Homage to Russian painter Mikhail Nesterov

By Olivia Kroth

On the 31st of May, Russia celebrates the 150th birthday of Mikhail Nesterov, one of its most famous and popular painters, who lived from 1862 to 1942.

He was born in a merchant family of Ufa, Bashkortostan. His parents gave the boy an Orthodox education, which is mirrored later in his art as a continuous religious and philosophical quest.

In 1874, Mikhail Nesterov left Ufa to study art in Moscow where he met fellow artist Vasily Perov, who became his close friend.

From 1879 on, Nesterov showed his paintings in various exhibitions to an appreciative and interested public. He painted in the style of the Peredvizhniki, the Wanderers, an artistic group he had joined in Moscow.

In 1881, the painter moved to Saint Petersburg and enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Arts, but he soon found out that he preferred life in Moscow, so he returned there in 1882.

During a vacation in his home town Ufa, Mikhail Nesterov met Maria Martynovskaya. He married her in 1885, against the will of his parents.

Unfortunately, Maria died one year later when giving birth to their daughter, Olga. Mikhail mourned the loss of his wife for a long time. Several female figures in his later work bear the delicate features of his dead wife.

In a particularly striking painting, dated 1885, the wedding year, Maria is portrayed as "The Girl with Kokoshnik." Maria's beautiful face with creamy skin is seen in half-profile. Her forehead and eyes are covered by the fringes of the traditional Russian headwear for women, called kokoshnik.

The shimmering pearls and glass beads of the fringe, arranged in a lace pattern, are sown to the border of the headdress. The kokoshnik of yellow satin is tied at the back of Maria's head with long brown and black ribbons in a bow.

It is certainly no coincidence that Nesterov painted his wife with this typically Russian headwear. Its usage reaches back as far as the 10th century. Nesterov was a traditional artist who chose themes of Russian history, mythology and Orthodox religion for his paintings.

Due to the early loss of Maria, the widower turned inwards. In 1886, a meditative phase began in the painter's life. In the following decade, his favorite motif was Russian nature. The pictures of birch and fir woods, large plains with wide horizons and silvery streams show Nesterov's love for his homeland.  

During this period he created his own style, the unmistakable "Nesterovian landscape." The philosopher and political writer, Vasily Rozanov, said of Nesterov, "He is one of the most ascetically beautiful Russian people I have met in my entire life. It is impossible to forget the spiritual energy radiating from his paintings. He created the Nesterov style, and this style cannot be repeated."

In 1890, Mikhail Nesterov began to paint a cycle about the life of Saint Sergius of Radonezh, the founder of the Trinity Lavra of Saint Sergius. One painting of this cycle, "The Vision of Young Bartholomew," became a sensation at the 18th exhibition of the Wanderers. Art critics consider it to be one of the artist's masterpieces.

He was invited to participate in the renovation of the Vladimir Cathedral in Kiev, where he painted the murals. He also decorated the interior of the Intercession Cathedral of the Martha and Maria Monastery in Moscow.

In 1901, Nesterov retired to the Monastery of Solovetski in order to meditate and paint religious themes like "Holy Russia" (1901 - 1906). Towards the end of this spiritual retreat, he married Elena Vasilieva in 1905 and joined the traditionalist painters' "Union of the Russian people."

At the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917, Mikhail Nesterov moved to the Caucasus for three years. He returned to Moscow in 1920. Of profound Orthodox faith, he was shocked by the atrocities of the civil war.

During the last phase of his life, the artist devoted himself to creating portraits of friends and famous personalities. Thus he depicted the writer Leo Tolstoy, the singer Feodor Shaliapin, the professor Ivan Pavlov, and many other Russian intellectuals of his time.

Two portraits of his daughter Olga show a slim, elegant young woman with dark hair and the delicate features of her dead mother, Maria.

In the "Portrait of Olga Nesterova" (1905) she sits in an armchair next to a writing table that displays a collection of photos in silver frames. Olga wears stylish clothes, a self-assured young woman going with the times.

"Amazone" (1906) presents Olga in a tight-fitted black velvet riding habit of ankle length. The only color spot is her little red riding cap. An homage to the Red Revolution?

Mikhail Nesterov was no friend of the revolution, but he adjusted to it as he could, avoiding political discussions and retreating into private life. He died in 1942, the second year of the Great Patriotic War, and is buried at the Novodievichi Cemetery in Moscow.

The Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg is hosting an exhibition devoted to Mikhail Nesterov's 150th anniversary. The museum presents about 200 paintings and graphic works that have come from private collections and from museums all over Russia for the occasion.

The artist's legacy can be found everywhere in the country, also in Belarus and Ukraine. Every museum possessing a few "Nesterovs" proudly exhibits them: the Art Museum of Minsk/Belarus, the Museum of Russian Art in Kiev/Ukraine, the Saratov State Art Museum, the Bashkortostan Art Museum in Ufa, the Art Museum of Nishny Novgorod and the Yekaterinburg Museum of Fine Arts. Three museums in Moscow own works of Nesterov as well: the Museum of Maxim Gorki, the Museum of Leo Tolstoy and the Tretyakov Gallery.

The Russian Government sees the importance of museums for safekeeping and showcasing culture. There are 2,500 museums in Russia. Within the next six years, the budget allocations for museum activities will be quadrupled, President Vladimir Putin promised at a recent meeting with museum directors in Saratov.

Educational programs and special exhibits will be funded, also more money will be paid for insurance, maintenance, repairs and storage facilities. According to the museum directors, additional 500,000 square meters of museum depositories are needed.

Sponsorship and patronage of the arts have increased in Russia over the past years, as the interest of the public in museums is constantly growing. More government subsidies are required to safeguard and display all of Russia's immense cultural riches. This will be one of the challenges in Vladimir Putin's new presidential term from 2012 to 2018.                 

Prepared for publication by:
Lisa Karpova


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Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov