Nikolai Ge: Iconography. The Artist’s Image in Self-portraits and Portraits by His Contemporaries

Elmira Akhmerova

Magazine issue: 
#3 2011 (32)

Vibrant and extraordinary, Nikolai Ge’s personality fascinated his contemporaries. His image is captured in numerous portraits by two generations of artists - Ivan Kramskoi, Ilya Repin, Grigory Myasoyedov, Nikolai Yaroshenko, as well as Leonid Pasternak, Viktor Borisov-Musatov, Nikolai Ulyanov, and Alexander Kurennoi. There are also Ge’s self-portraits and photographs from different stages of his life. Many of his contemporaries left written descriptions of Ge’s appearance - the list includes his friends and students, fellow artists, and the family of Leo Tolstoy, with whom the artist became especially close during the last ten years of his life.

It was his painting “The Last Supper” that made Ge famous, and in 1863 the artist was made a professor of the Imperial Academy of Arts for this work. In “The Last Supper”, Saint Peter is looking at Judas in indignation over Judas’ abandonment and betrayal of Christ — and we see Ge’s features in the apostle’s anguished face. The time-honoured tradition of giving a character in a painting some resemblance to the painter himself has been practised since the Renaissance; Karl Bryullov and Alexander Ivanov brought it to Russian art, both of whom were major influences on the young Ge. The artist was 32 years old when he painted “The Last Supper”, so it is astonishing to see in Saint Peter’s image how Ge foresaw he would look as an old man — the viewer can compare the painting with the photographic portraits of the artist of the 1880s.

While Ge was a guest at the Tolstoy house in Moscow in January and February of 1886, he created a series of illustrations to Leo Tolstoy’s short work “What Men Live By” (1886). At this time, the artist was 55, and 23 years after “The Last Supper”, he gives his own features to a character in the story, Semyon the shoemaker (see “It is not that hard, look...” and “Forgive me, my hosts...”).

Ge sees himself in the images of Saint Peter and Semyon the shoemaker. Saint Peter is one of Christ’s favourite disciples; fearless and unwavering, he dares to walk on water to come to Jesus, he preaches the Gospel in different lands, works miracles as he raises the dead and heals the sick and infirm; captured at the time of the Emperor Nero, Peter was crucified with his head down, as he himself chose to suffer because he did not think himself worthy of dying in the same way as his Saviour.

Semyon is a poor tradesman without “his own land or his own home”; the one fur coat he owns he has to share with his wife. He does not have the strength of character or the determination to demand money from his debtors — he just goes out and drinks in discontent. However, these two characters have more in common than immediately meets the eye: Saint Peter’s name had been Simon (Semyon in Russian) before Jesus called him Peter. Both of them are guilty of refutation — Peter three times denies Jesus, Semyon walks by a dying man. Yet Peter repents later, and Semyon comes back to help the dying man, and both are forgiven and repaid for their good deed. The path of love, of mercy, forgiveness and humility, of spiritual growth and perfection is an essential theme of the artist’s life.

Ge’s “Self-portrait” (1892) at the Kiev Museum of Russian Art is worth mentioning. The artist’s son, Peter Ge, maintained that his father painted the self-portrait standing in front of a mirror, at Ivanovsky farm where his family lived at this time. The artist was 61 then. True to its model (the viewer can observe the likeness in the photographs of Ge from the early 1890s), the painting holds a special place in the artist’s body of work due to its keen perception, powerful feeling and expressiveness. The artist’s face shows signs of continuous reflection, of the years that have passed: the deep lines of the forehead, the sunken cheeks in a frame of long grey hair, a set mouth with thin lips, a long grey moustache... A beam of light coming from the upper right corner illuminates the face set in three quarters and leaves the body and the dark clothes to fade in the background. The image is magnetic, and the eyes seem strikingly alive. Ge painted his self-portrait two years before his death, and it reminds the viewer of Rembrandt’s old men, contemplating the profundity of the many years of their lives.

