Mikhail Nesterov: Painter of the Soul
by Cathy Locke
Mikhail Nesterov was an artist whose work bridged the great shift in Russian political power of the twentieth century. To those of us in the West this means very little, but to a Russian artist who produced from the Tsarist regime through the 1917 Revolution and on into Stalin’s realm, it means quite a bit. He felt lost during his nine years at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (1876-1885) as he was criticized by both Ivan Kramskoy and Ilya Repin for his lack of talent. As Kramskoy put it “he should keep looking for his real vocation.” It wasn’t until the tragic death of his beloved first wife Maria in 1886 that Nesterov’s voice as an artist starts to emerge. He wrote, "My love for Masha [Maria] and losing her made me an artist, brought substance into my art that had not been there before, gave it feeling and a living soul, in a word, everything that people came to value, and still value in my art."1 Returning to his religious roots he found a subject matter that resonated with his very core and one upon which he could build. In many ways there was nothing extraordinary about his artistic skills in his St. Sergius Series, the body of work that first made him famous. The strength of the work, however, is in the way Nesterov simplified the compositions, allowing a single message to come through. Nesterov spent the second half of his life painting murals for cathedrals. Here his work is highly influenced by Mikhail Vrubel and Victor Vasnetsov. While Vrubel’s work exudes the emotions of our inner demons, Nesterov’s work is soft, delicate and mystical. It isn’t until Nesterov’s later years when he focused on portraiture that we see a real master’s skills start to emerge. Here we see Nesterov’s immense ability to translate the inner qualities of people onto the canvas.
Nesterov’s first critically significant painting was The Hermit (1888–1889). Critics claimed Nesterov as one of the best artists of his time and the great collector Pavel Tretyakov purchased the painting. His next series of paintings called the St. Sergius Series make up the construction of what became known as "Nesterov's Russia." Here Nesterov explores the religious ideal of the Russian soul, which is inseparable from nature. His very Christian interpretation of Russia centered on St. Sergius of Radonezh (1314-1392), a very popular saint known as the monastic reformer of medieval Russia. Nesterov’s painting, Vision of Youth Bartholomew (1889-1890), also purchased by Tretyakov, shows the future saint whose baptismal name was Bartholomew in honor of the Apostle Bartholomew. Though Bartholomew was an intelligent boy he had trouble learning to read. Nesterov’s painting depicts the boy during an angelic visitation where a spiritual elder hands him a piece of holy bread that gives him the ability to read. Upon the death of his parents Bartholomew became a monk, taking the name Sergius. After spending more than a year alone in the forest, Sergius began uniting communities through his gifts as an emissary. Nesterov’s painting, Murdered Prince Dmitrii (1899), depicts the Great Russian ruler Dmitri Donskoi (1350–1389), who consulted with Sergius before his battles against the Tatars. The artist felt that he had found his voice with this genre of painting, “That part of my soul, or my spirit that was the source of my art…[is] the corner of my very nature.”2 The strength of this work is in the way Nesterov has simplified the compositions by placing primarily a single figure in nature and unifying the color palette. He has chosen a religious theme that predates the Romanov dynasty making these paintings politically neutral at the time. This fact would have resonated with many Russians during the late 1800s.
In 1890, Nesterov moved to Kiev where he spent twenty years painting murals for various cathedrals. His work for St. Vladimir Cathedral in Kiev, under the supervision of the Russian artist Victor Vasnetsov, brought him great fame. He also did murals for the cathedral Savior on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg. After 1910, Nesterov spent the remainder of his life in Moscow, working on the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent. Nesterov designed the interior of the convent, which included the frescoes and mosaics. In 1911, a young Russian artist, Pavel Korovin (1892-1967), joined Nesterov as an apprentice. Nesterov used family members as models for these murals. He had a ten-year (1889-1898) relationship with Lyolya Prakhova who modeled for many of the frescoes at St. Vladimir Cathedral. Yulia Urusman became his second muse and her image can be seen in many of his paintings as well as frescoes in the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent. Nesterov described her features as refined with a spiritual face and enormously sad eyes full of deep feeling. They had several children, Vera and a son Fedya, who died in infancy. In 1902, Nesterov married his oldest daughter Olga’s teacher Yekaterina Vasilyeva (1879-1955). They met when Yekaterina came to see one of Nesterov’s most famous paintings Saint Russia. She fell in love with the artwork as well as the artist! They were faithful companions for forty years. Together they had three children: Natalya, Nastenka and Alexei. Nastenka died in infancy. After Alexei died in 1942, Nesterov tried to remain in good spirits and continue to paint. Nesterov died a few months later in October, in the arms of his wife, surrounded by his children and grandchildren.
After the St. Sergius series Nesterov began exploring the theme of Russian women’s sacred life, depicting the sacred feminine. One beautiful example of this theme is his painting The Taking of the Veil (1898). Here we see a procession of women of all ages leading a young woman to take her vows to become a nun. The painting is filled with symbolism placing Nesterov as part of the Russian Symbolist movement. The women walk along a narrow path in groups of three symbolizing the Holy Trinity. The novices are wearing white veils, known as an apostolnik, and carrying long, thin, white candles. They are pure of spirit carrying a fragile light. In contrast, the other women are richly dressed, wearing black veils and not carrying candles. Their feet feel firmly planted on the ground while the novices seem to be floating. Nesterov’s ability to create a quiet, soft presence makes us feel like a voyeur looking in on a very private moment of great sacrifice. The use of a cool color palette and soft brushwork add to a sense of looking into the world of the unseen. Nesterov has captured the embodiment of the spiritual in this masterpiece.
