polenov gave a vivid and precise description of the sisters Ge: “...the daughters of the artist’s brother are very pleasant. The oldest one [Maria] is quite vivacious; the second one [Vera] is a beauty, and the third one [Zoya] is very deep, like you find in Turgenev’s stories.”10

Maria Ge died in 1879, and the children came to live with their father, who by then had moved from Kherson to Nikolaev. Grigory Ge remained an active public figure: on numerous occasions between 1880 and 1906, he was elected a member of Nikolaev city council. He led the effort to create a monument to Alexander Pushkin in Nikolaev; he set up the city’s society of art-lovers. His theatre and art exhibition reviews, as well as his articles about current events in the life of Nikolaev often appeared in local periodicals. His lectures on drama were published as a separate volume in 1890. His unique diagramme/map of “The Timeline of World History” is still in print — created in cooperation with S. Sokolovsky, the timeline listed the dates of historical events as far as 5,500 years back. His seminal work “A Hundred Year History of the Nikolaev Township at the Mouth of the River Ingul” (Nikolaev, 1890) for many years remained the only valuable source of information on the town’s history. Grigory Ge’s talent as a writer reveals itself in his short biography of his brother Nikolai, written right after the artist’s death.11

The artist’s youngest half-brother Ivan (Ioann, 1841-1893) was born in Kiev, and was ten years younger than Nikolai. We have not found any information about Ivan’s mother, and do not even know her name. She is only mentioned once in Grigory Ge’s memoir in the context of his father’s sudden death and the consequent need for the brothers to manage their late father’s estate. According to Grigory Ge’s account, “Nikolai Nikolaevich, after a long argument, declared in no uncertain terms that he did not even want to hear about the inheritance ... ‘Should everything go down the drain,’ he said, ‘and if all is sold at auction, there will still be enough for our stepmother and Vanya’s [their half-brother’s Ivan— 5W.] education’.”12

In the 1870-1880s Ivan Ge tried to farm land in Kherson province and engaged in export trade in the port of Odessa. He suffered a great setback when the family estate, including all the adjacent structures, burnt down in a fire. Ivan was left with very modest means and became disillusioned in commerce, so quite unexpectedly he turned to creative work — writing for the theatre, mostly comedies and vaudevilles. His theatre reviews appeared in many local and national periodicals. Ivan Ge set up drama schools in Odessa and Kiev and taught performance classes there. His brother Nikolai did not share or encourage his strong interest in theatre. The relationship between the two brothers was further strained when Ivan’s youngest son Pyotr, influenced by his father, decided to become an actor. It took some serious parental interference to dissuade Petrusha (the loving nickname they had for their son) from entering “the worst of professions.”

The artist’s oldest son Nikolai (18571938) inherited his father’s love for art and took painting classes. As a young man, he did something rarely mentioned in historical sources: he dropped out of Larinsky grammar school in 1879 and returned to Florence, where he had spent his childhood and early adolescence, and entered the Academy of Arts. Soon after, “having quickly become disillusioned in his talent, moved to Paris and enrolled in the Sorbonne”.’413

He did not have a chance to study there either, since his mother’s serious illness called for his prompt return home. His father absolutely refused to teach him the craft of painting, saying again and again that “one can learn, but cannot be taught”. Eventually Nikolai became a student at the law department of St. Petersburg University, but his theses on “The Lawlessness of Criminal Law” left no hope of his graduating with a diploma.


Moving to “the Ge khutor [farm]” became a pivotal moment of Nikolai’s life: he lived there for ten long years and became an active follower of Leo Tolstoy’s teachings. Nikolai Ge the younger was a frequent guest at Tolstoy’s estate at Yasnaya Polyana; in 1885-1887 he assisted Tolstoy with the publishing of his work, and then in collecting donations for the victims of famine in 1891-1892. He took the idea of becoming “closer to the Russian people” as far as entering into a common-law marriage with Agafya Slusariova (1856-1900), a peasant woman, with whom he had children: a daughter Praskovia (1878-1959) and two sons, Ivan (1890-1916) and Nikolai (1891-1914, or 1915). The unconventional liaison was intense and hard for both parties; soon after the birth of their daughter, Nikolai left the farm “infatuated with some cultured lady14, Gapka [short for Agafya] became ill from a nervous breakdown, and the grandfather (Nikolai Ge the elder) took care of Praskovia”. From the age of five Praskovia was raised in the artist’s home, and the grandfather “spoiled rotten” his first granddaughter, even taking her to his studio, and “gave her a brush and asked to help him paint”.15 From 1895 till her death Praskovia lived in the town of Alushta and worked as a nurse. Her fellow townsfolk remembered that she always put on the headscarf of the type the Sisters of Mercy wore during the World War I. Late in life, she wrote a memoir about life on the Ge farm and its famous owner — her book was published in 1959 in the magazine “Crimea”.