Until 1941, the Kiev Museum of Russian Art was also home to Nikolai Ge’s portrait by Ivan Kramskoi. Ilya Repin wrote: “Kramskoi, who was always quite cerebral, became infatuated with this unaffected and striking talent and wanted to be useful to him with all his heart; he started to paint Ge’s portrait and spent long hours with him. Ge kept getting in the way of Kramskoi’s work because he resented the artist’s careful, measured approach; he demanded creativity and artistic freedom — and Kramskoi never finished the portrait...”1

Nikolai Ge loved a good debate; we see this side of him in a portrait by Ilya Repin where Ge looks like he is addressing an invisible partner in conversation. Repin described the artist’s personality: “A spirited person, he brought his singular energy everywhere he went; one can describe this energy as highly moral happiness. When you looked at his fine, lean body, his beautiful, noble face, the philosopher’s open brow — you were caressed by his graceful presence. Unwittingly, you found yourself in a good mood. His voice was pleasant and cordial, always cheerful, and before you knew it and for the duration of the conversation you came under the spell of this most remarkable artist.”2 Yekaterina Junge agrees with Repin: “Whenever Ge was around, he brought liveliness and lifted everyone’s spirits; he touched people. He gave off a sense of vitality, exuberance, excitement and youth, in spite of his grey hair, and one felt better after having been around him...”3 On the subject of his grey hair — in the portraits by Kramskoi and Repin, Ge is around 50 years old and there is not a streak of grey in his hair; photographs taken a couple of years later, in the 1880s, show the artist almost completely grey.

A decade later, the artist Nikolai Yaroshenko painted Ge’s portrait in St. Petersburg, when Ge brought his painting “‘What Is Truth?’Christ and Pilate” to the 18th exhibition of the “Peredvizhniki” (Wanderers) society. After three weeks on show, “What Is Truth?” was removed from the exhibition by order of the Ober-Procurator of the Holy Synod Konstantin Pobedonostsev, and its image excluded from the catalogue. Yaroshenko gave the “disgraced” painting shelter at his home.

It does not seem likely that Yaroshenko had ever been to Ge’s home on his Ivanovsky farm, but he still tried to paint Ge as if in his studio: the viewer can see a fragment of “‘What Is Truth?’ Christ and Pilate” on the right, while on the left, there is a palette and some brushes on the floor. In a letter to Tolstoy, Ge wrote: “I finished my painting, thank God, and left that special world I lived in while I was painting it.”4 In the portrait, the artist looks worn out and exhausted, having given “What Is Truth?” all his spiritual and physical powers. Yaroshenko captures Ge’s appearance in those later years of his career — the viewer sees the artist as a philosopher, the author of the tragic, censored “Gospel Series” of religious paintings and gritty, expressive sketches. Ge was disillusioned with many of his former friends, and was having premonitions of dramatic changes in art and society. When “What Is Truth?” was prohibited from exhibition, he wrote to Yaroshenko: “Don’t you understand, it is like a 1,000headed swine lifted its snout and sensed its time has come? We do not have friends any more, all are our enemies — the public, the painters, old and young, the young even worse than the old ... Don’t you see, even among ourselves, the forgery that smells of money? We have sung our song — there is nothing else to do. We may continue in agony, I do not know for how long, but we will not see our victory. It is the end.”5 Yaroshenko answered with an upbeat, optimistic letter: “I most emphatically disagree with your thoughts about our cause. We will still be singing our song. Not everyone is our enemy — we have friends, too. Without question. Our partnership is strong, commitment to our cause is not reduced, and we do not have the right to fold our hands in hopelessness and consider it all lost. Let us keep working, Nikolai Nikolaievich, our cause cannot be abandoned...”6

Sometime in 1882-1883, while visiting Ge in his home on the Ivanovsky farm, Grigory Myasoyedov painted Ge’s portrait and gave it to his host as a gift. There is a mention in the memoirs of the composer Boris Yanovsky that the portrait hung in Ge’s home. Myasoyedov also painted a genre piece “The Reading of ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ by Leo Tolstoy” (1892-1893, Institute of Russian Literature “Pushkin House”, Russian Academy of Sciences) where he portrays his friend Nikolai Ge, with Vladimir Stasov, Vladimir Korolenko and Dmitry Mendeleev, who hosted the reading of Tolstoy’s novella in his St. Petersburg home. This painting is sometimes called “New Truths”, or “Between Darkness and Light”.

A description of Ge’s way of life and general appearance can be found in the memoirs of Tatiana Sukhotin-Tolstoy: “He was completely indifferent to money ... Since he was a strict vegetarian, did a lot of work around his house himself and dressed almost as a pauper, he did not really need a lot of money. Many a time my sister and I had to mend various items of his clothing, and my mother sewed a pair of pants for him that he was quite proud of. I knitted a vest for him that he wore until he passed away. He dressed in rough shirts with turndown collars and an old worn jacket. He had been known to go to Moscow and St. Petersburg dressed like that, and never changed this habit for anyone, even though he would spend time in all kinds of social circles.”7

In 1893-1894 Ge and his circle attracted artists of the younger generation, such as Leonid Pasternak, Viktor Borisov-Musatov, Nikolai Ulyanov, and others. They create genre portraits of Ge with his contemporaries in an effort to reveal the artist’s personality through his relationships with people.

