The Artist Who Breathed Magic into the Russian Landscape (Ivan Shishkin)

Tretyakov, the greatest Russian art collector of all time, had one criterion for art. He wrote:

“I do not need any rich nature, no great composition, no spectacular lighting, no miracles, give me even just a puddle of mud, but let there be truth in it, poetry …”

Just Give Me Truth

It was drawing poetry from puddles that Ivan Shishkin, the famed Russian landscape artist, excelled at; it was what he did from childhood and until death paused him at the easel

He quit school at the fresh age of 16 because he was repulsed by the idea of becoming a civil servant. Despite his mother’s intense irritation, he quietly returned to his native city Yelabuga in rural Russia.

There were no stupendous snow-capped mountains in Russia, no Grand Canyons, no oceans or volcanoes, so for four years straight Shishkin drew exactly what he saw: swamps, felled trees, endless dry grass, midday sunshine and always, roads.

Ivan would wake and leave before dawn with his drawing bag. He came back after dark.

His love affair with nature started then and kept growing deeper throughout all of his life. Friends would later say

“And when he is in front of nature … he is precisely in his element, here he is both bold and nimble. Here he doesn’t have to stop to think;  he knows how what and wherefore ..” 

Ivan came from a strict and traditional merchant family. His relatives bristled against his shenanigans and wanted him to pursue a stable career, complaining that he was turning into a worthless, loner. 

Only his father quietly sympathised with his son. He finally blessed his wayward 20-year-old son to leave the village and study art first in Moscow, then in St. Petersburg.

“Midday. Near Moscow” 1869
A Stoic Philosophy of Art

Having finally been allowed to follow his passion, Shishkin threw all his passion into his studies. 

For four years in Moscow (1852-1856) he worked under the guidance of the renown artist A.N. Mokritsky, who taught that the way of an artist is work, restraint, and sacrifice.

“Who wants to be a true, that is, a great artist, must follow Christ – take up the cross and bear it, renounce the worldly goods and love art”

Later, Shiskin himself would tell his students:

“The artist’s characteristics are sobriety, moderation in everything, love of art, modesty of character, conscientiousness and honesty …  

He deeply believed that art, true art, could only be born from a moral character, toughened by restraint and honesty. He approached it as a duty and an act of love, one which would be defiled by a shade of pretence or dishonesty. 

Professional Success and Personal Struggles

After Ivan finished in Moscow, he studied industriously in the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg (in the same academy that his future friend left with a scandal) and received a scholarship to go study in Europe.

Success came relatively easily to Shishkin. In Europe, he quickly gained acclaim and when he returned to Russia, he joined a famous art society called “the Wanderers.” Artists, Russian and European, as well as the general public, were charmed by his work and his paintings sold easily. 

Shishkin’s personal life followed a more tumultuous path. In his 30s, he married his friend’s sister and fully dedicated himself to his young family. However,  within the span of three years, he lost two sons and his first wife, who died of tuberculosis. 

Some time afterwards, as he slowly regained a semblance of normalcy, he fell in love with his talented female art student, Olga Lagoda. They soon married and had a daughter. However, a year later, Olga, too, died.

The twice-widowed man was beyond himself from pain. He moved back to his homeland and spent time in nature, struggling to not succumb to alcoholism. It was nature and his deep-rooted sense that he had to continue working always that helped him resurface and, once again, throw his energy into art.

“the wilds” 1981, the year that Shishkin’s second wife, Olga, died

Here, too, perhaps his faith came into play. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who were toying with alternate faiths and atheism, Shishkin consistently believed in God throughout his life.

From his correspondence with his parents in 1956:

“But what about God? He has showed me the way which I am pursuing now. It is He who guides me and, as God does, will all of a suddenly lead to my goal.

A firm hope for God comforts in such cases, and throws off shell of dark thoughts off me

Art and Science Are Partners in Truth

Many of Shishkin’s ideas were surprisingly modern, such as the belief in the artist’s close connection with the scientific discoveries and technologies of the era.

Shishkin was not just a landscape artist–he was an avid learner of science, technology and photography.  He believed that an artist had the duty to understand, to the furthest possible extent, what he was trying to depict, and to depict it as precisely as possible.

Once, he came to his friend’s, Repin’s, art studio, (another very famous artist) and carefully looking at his new painting of raft on a river, asked what which wood it was built from.