When the artist died suddenly in 1894, the Tolstoy-style commune on his farm fell apart. The artist’s son Nikolai wrote to Tolstoy that he was abandoning everything from the past 80 years that now seemed false, and that he was leaving the farm for the Crimea. He was not going alone but with his new family — his cousin Zoya (1861-1942) and the children, three of his own and three of his cousin’s, his new common-law wife. This was a tragic turn in the life of the larger Ge clan — the unpublished letters from Zoya’s husband Grigory Ruban-Shurovski (1857-1920) to Tolstoy attest to that: “... our family is in deep trouble. Nikolai and Zoya have developed the kind of relationship that they do not see as a sin but rather proclaim an ideal. Relations between the families are quite terrible.”16

In 1901 the artist’s son Nikolai and his family left Russia as he took French citizenship “as a grandson of a French immigrant.”17 For ten years the large family lived in Paris, while the children received their education. Nikolai Ge was busy: in 1919 he published his book “From Autocracy to Democracy”, wrote articles on politics and public life, taught Russian and most importantly, tirelessly publicized his father’s art. He organized exhibitions of the artist’ paintings in Paris and Geneva in 1903, published “Collected Art by Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge” (St. Petersburg, 1903, second edition in 1904); he offered Mikhail Ryabushinsky to acquire Ge’s painting “The Crucifixion” for his collection.18 However, in 1912 Zoya and her children returned to Russia. Nikolai’s son Ivan, serving in the French army, was killed in the war in 1916. His other son Nikolai died in Russia from causes related to mental illness inherited from his mother.19 The artist’s son was left alone, in France.

It may have been Beatrice de Vattville, the owner of Chateau de Gingins near Lausanne, where Ge lived in the 1920 and 1930s, who helped the younger Nikolai Ge in his loneliness. In 1936 a few halls in the chateau were opened to the public as the artist’s son exhibited his collection of his father’s art. In his will, Nikolai Ge the younger left his art collection to de Vattville; however, some of the pieces have not been located to this day.

Since his childhood, the artist’s youngest son Pyotr (1859-1939) was closer to his mother, just as his older brother “enjoyed his father’s particular tenderness and love”. Pyotr Ge was in government service for almost all of his life; as a follower of Tolstoy, his father strongly resented it. In 1883, he married his cousin Yekaterina Zabelo (1858-1918), the older sister of Nadezhda Zabelo-Vrubel. In the 1880s Pyotr and his family lived in the Chernigov province (in Nezhin, Giriavka, and Borzna); in 1884 they moved to St. Petersburg, where Pyotr Ge was elected a justice of the peace, and he served from 1894 to 1914. Like all members of the Ge family, he had a strong creative ability and wrote books and commentary on art. At the time of the 1917 February revolution, he joined the Constitutional-Democratic Party and actively “advocated defending the political status quo and fervently objected to the Duma’s neutrality”.20 Dramatic and shocking developments in Russia and the tragic loss of his wife21 forced him to flee the capital to Kiev. In 1920 he donated most of his collection of his father’s art to Kiev City Museum (now the National Museum of Fine Art of Ukraine). For a long time, nothing was known about Pyotr’s life after that, so we felt very lucky to discover his name among refugees who escaped to Serbia with the army of Baron Vrangel.22 At the end of the 1920s, Pyotr Ge gave lectures on art history at the cultural and educational foundation “Russkaya Matitsa” (Russian Queen Bee), as well as at the Russian Public University in Belgrade, then spent his final years at the Russian retirement home. The location of his grave was only found in 2001, at the Novo Groblje cemetery in Belgrade.23

It is unfortunate that we do not know much about the lives of Pyotr Ge’s children, Nikolai (1884-1920) and Anastasia (1890-after 1920). Peter’s son Nikolai [his loving nickname was Kika] was a talented essayist and art critic; he was friends with Mikhail Vrubel and Alexander Blok. He was known for his exceptional memory and could speak all European languages. He died in Kiev under unknown circumstances. Persistent searching has revealed nothing about Anastasia’s fate. During World War I, Anastasia worked as a nurse in one of St. Petersburg’s hospitals, then at the front. We know nothing about her life after that — did she remain in the capital, or did she move to Kiev? Did she have a family? How and when did she die? To learn more about Anastasia is vital — she may have had children who would be the artist’s direct descendents. The search goes on.