By the end of 1916 Nesterov’s work starts to take a definite turn. The political climate is changing. Russia has experienced devastating losses from World War I and its people are restless for change. Nesterov’s painting In the Land of Russia: The People’s Soul (1914-1916) captures the march of the invisible Christ that brought together all levels of Russian society. Here Nesterov paints people from all walks of Russian life: from the young Bartholomew to religious women and the holy fool known as St. Basil. As well we see military conquerors walking alongside the philosophers Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. This painting, considered his greatest religious work, symbolizes the mood of the Russian people and ushers in the Revolution of 1917. It is interesting to note that Nesterov’s son Alexei was the model for the young Bartholomew. The first few years of Vladimir Lenin’s rule (1917-1924) was a time of great hope for the Russian people and artists were encouraged to explore new ways of thinking. By the time Joseph Stalin came to office (1922-1952), artists were forced to produce propaganda artwork that supported the efforts of the Soviet party. Religion was frowned upon by the Soviets and over half of the churches in Moscow alone were closed. Nesterov's Christian interpretation of Russia was completely out-of-step with the new political regime and he was forced to turn to portraiture. Many paintings were taken out of the museums and put into storage. The vast collection of Impressionist paintings in Russia were taken off their stretcher bars, rolled, and put on trains to Siberia. This included Matisse’s Dance and Music. Luckily Nesterov was allowed to live and work in Russia, unlike many of his associates and friends, or even close relatives. A number of Nesterov’s friends were expulsed from Russia, including the acclaimed Russian philosophers Sergei Bulgakov and Ivan Ilyin whose portraits he had painted. The priest Pavel Florensky, whom Nesterov also painted, was imprisoned and executed in the late 1930s. In 1938, Nesterov’s daughter Olga was arrested, along with the law professor Victor Shreter. She was released from the labor camps in 1941 after her father, then a Stalin Prize winner, and his famous friends, pulled some strings. In 1925, Nesterov himself spent several months in a Moscow prison. Many of Nesterov's compositions, such as In the Land of Russia (The Soul of the People) and his St. Sergius Series were not placed back on display until the end of the 1980s. Even though the last twenty years of Nesterov’s life were devoted to painting portraits, he remained loyal to his voice as an artist. In his portraits created in the 1930s of "Soviet cultural figures," he painted people from his social circle that shared his worldview and way of life. These were people who valued human life and were kindred spirits to him, not people who were part of the new Soviet intelligentsia. In March 1941, Nesterov was awarded the Stalin Prize of the first degree for his portrait of the acclaimed physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1935). He painted two versions of this portrait: one hangs at the Tretyakov Gallery and the 1930 version is in the Russian Museum. Nesterov was one of the most popular artists of his time; since 1907 there have been over 15 solo shows of his work in Russia. In 1898, after much debate within his family, Nesterov donated the majority of his St. Sergius series to the Tretyakov Gallery. He gave away thousands of dollars of work but it was something he felt was the right thing to do. Today an entire room at the Tretyakov Gallery is dedicated to this series of work.
About this Painting
In this painting Nesterov idealizes the perfect Russian woman – strong yet frail. He painted it in between two dangerous operations that Olga had to undergo for severe headaches. In this portrait he is expressing his fear of losing her. This painting was compared to Valentine Serov’s “Girl with Peaches (Portrait of Vera Mamontova)” by Nesterov’s friend Sergei Durylin, who said of Serov’s painting: “This is the best and the fairest Russian young woman of the 1880s” and that Nesterov’s portrait “is the best and fairest Russian young woman of the early 1900s.” Nesterov considered this portrait among his best works.
1 Tretyakov Gallery Magazine, Mikhail Nesterov's Family in His Art, by Olga Ivanova
Article: EXCLUSIVE PUBLICATIONS, Magazine number: #1 2013 (38)
2 Tretyakov Gallery Magazine, Mikhail Nesterov's Family in His Art, by Olga Ivanova
Article: EXCLUSIVE PUBLICATIONS, Magazine number: #1 2013 (38)
Tretyakov Gallery Magazine, Mikhail Nesterov in Search of His Russia, by Lydia Lovleva
Article: Current Exhibitions, Magazine number: #1 2013 (38)
Bibliotekar, Portrait of Mikhail Nesterov in Life and Work, by Sergey Durylin
Russiapedia, Prominent Russians: Mikhail Nesterov, by Olga Pigareva, RT, http://russiapedia.rt.com/prominent-russians/art/mikhail-nesterov/
About the Author:
Cathy Locke is an award-winning fine art painter, professor, and published writer, specializing in Russian art of the 19th and 20th centuries. She organizes annual art excursions to Russia every summer and is the editor of Musings-on-art.org.