“What’s the difference?” Repin asked in surprise.

Shishkin answered very simply. If you build a raft from one tree, the logs swell. If you use another other, they sink. It’s only from the third, the right one, that you can get a buoyant sturdy raft.

It is this attention to details, precise, perfect details, that characterizes Shishkin’s art. His fellow artist friend Kramskoy said called him “a realist, a realist to the very marrow of his bones” but one who “deeply felt and heatedly loved nature.”

Indeed, one can tell that Shishkin had touched moss and bark with his hands, that he had examined the texture of what he drew intently and passionately, with both the rigorous mind of a scientist and the singing heart of a  poet.

Just truth for the realist

Unlike many artists of the time, who produced lavish, saturated, over-romanticized nature scenes, Shishkin’s paintings give off an earthy believability.

In fact, his tenacious insistence upon portraying reality annoyed some of his contemporaries, who believed in more abandon and free interpretation of the natural world. 

But Shishkin had an almost reverent approach to nature, as though it had the right to be represented exactly as it was, a perfection that man couldn’t improve. He believed that even the smallest things held the grandest idea, the reflection of the grand scheme.

In it, as in the artist, there is no pathos, but only a deep and sincere admiration of the greatness of the earth, his country. 

His close friend, a priest-academic named Nevostroev, wrote to Shishkin that:

“The beauty surrounding us is the beauty of the divine thought diffused in nature, and the artist’s task is to convey this idea as accurately as possible on his canvas.”

That’s why Shishkin is so scrupulous in his landscapes.  He was not trying to make nature reflect his own individuality or genius. He wanted to his drawing to help bring about the scintillating moment when, the great creating power he so worshipped, would touch the hearts of his viewers.

He was always waiting for the moment when:

 “Russian nature, alive and spiritualized, peers out from the canvases of Russian artists”

“Rye” 1978. In a draft’s margin  “Expansion, space, land, rye, the grace of God, Russian wealth”.

(See high-quality image here)

Where Did All the People Go?

People don’t show up often in Shishkin’s landscapes, and when they do, they are but a humble, though lovely, chord in nature’s grand symphony, a symphony he believed was conducted by God.

Towards the end of his life, Shishkin’s always triumphant, sun-drenched paintings sometimes gave way scenes of more gloomy forests and even of winter.

It seems that a sense of foreboding shadowed Shishkin’s final years, as his reply to questions posed by a newspaper in 1893 suggest:

“The main feature of my character: straightness, simplicity.

My main virtue: Frankness.

My current state of mind: Anxious “[6].

Shishkin was deeply concerned by the “fermentation of minds” that characterized the last decades of his life, the decades that were swiftly bringing the nation to the catastrophe of the Revolution of 1917.

New, materialistic, heated, revolutionary ideas were crowding out ancient traditional values. The growing tendency for ‘utilitarian insanity” (an expression coined by Shishkin’s contemporary philosopher Leontiev) posited everything, including nature, as a means of progress.  

Perhaps this human-oriented, disrespectful, and conflicted approach to nature that threatened to disrupt the peaceful interaction between man and nature that Shishkin so valued was what made him more reticent about inviting humans to his later canvasses.

Shishkin very rarely expressed his worry, but he did say: 

“The kingdom of mediocrity is coming in. And after all, it happens for one reason, for one reason – the person departs from the Church and forgets the idea, the ideals of the nation.” 

The Death of an Artist

Ivan Ivanovich died, like a true artist, with a brush in his hand. On March 8, 1898, aged 66 years, Shishkin was sitting at the easel and working on a new painting “Forest Kingdom.”

His student, who was working with him in the studio, said that the artist raised his hand to make a stroke on the canvas when his head fell helplessly on his chest. The doctor diagnosed the cause of death as a heart attack.

Here is Shishkin’s last finished painting:

“The Animal Kingdom” 1898At the exhibit a few days before, a critic had exclaimed:

“The picture plays, a strong, wonderful note – I congratulate you, I’m not alone, everyone is delighted, bravo …

It smells of pine at the exhibit! Sun, light has arrived! .. »


The Story Behind Russia’s Most Famous Painting of Christ – Ivan Kramskoy’s ‘Christ in the Desert’

A few months before he was due to graduate with honours from the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, Ivan Kramskoy (1837-1887) organized the notorious ‘Revolt of the 14.”

He led a group of his best friends (who also happened to be the most promising students of the graduating class of 1864) as they marched into the university main office and furiously presented a list of complaints and demands to the administration.

They proudly denounced the unbearable constraints of academic art, it’s strict delineations between high and low art, it’s deadness and impotency.

workshop of a wanderer

The administration expelled them on the spot, suggesting to the police authorities that they keep a watch out over the unwieldy bunch.

Nonplused, the ex-students formed a tight-knit, intensely philosophical and energetic, independent artistic society which they called ‘The Wanderers” (Передвижники).

Less then 10 years later, “the Wanderers” brigade set the beat in the thriving cultural and artistic scene of Russia in the late 1800s. (They produced some of the most incredible Russian spiritual paintings. More here)

At an 1872 exhibit in St. Petersburg, Ivan Kramskoy revealed his long-awaited work: “Christ in the Dessert.”

Christ in the Desert

a trip into the past

It had taken him years work and thought to complete. Before he had even attempted to start painting, he roamed through Germany, France, and Italy, a man on a mission.

He knew needed to see everything that had been done on the topic before.

How had others seen that particular scene of Christ’s life? How had others imagined it, what colours had they used, what feelings had the artists of old communicated?

Piero della Francesca (c1463)

In his letters home, Ivan praised the Italian artists, but something about their Christ deeply disturbed him

“He’s divine, but an alien to our time, it’s terrible to say … in my opinion in them he is blasphemed”

“He has the look of an Italian aristocrat ….one with a dry heart, a look that could not belong to a person of all-encompassing love.”

Kramskoy also visited the Crimean peninsula in the southwest of the Russian Empire. It was the closest thing he could get to the climate of Palestine.

He walked the terrain from sunrise to sunset, trying to decode the feelings of someone who was left one-on-one with his reveries in a rocky, bare and mountainous desert.

the salt deserts of crimea


will they understand?

The painting caused an uproar at the exhibit, sparking discussion, debates, confusion on the spot. Arguments about it continued outside, in the newspapers and magazines.

Vsevolod Garshin, a writer of the time, took it upon himself to resolve the elusive and unresolved sense about the painting.

He wrote an anonymous letter to Kramskoy asking him to settle the debates once and for all.

Is this the morning of the 41st day, when Christ has already decided and is ready to go meet suffering and death? Or is this the moment when ‘the devil came to him’, as my opponents argue?

In the letter, he explores also his own ecstatic understanding of the painting, reading into the painting and offering his own explanation even as he asks for one.

The features that you gave to your creation, in my opinion, do not at all serve to excite pity for the “sufferer”…No, they immediately amazed me as an expression of enormous moral strength, a hatred of evil and a complete determination to fight it.

He (Jesus) is absorbed with what the actions that he must undertake, he searches in his head all that he will say to the despicable and unfortunate people, whom he had left when he went to the desert to think in freedom

Suffering does not concern him now: it is so small, so insignificant in comparison with what is now in his chest, that the thought of it doesn’t come to Jesus’ head.

Vsevolod Garshin

Garshin mentions that there were even people who questioned the identity of the hero of the painting. He mocks them for not seeing what to him is absolutely evident.

A certain someone even directly blurted out that your Christ is Hamlet!

Now, if we are looking for literary types to compare him to, he is more like Don Quixote…

But, this comparison is also bad, because your Christ–is Christ.


a spiritual struggle

Kramskoy replied to Garshin’s plea immediately, in the form of an entire article. It was as though he had just been waiting to be asked.

He never conclusively answered Garshin’s question but described with openness the doubt, fear and sense of urgency that had haunted him in his search for the right form for Christ.

Here are his own words:

“… For each person, imperfect, maybe, but still created in the image and likeness of God, there comes a moment in life, when he falls into contemplation: should he go to the right or to the left? Should he ‘take a ruble’ for the Lord God or not to yield a single step to evil?”

“In the morning, weary, exhausted, suffering, he sits alone among the stones, sad, cold stones; hands convulsively and tightly clenched, legs injured, head bowed down …

He is thinking hard, has remained silent for a long while, so long ago that his lips are baked, his eyes do not notice objects …

His reply relays an unexpected, raw pain and sense of immediacy, as though the painting process became a matter of intense importance to him.