Pasternak met Tolstoy in 1893, and Ge a little earlier, at Vasily Polenov’s house. In July Pasternak visits Yasnaya Polyana and painted “Reading of a Manuscript (Tolstoy and Ge)”, which depicts Tolstoy reading his work to Ge in his study by candlelight.

In Pasternak’s ink drawing (probably sketched from life) “Nikolai Ge Reading His Notes in the Editor’s Room of ‘Severny Vestnik’” we see Ge sitting on a stool as he leans over the pages of his manuscript. A group of people, mostly young women, are listening to him with attention. One of them is probably Lyubov Gurevich (1866-1940), a writer, translator, theatre critic and publisher of the magazine “Severny Vestnik” (Northern Messenger) which in the 1890s printed a series of articles and short stories by Leo Tolstoy. The scene likely took place in Moscow, in Savva Mamontov’s studio in Dolgorukovsky street, near Butyrskaya Zastava (this location is specified in Pasternak’s inscription underneath the drawing.) It is there that Ge showed his last large painting, “The Crucifixion” (1894, present location unknown), to his friends and acquaintances. We can see part of the painting in the drawing. Leo Tolstoy visited the studio to see “The Crucifixion” and talk to Ge; Tatiana Sukhotin-Tolstoy recalled: “My father was overwhelmed by the painting; I could see it in his face that he was struggling with his emotions. Nikolai Nikolaievich was watching him, and my father’s feeling passed to him. Finally, they embraced each other, in tears, for a long while too choked up to speak.”8

There are many descriptions of similar scenes to be found in the memoirs of Ge’s contemporaries from the end of the 1880s and beginning of the 1890s: the artist, having come to Moscow or St. Petersburg from his farm, is surrounded by young artists and writers. He reads from his “notes” — his recollections of the Academy of Arts, of Alexander Hertzen; he shares his thoughts about art and religion, about Tolstoy’s latest literary work. He speaks to his audience and argues with it, as he captivates and wins over people’s hearts. “We found Ge in a large hotel room talking to proselytes9, a few artists among them. He looked like an apostle — long hair, big balding forehead, and intelligent, naive and kind eyes; he gave the impression of someone who did not care for anything other than heaven, the stars and art — the only thing he lived for. He was a remarkable man, sweet and likable — people were drawn to his enchanting soul, so open to everyone, so full of noble dreams of a better future for mankind.”10

Viktor Borisov-Musatov’s study “Nikolai Ge with His Students” was part of his family collection until 1917, and depicts Ge meeting art students in Moscow in February of 1894, a scene at which Borisov-Musatov was himself present. The meeting took place in one of the rooms of the Falz-Fein hotel on Tverskaya street, and it included students from the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, mostly members of the so-called “Ryazan Commune”, that gathered on that day, among them the painters Nikolai Ulyanov, his wife Anna Glagoleva, Ippolit Bakal, Leopold Sulerzhitsky and the sculptor Anna Golubkina.11

We see a spacious, well-lit room with large windows; there is a plaster bas-relief of a foot on the wall, and a samovar in the corner. A square table in the middle of the room is covered with a white table cloth, at which Ge is sitting with his back to the window. We see his distinctive profile, his grey, almost white hair, and the shape of his hand that stands out against the white of the table cloth. Ge is leaning forward as he talks, and his students are listening with intense interest. There are so many of them here that there is not enough space for everyone — some are sitting on chairs, some are standing, and others are sitting on the window sill — the atmosphere is relaxed in this rented studio.

