Nikolai Roerich, seen here in a painting by his son, Svetslav Roerich, was a painter, stage designer and founder of cultural institutions. The son of a lawyer of Scandinavian descent, he graduated from the studio of the landscape painter Arkhip Kuindzhi at the Academy of Fine Arts (1897) and from the faculty of law at the University of St Petersburg (1898). He then studied in Paris with the history painter Fernand Cormon (1900). Roerich had wide interests and made an important contribution to Russian culture: he lectured at the Institute of Archaeology (1898); he became secretary of the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts (1901) and director of its school (1906); and he was the first chairman of the World of Art Society (1910). The first volume of his collected cultural writings was published in Moscow in 1914. As a painter he exhibited with the Academy from 1897, World of Art from 1902, the Vienna Secession c. 1905 and the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1906. From c. 1903 he was a leading member of the artists’ colony at Talashkino, where he designed mosaics, friezes, murals and furniture. As a stage designer in Russia, he worked between 1907 and 1915 for such directors as Nikolay Yevreinov (1879–1953), Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863–1938) and Serge Diaghilev. His designs for the Ballets Russes productions of Prince Igor (1909) and Le Sacre du printemps , 1913; costumes at London, Theatre Museum, have become classics.
Roerich was a painter of landscapes, some with architectural features, and of imaginary historical scenes. Like most other Russians of his generation, he favoured representational images and shunned abstraction. Similarly he ignored the realism of the Wanderers. He blended various influences: Old Russian Revival, French Symbolism, Italian primitivism, as well as Byzantine and Oriental painting, to achieve a distinctive and monumental style, emphasising atmosphere rather than detail. His paintings were stylised, with simplified outlines and the flat areas of colour for which he became noted. He began to work with oil but changed to pastel, and then in 1906, to tempera. During his time in Russia, Roerich’s painting was strongly shaped by archaeology, legend and folklore. The Forefathers (Oxford, Ashmolean), a Symbolist canvas in muted blue, green and yellow tempera, painted at Talashkino in 1911, shows an ancient Slavic piper surrounded by bears against a background of undulating hills. Based on Slavic legend and inspired by the northern Russian countryside, it combines the talents of the historian, folklorist and landscape painter.
Roerich left Russia c. 1917 and worked as an émigré artist in other countries: Finland and Scandinavia (1917–19), England (1919–20) and the USA (1920–23). His reputation as a painter, charisma as a cultural activist and association with the Eastern philosophy of Agni Yoga (a mystical system developed by his wife, Elena Schaposchnikova, an eminent theosophist) attracted sponsors for his projects in the USA and India. While in New York he founded the Master Institute of United Arts (1921) and the International Art Center (1922). He led an American artistic–scientific expedition around Central Asia (1924–8), then settled at Nagar in the Himalayas where he founded the Himalayan Research Institute (1929). Meanwhile a 29-storey residential museum was erected in New York (1929) to house his paintings and cultural institutions as well as other collections of European and Oriental art.
Roerich’s Asian paintings were influenced by his interest in Eastern philosophy and religion. Tibet , New York, Roerich Museum, is another Symbolist canvas, painted in the Himalayas in 1933 in cool blue and white tempera, with monastery buildings, Buddhist stupas and a prayer flag clustered together in the vortices of snow-covered Tibetan mountains. Through its atmosphere of mystery, antiquity and spirituality it combines the approaches of artist, archaeologist and philosopher. After seven years of campaigning, Roerich established the Roerich Pact (1935), an international treaty for safeguarding cultural treasures and institutions. Best known in the West as a stage designer, he worked between 1919 and 1944 for Sir Thomas Beecham (1879–1961), Leopold Stokowsky (1882–1977) and Léonide Massine (1896–1979), among others. He spent his final years (1936–47) at Nagar, painting Himalayan scenes and writing.
Roerich is represented in the following collections: State Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow; Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York; Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Nizhni Novgorod Art Museum, Russia; Oglethorpe University Museum, Georgia; Hood Museum of Art, New Hampshire; The Latvian National Museum of Art, Riga; Roerich Hall Estate in Kulu Valley, Himachal-Pradesh, India; Russian State Museum, St Petersburg, amongst others.