The end of the 19th and turn of the 20th century was a period of rich cultural growth for Russia. As the empire expanded, the Russian soul turned inward. Artists, musicians, and writers were fascinated by their semi-legendary past, the age of Rus. This led to the growth of a new kind of culture—entirely Western in technique, but old Russian in inspiration. It also heralded the beginning of a short-lived, but brilliant, revival of traditional Orthodoxy among all social classes.
One of the greatest artists of this time was Mikhail Nesterov, who is probably best known for his painting The Young Bartholomew.
What follows is part one of an examination of Nesterov’s life and work, adapted from a Russian article in Foma magazine (read the original here).
Nesterov was fascinated by monks, the monastic life, sketes, schemamonks, and the brides of Christ. Behind all these paintings, we seem to see a thoughtful man who did not quite fit in the busy world. Actually, nothing could be farther from the truth. Alexandre Benoit, himself a famous artist, said the following about the artist: “Nesterov, tortured by life, was a complex, torturously complex personality. He had a passionate temperament, implacable emotions, and a will that refused to be naysayed.”
So where did the images of profound contemplation and monasticism come from?
Nesterov himself answers this:
I sought a calm haven in art, in the themes of my paintings, in my landscapes and images. I rested there, and perhaps gave consolation to those who sought rest with me. A restless man, I thought I could find calm in my paintings, which are so little like me.”
Nesterov strove to find the peaceful heart of a pure life. He sought the quietness and peace of his monks and hermits who had come to know from experience how good and bright it is to live in the peace of God.
Thankfully, Nesterov avoided the fate of Gogol and many other writers and artists who were truly pious, but tragically cursed with the ability only to write or paint images of darkness or the grotesque. Nesterov’s gift was quite the opposite:
I was drawn as an artist to positive characters. It seemed to me that our literature and art had brought forth enough people who made their name by dishonoring themselves and their fatherland.”
His painting The Eremite explores this theme, the theme of “Holy Rus” as seen by Nesterov. This painting was exhibited in 1889.
Read the rest of this post on The Storyteller…