The BackShop Journal

A Web Magazine of Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

Mikhail Nesterov, the Capturer of the Russian Soul

This October, we commemorate 75 years since the death of Mikhail Nesterov, one of the most prominent representatives of the World of Art (Мир искусства) art movement, which had a great influence on European art in the first two decades of the 20th century.  This year also marks the 155th anniversary of the artist's birth.

Mikhail Vasilevich Nesterov (1862-1942) was born in a patriarchal merchant family in the city of Ufa on the southwestern slopes of the Ural mountains. His father, who loved to read, dedicated special attention to his son's artistic talents, for which Mikhail was grateful his entire life.

At the age of 12, Nesterov moved to a Moscow secondary school, from which he transferred in 1977 to an art school. Two years later, he enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg, but he didn't like it, so he returned to Moscow. There he took art classes with Alexei Savrasov. Nesterov supported himself by illustrating books and magazines, including a collection of fairy tales by Pushkin. In 1886, his wife of one year died after giving birth to a girl.

His first major success came with "The Hermit" a painting he did for an exhibition of the Peredvizhniki (The Wanderers), a group of Russian realist painters that included such names as Repin and Serov, in 1889. With the money he received from the famous art collector Pavel Tretiakovsky, who bought the painting, he visited Austria, Italy, France and Germany. The trip made a lasting impression on the young Russian artist.

In 1890 he completed one of his most famous paintings, "The Vision of the Youth Bartholomew," inspired by an episode from the hagiography of St. Sergius of Radonezh, the greatest Russian saint from the 14th century. The artist thought that this painting, which caused a sensation at the following exhibition by Peredvizhniki, was his best work ever done.

That same year, the artist was invited to work on the fresco paintings of the Kiev Cathedral of St. Vladimir, where he worked with another great Russian artist and fresco painter, Viktor Vasnetsov. He spent the next twelve years working on other church commissions. In 1902, he remarried.

Two of his most famous paintings from the period before the October Revolution were Holy Rus (1906), depicting the appearance of Christ in Russia, and Philosophers (1917), showing the famous Russian thinkers and scholars Pavel Florensky and Sergei Bulgakov.

The last religious symbolic painting Nesterov did before the revolution is The Soul of the People, portraying an ecclesiastic procession following a young boy, including a holy fool with his arms raised in the air.

His reaction to the October Revolution is evident from a letter he sent two weeks after the event to a friend: "All life, thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams are crossed out, trampled, defiled. The great, dear to us, native and understandable Russia is gone. She was replaced in a few months. All that remains from her clever, gifted, proud people is something fantastic, barbarous, filthy and low [...] Everything has perished. The Pushkins are gone, there is no more Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, only a black hole, and the stinking evaporation of 'comrades' - soldiers, workers and all sorts of murderers and robbers - coming out of it [...] Day and night we  lived under shots [...] People were hunted like hares, we watched from the windows. One way or another, God has had mercy on us thus far. But we are still 'bourgeois,' to this day under threat, and as 'conscious' calves we are waiting for our lot. "

Having been a member of the Union of the Russian People, a right-wing nationalist party that supported the Tsar, he looked for a safer plan than Moscow, and moved in 1918 to a small town close to the Black Sea. He had to give up painting religious themes, and spent the rest of his life doing mostly portraits.

During Stalin's Great Purge in 1930, he was arrested and held for two weeks in a prison. His daughter was sent to a prison camp, but returned home, while her husband, a prominent lawyer, was shot.

In 1941, he was awarded a Stalin prize for his portrait of the famous scientist, Ivan Pavlov.

He died in a hospital after a stroke on October 18, 1942.

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