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Nicholas K. Roerich

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"The sense of beauty will save the world" (N.K.Roerich)

The Soviet painter Nicholas Konstantinovitsch Roerich and his symbolic world has fascinated me since a friend many years ago sent me the two postcards shown below.  I liked his fantasy world, "big brush", and ardent colours, showing paintings of a spiritual and symbolic nature.     

Nicholas Konstantinovich Roerich was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on October 9, 1874, the first-born son of lawyer and notary, Konstantin Roerich and his wife Maria. He was raised in the comfortable environment of an upper middle-class Russian family with its advantages of contact with the writers, artists, and scientists who often came to visit the Roerichs.  At an early age he showed a curiosity and talent for a variety of activities. When he was nine, a noted archeologist came to conduct explorations in the region and took young Roerich on his excavations of the local tumuli. The adventure of unveiling the mysteries of forgotten eras with his own hands sparked an interest in archeology that would last his lifetime.  Through other contacts he developed interests in collecting prehistoric artifacts, coins, and minerals, and built his own arboretum for the study of plants and trees. 

Bulgaria. 1978. Symbolism. N.K. Roerich. Self-portrait.

Nicholas Roerich. Symbolism. Self-portrait.

While still quite young, Roerich showed a particular aptitude for drawing, and by the time he reached the age of sixteen he began to think about entering the Academy of Art and pursuing a career as an artist. 

His father did not consider painting to be a fit vocation for a responsible member of society, however, and insisted that his son follow his own steps in the study of law. A compromise was reached, and in the fall of 1893 Nicholas enrolled simultaneously in the Academy of Art and at St. Petersburg University. 

  • Bulgaria 1978. Nicholas Roerich. Self-portrait. 
  • Nicholas Roerich.  Self Portrait, from which the stamp on the far left is produced.


In 1895 Roerich met the prominent writer, critic, and historian, Vladimir Stasov. Through him he was introduced to many of the composers and artists of the time -- Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, and the basso Fyodor Chaliapin. At concerts at the Court Conservatory he heard the works of Glazunov, Liadov, Arensky, Wagner, Scriabin, and Prokofiev for the first time, and an avid enthusiasm for music was developed. Wagner in particular appealed to him, and later, during his career as a theater designer, he created designs for most of that composer's operas. Moreover, musical terms and analogies can appropriately be applied to Roerich's painting. He frequently related music to the use of color and color harmonies, and applied this sense to his designs for opera. As Nina Selivanova wrote in her book, The World of Roerich: “The original force of Roerich's work consists in a masterly and marked symmetry and a definite rhythm, like the melody of an epic song.”

USSR 1990. Nicholas Roerich. Symbolism.  Unkrada,  1909. USSR 1974. Nicholas Roerich. Symbolism. Visitors from Abroad, 1901. Russia 1990. Nicholas Roerich. Symbolism. Pskovo-Petschorskij Monastery, 1907.

The stamps shown on this page are the only ones issued on a world wide basis, so I am proud to show you a complete collection of this painter's work.  

The late 1890's saw a blossoming in Russian arts, particularly in St. Petersburg, where the avant-garde was forming groups and alliances, led by the young Sergei Diaghilev, who was a year or two ahead of Roerich at law school and was among the first to appreciate his talents as a painter and student of the Russian past. 

Nicholas Roeric. Symbolism. Painting #1. Nicholas Roerich. Symbolism. Painting #2.

One of Diaghilev's first achievements was the founding, with Princess Maria Tenisheva and others, of the magazine The World of Art. This magazine enjoyed a relatively short life but had an important influence in Russian art circles. The magazine declared itself the enemy of the academicians, the sentimentalists, and the realists. It introduced to its readership, which was made up mostly of the intelligentsia, the vital elements of Russian artistic circles, European post-impressionism, and the modernist movement. Roerich contributed to it and sat on its editorial board. Other Russian painters involved were Alexandre Benois and Leon Bakst, who later became Roerich's co-workers in the early days of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.  

After finishing his university thesis, Roerich planned to set off for a year in Europe to visit the museums, exhibitions, studios, and salons of Paris and Berlin. Just before leaving he met Helena, daughter of the architect Shaposhnikov and niece of the composer Mussorgsky. There seems to have been an immediate mutual attraction, and they were soon engaged to be married. On his return from Europe their marriage took place. 

While Nicholas is identified with nature and landscape paintings, his son, S.N. Roerich, is known more for portraits. His famous portraits of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi adorn the walls of Parliament House. His other well-known works include a few landscapes and the portraits of N.K. Roerich, Elena Roerich and Devika Rani.
  • Russia 2004. 100th birth anniversary of Nicholas Roerich's son, S.N. Roerich. 

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