He does not feel anything, it’s a little cold, just so that he seems to be stiff from long and motionless sitting.

And around him, nowhere and nothing rocks even a bit, only on the horizon black clouds are floating from the east … And he is still thinking, thinking, terror begins to take over  …

How many times have I cried before this figure!?

Like so many other artists, the closer Kramskoy came to capturing the image he had imagined, the greater the vision loomed. He felt more and more inadequate in his attempt to convey even the shadow of his great ideal.

How does one proceed? As though this is possible to draw! And you ask yourself, and you ask justly: can I draw Christ?

No, I can not, I could not, yet I still drew, and didn’t stop drawing until the painting was inserted it into the frame.

I kept drawing until the others saw it, too – in conclusion, I committed, perhaps, a blasphemy , but I could not NOT draw … “.

Ivan Kramskoy – self portrait

As time went on, the search for artistic forms morphed into a search for spiritual truths.

“Christ in the desert” – is my first thing that I worked on seriously, drew with tears and blood …,

it is the result of my deep suffering … the result of many years of searching … “.

He wrote to his friend and student Fyodor Vasilyev (another talented artist).

How afraid I was that they would drag my” Christ “to an international court and all the slobbering monkeys would poke their fingers on Him and drool their criticism … “.


When the exhibit was ending, Kramskoy was approached by a famous art collector. The artist named a handsome sum for the time: 6,000 rubles.

The painting was sold on the spot. Today, it can be seen in the most famous art gallery in Moscow, the Tretyakov gallery.

Perhaps it had been hard for Kramskoy to part with that particular painting, but it was part of the philosophy of the Wanderers to sell what they created.

Their dream was for art to populate and change Russian society from the inside.

Indeed, if a painting like “Christ in the Dessert” fails to change us, what will succeed?



Russian Artist Finds Out He is Dying, Paints 1000 Images of Christ

What do you do when you find out you are dying?

Alexander Lepetuhin, a successful Russian artist, was 52 years old when he discovered that he had a serious pancreatic disease. It was accompanied by acute, consistent and almost unbearable, pain. Soon, a malignant tumor developed. For months, he lived from hospital to hospital, from operating room to operating room.

During one of his visits to the ER, Alexander was told conclusively that he had four years to live, maybe, if he was lucky – eight. Then and there, he gave an oath: his artistic talent would now speak only of matters of faith.

In his own words:

“Fine, I decided. Then all that time I will spend drawing Christ and his apostles.”

Moderate success in the art arena had smiled on him throughout most of his life. As a child, he joined a drawing club in his hometown, Nikolaevsk-on-Amur,  and found himself under the guidance of a talented teacher, who had been personally trained by the renown Russian landscape artist Konstantin Korovin (See examples of Korovin’s work here).

He went on to finish college as a Fine Arts major, become a member of the illustrious Union of Russian Artists and teach as a professor in the Department of Fine Arts at the Khabarovsk University. His personal art exhibits appeared all over Russia and travelled to Germany.

The Way of the Artist

Alexander’s coming to the faith, like that of a fellow artist, Pavel Ryzhenko, came later in his life. It was a long, conscious, arduous process, but when the transition happened, it was complete and irrevocable, changing the trajectory of his artistic path.

Alexander had turned 50. It was the fall of 1998, towards the end of the Wild 90s. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 left a void. An absence of a cohesive political, economic or social structure resulted in a period of chaotic experimentation and almost complete lawlessness in Russia.

In the 1990s, all doors seemed to stand wide open but there was no longer any stable ground under the feet. A barrage of new ideas and melodies surged into the huge, suddenly half-lost nation.

And amid economic crisis, social upheaval, and political confusion, what many Russians were desperately searching for was a spirituality that ‘worked.’

Like many of his contemporaries, Alexander dabbled in Eastern religions and philosophies. In his search for a faith, he visited various Christian clubs and churches. Eventually, though, his internal compass pointed him back to his roots. He decided on Orthodoxy.

In his own words:

The real changes in me began when the Powerful Force grabbed me by the collar and brought me to the church to be baptized. The pull was so acute that I all but ran. I was baptized and immediately found myself in a miracle. I saw the whole world, threaded with light and full of love”

How do you preach without preaching?

Baptism didn’t really change Alexander’s life worldly and social life. He never experienced the desire to become a monk or priest. Nor did he attempt to paint icons.