  1. Cherkasov,P.P The French in the Russian Army in 1793. // Archival Funds of Russian Empire Foreign Policy // Russia and France in the 18th-20th centuries. Moscow, 2000. Pp. 116-118.
  2. The Korostovtsev family were Russian gentry, originally from Poland, descendants of the house of Khorostovetski, of the Ostoja coat of arms. Timofei Khorostovetski moved to Malaya (Little) Russia (now Ukraine) and became known as Korostovtsev; and served under Mazepa. The family of Korostovtsev is registered in the Genealogical Records of the Poltava and Yekaterinoslav provinces. (Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopaedic Dictionary, 86 volumes. St. Petersburg, 1890-1907. Volume 16, Concord - Koyalovich. p. 325.
  3. Genealogical Records of the Poltava Province Gentry. Part 2, Designations dated 1802-1840. Poltava, 1898, p. 112, #54.
  4. Ge, G.N. Memories of NN.Ge for His Biography. // Artist, 1894, #43, p. 129.
  5. Ibid.
  6. State Archives of Voronezh Region. Fund И-29. File 139. Item 21 Sheet 1. 9.
  7. State Archives of Voronezh Region. Fund И-167. File 1. Item 1472. Sheet 1-8 reverse.
  8. Porudominski, V.I. Nikolai Ge. Moscow, 1970, p. 213.
  9. Russian State Military Historical Archive. Fund 395. File 48. Item 528. Sheet 3-14. Official Record of Service. Certificate of discharge from military service of Lieutenant Ge, G.N. due to poor health.
  10. Manuscripts Department, State Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 54. Item 300. Sheet 2. The date of the letter is June 1874.
  11. Ge, G.N. Memories of N.N. Ge for His Biography. // Artist, 1894, # 43,44.
  12. Ibid. #43, p. 35.
  13. Ge, N.N. Unpublished Correspondence of Leo Tolstoy. // Present-day Notes. Paris, 1937. #44, p. 247.
  14. Russian State Archive of Literature and Art. Fund 731. File 1. Item 30. Sheet 31. From the memoir of M.V. Teplov.
  15. Ge, PN. Scenes from the Past (Remembering N.N. Ge) // Crimea, 1958. #17, p. 5.
  16. Original letters are in the Manuscripts Department of State Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 4. Item 2824. Sheet 214.
  17. Ge, N.N. Ibid, p. 248.
  18. “I am hearing from Moscow that you are collecting works of Russian artists. Allow me to offer for your consideration my father's painting ‘The Crucifixion'... I have been holding on to it with the hope that one day it would finally return to Russia. ... there will come a time when it is understood and appreciated." Manuscripts Department of State Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 7. Item 18. Sheet 1-2. Letter from NN. Ge-junior to MP. Ryabushinski, January 29, 1910.
  19. “Both of my sons passed away. My younger one was terminally ill for five years and died in Russia on July 27 1915; my older one was killed in action on July 15 1916" State Archive of Russian Federation. Fund 1463. File 3. Item 2662. Sheet 2. Letter from N.N. Ge the younger to L.P. Zabelo, February 14 1917.
  20. Petersburg City Duma. 1846-1918. St. Petersburg, 2005, p.334.
  21. “Yekaterina Ivanovna Ge, wife of civil councillor, died of a blow to the head (murdered) at age 52. April 17 1918. Russian State Historical Archive. Fund 639. File 1. Item 5. Sheet 62. Petrograd, Voskresensky convent cemetery. List of interred persons of 1903-1912. Started in 1903, through 1919.
  22. State Archive of Russian Federation. Fund 6792. File 1. Item 558. Sheet 1. Evacuation to Serbia. P.N. Ge's personal record of loans and payments.
  23. The author would like to thank Mariana Petrovig, a translator and expert in Slavic studies, for her valuable help.





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