Here is how Ulyanov described the mood of one such informal gathering: “His [Ge’s] facial expression and his manner were full of unaffected sincerity. His interest in us was so genuine... He was casual and unceremonious, and never as much as hinted that he was above us or that he could teach or direct us. In as little as half an hour we would be on intimate and familiar terms. <...> we felt friendly and warm towards him. As he went on talking to us, he became more and more animated and excited. An hour, then two went by — everyone was motionless and focused. At first, he received questions, but no longer. Of course! Nikolai Nikolaievich spoke too clearly for anything to be left uncertain, too artistically to interrupt. This original, inspired talk was enchanting.”12

In 1895, a year after the artist’s death, Ulyanov painted Ge’s portrait at work. The artist had spent considerable time with Ge in 1893-1894 and wrote two essays about him, “Ge and Youth” and “Recollections of N.N. Ge”. Ulyanov had probably started painting Ge’s portrait — his “pictorial memoir” — while Ge was still alive, and finished it after the artist passed away. The master, wearing dark
blue clothes, is standing on a stepladder in front of the easel with a small bare canvas on it. There is a photograph of Ge where he is standing on the very same ladder in a similar pose as he is painting “The Crucifixion”.

Ulyanov’s recollections continue: “In my memory, Ge lives as a ‘wise elder’, an artist of encyclopaedic breadth, with the look of a Roman philosopher. A thin aquiline nose, thick mane of grey hair framing his face, and direct, animated gaze with the spark of youthful spirit ... Indeed, it was a distinguished presence. The classical features of his face — and this special, ‘classical’ frame of mind. However, this unique harmony of external appearance and internal life could be puzzling: where do his images come from, these anguished faces-visions? He looks joyful, but his thoughts reveal torment. His wise face is serene, like a clear sky, so where do the stormy clouds come from?!”13

In 1895 “Niva” magazine published Schubler’s etching of the original drawing by Alexander Deineka “N.N. Ge in His Field”.14 The famous artist is harvesting wheat like a simple Russian peasant, while a little farmer boy is looking on, spellbound. This naive and primitive image reflects both the real life Ge created on his farm and the legends he inspired as the follower of Tolstoy’s philosophy among the general public: he worked in the field, in the garden, in the apiary., he became a skilled stove-maker.

Some 20th-century sculptors have also turned to the Ge’s image: in 1979, to commemorate 140th anniversary of the artist’s birth, Mikhail Gritzuk created a sculpture for Ge’s grave in the vicinity of the Ivanovsky farm (now the village of Shevchenko), while for the 150th anniversary of the artist’s birth, Yury Chernov created an expressive sculpture “Nikolai Nikolaievich Ge”.


  1. Repin, I.E. “Nikolai Nikolaievich Ge and Our Demands of Art” // Nikolai Nikolaievich Ge. Letters. Articles. Reviews. Recollections by Contemporaries. / Foreword, editing and annotations by N. Y. Zograf. Moscow, 1978, p. 273.
  2. Ibid, p. 267.
  3. Junge Ye. Memoirs of N. N. Ge. // Ibid, p. 266.
  4. N.N.Ge to Leo Tolstoy. January 17 1890// Ibid, p.143.
  5. N.N. Ge to N. Yaroshenko. [March 1890] //Ibid, p. 145.
  6. Nikolai Nikolaievich Ge. Letters. Articles. Reviews. Recollections by Contemporaries. // Ibid, p. 346.
  7. Sukhotin-Tolstoy,T.L. Memoirs. Moscow, 1976, pp. 262-263.
  8. Ibid, p. 286.
  9. Proselyte (from Greek prosi'lytos - newcomer) - a convert to a new religion; a new and passionate devotee, a follower of something.
  10. Zlinchenko-Rabotnikov, K.P. “Life as It Happened" // Stepan Petrovich Yaremich. Opinions and Recollections by Contemporaries. St. Petersburg, 2005, Volume 1, pp. 68-69.
  11. From Nikolai Ulyanov's recollections: “He comes in. He is the same: upbeat, smiling. He is offered to sit down, to have some food. He knows everyone. Of the newcomers it is probably just Borisov-Musatov. Stealing a look at the artist Glagoleva, Ge says: ‘What a fascinating face! Somebody needs to paint her portrait!' This leads to talking about portrait painting. ‘The light in a portrait does not need to be on the face - it can be anywhere, really. Why not the hands - would it not be interesting? There are not too many experiments like that in painting, but there are some; even I have done it...'" Ulyanov, N.P. “Twilight People" / Complied by L.L. Pravoverova. Moscow, 2004, p. 144.
  12. Ulyanov, N.P. “Ge and Youth. Recollections. // Nikolai Nikolaievich Ge. Letters. Articles. Reviews. Recollections by Contemporaries. Pp. 289, 290.
  13. Ulyanov, N.P. “Twilight People" / Complied by L.L. Pravoverova. Moscow, 2004, page 147.
  14. “Niva", 1895, issue 43, p. 1021.





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