His friend group, also, remained the same, comprised the typical milieu that surrounds artists and intellectual: sceptics and thinkers, most often agnostics and atheists.

He was animated and fiery in his defense of Christianity. But he never offended anyone; most importantly, he was adamant about never imposing his ideas or belief on anyone’s free will.

He said in one of his interviews:

“In essence, all that I am trying to do in these last years in my art is to speak of Christianity beyond the walls of the church. My mission is to find form, give life to the form. Against the image, it is impossible to argue logically. It enters straight into the soul, into the subconscious.”

The Path of the Christian

And, so, the cycle of about 1000 Paintings was born. Alexander called it ‘the Path’ as it literally pictures the path of Christ and the Apostles.

More than anything, it is a contemplation and exploration of a path, the Path. A search for an idea, a throbbing question of how to follow Christ…how hard, how beautiful, how incessant that search must have been and always will be, both for the famous fishermen and modern men and women.

instructing the Apostles

The exact quantity of the paintings are in the series has not yet been established, but it’s about 1000 pieces, carried out in different techniques and styles.  Alexander’s art doesn’t seek to retell or illustrate the Bible; he makes no attempt to be realistic.

The author avoids details that would distract from the core idea of the scene. His artistic language is strict and laconic, unusually expressive in its simplicity.

The story told in the paintings is always very straightforward. The disciples follow Christ throughout the Holy Land. The landscapes, interiors, the crowd in the background change, but the main spotlight remains on Christ and the future apostles.

With time, the series included the classical evangelical scenes such as the Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension and the miracle on Lake Tiberias. But even the most familiar scenes become strange, acuter and yet more transcendent in Alexander’s simplistic and minimalist rendering.

Stripped down to the bare basics, his images are driven try to recreate the atmosphere of a particular scenario, the emotion it inspired in primary actors of the human – and divine – drama. Perhaps it was for that reason that Alexander would often redraw a particular scene in different styles, trying to find the one best suited to reveal the substance of the moment.

Art, colours, shapes and textures, for Alexander, seem to have been tools, almost arbitrary ones, that he used to find the truth he was trying to grasp, one that lay beyond reality and earth. It was what he was looking for in life and beyond it.

“If he’s alive he has everything in his power! Whose fault is it he doesn’t understand that”

So bitterly proclaims a character in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, a young man who struggles to accept this terminal illness and impending death. As anyone who is faced with this ultimate question, he wobbles between waging war with the universe and accepting the fact that his path leads him towards God.

If anyone took advantage of his time to live, despite a palpable countdown, it was Alexander.

Alexander Lepetuhin lived not eight years, as the doctors promised, but twice that.

During that time he visited Israel, Hong Kong, Greece (including Mount Athos), wrote several books that were translated into English and Japanese.

His book of children’s stories received a national literary prize called the P.Ershov, as well as awards from book fairs in Moscow and Vladivostok. Before he died, he was also working on co-authoring a collection of Christian stories for adults with his priest. The book was to be called Agape, the Greek word for Love.

He also held a series of solo exhibitions and lived to see not only his children grow up, but also his grandchildren.

He passed away on the evening on July 11, 2016, on the eve of the Feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul.

Flight to Egypt

Christ and John, his disciple


Художник узнал, что умирает, и написал тысячу картин о Христе

Zealous Artist of Holy Russia and Insatiable Seeker of Spiritual Meaning – Meet Pavel Ryzhenko


Paul Ryzhenko (1970-2014) was a peculiar artist, especially for our times. He was staunchly realist—he believed that realism was the only ‘real’ art and scoffed at modernism as the result of a morally deteriorating world—yet he was also an unabashed Christian and a deep idealist.

Intensely, rebelliously, Pavel definitely did not believe in art for art’s sake.

Instead, he believed in art for God’s Sake and for Russia’s sake.

For God’s Sake:

Ryzhenko always said that he became Christian ‘very late’ ( he was 23!), but when he did, he embraced it with characteristic fire:

Everyone person, but especially the Russian, in the depths and mystery on one’s heart,  gravitates to the light – to Christ.

To me, faith in Christ came very late, but, once I believed, I wanted to run after him, hoping sometime to come near to that light.

But it to speak of people, those who have left and those who are still alive, who are the carriers of the faith and spirit of the Russian Empire… is necessary for me – I must.

He credited his conversion to his grandmother, who though senile, crippled and uneducated, would
always turn towards the window and exclaim “Mother of God!” He would later say:

Grandmas – are windows to that other Russia, a Russia where the phrase “that’s your problem” did not exist

Indeed, after he was baptized at age 23, Pavel immediately decided to leave the world and become a monk. He spent some time as a novice in the great northern monastery Valaam, but realized that monasticism was not his path.

His family, later, became his ‘promise of paradise’ on earth, as he would say.

But Pavel Ryazhenko still drew monks very often, always in a misty, peaceful quiet. Some people even teased him, despite the obvious fact that he had a wife and children, that he was like a monk himself.

His love and awe for monasticism lends a luminous light to most of his canvasses, a haunting ideal of a contemplative life of prayer and peace.

For Russia’s Sake

People were also always surprised by how quickly he worked, a hurricane of paint and activity that resulted in huge, colorful canvases in days: perfect in their furious, mute motion.

Those who knew him often say that he gave all his energy, physical, emotional and spiritual, to his expansive paintings, so massive that they didn’t even ‘fit into normal museums’. The Russian Revolution, the topic of many of his later paintings, especially pained and tortured him.

Many say that it was this furious, untiring habit of work that led to his premature death at age 44.

Perhaps, the sharp sense of immediacy he worked with came from Pavel’s deep personal conviction that his work was necessary, now, for his country and the salvation of the souls of his countrymen, to reawaken the Russian, the Christian in each person who came to look.

To speak these things on canvas–because that is my duty before the great truth of Russia.

It’s my duty to allow the still-not-fully-broken city dweller. see, how, again and again, these strict and loving faces of our ancestors reappear, those who spilled their sweat and blood for Christ and each one of us.

He believed that artists often veered into lives of passion and sin, wasting their creative potential to awaken the passions in people or please people. Meanwhile, he believed that the artist must approach his art like service.

Rizhenko was notoriously unmaterialistic, only getting himself a ‘normal’ car two years before his death. Supposedly, he didn’t really advertise his exhibits either, believing God would send the right people anyway. 

He was right; the tickets to his exhibits always sold out quickly.

He was often upset about how Russians forgot their own heritage and looked to the West for direction.

I don’t identify with the common-European culture, cosmopolitan culture, but with the culture, which threads back to the centuries of the apostles, through Byzantium into Russia.” 

The Past

Most obsessively, Paul Ryzhenko drew scenes from the past—battlefields, saints and criminals—endowing it with a spiritual chord that gives the historical images a new dimension.

For this, he was often criticized by his contemporaries as too ‘backward.’ But he would just say:

I think, the most relevant genre of historical comprehension…there is nothing more relevant.

In order to answer the question “how can we go on?” I bring in examples of history.

Its a movement neither forward, nor backward, but towards the soul, towards your own history.

Moving towards an Orthodox monarchy, which, in my opinion, is the only honest form, absolutely free in the margins of the law of God.

The future

Paul lived with an expectation that the Russian people would reawaken, by returning to the truths of Orthodoxy, and he thought of his paintings as ‘steps’ into the church.

It’s honorable to be “a step, a servant of God. And beyond Church, there’s already Eternity.

One of his last works was a huge, unconventional fresco of the Last Judgment.

At the center of the composition is Pavel himself – a sinner awaiting, with trembling, the moment of Judgement.


French Artist’s ‘Failure’ Inspired a Russian Spiritual Masterpiece

The NYU Russian art historian who took all who wanted (10 people) on a tour she called “Russian Art in the Metropolitan Museum” first stopped by a French painting: “Joan D’Arc” by Jules BastienLepage.

“My friends, can you guess why we stopped here?” she asked quizzically.

“Look at it! Isn’t there just something familiar about it?” She insisted, her dark eyes glorying with her secret.

The French artist Jean Lepage painted “Joan D’Arc” in 1880s.

By then, Joan of Arc was old, old news in a world which was getting increasingly intoxicated with newer and newer ways to be ‘modern’. But Lepage came from Joan’s birth town and he had something to say.

His painting was exhibited in Paris in 1889, and more or less, flopped.  European critics were primarily sceptical. They liked the figure of Joan – it was adorable, it was tangible; a peasant with inspired eyes always is.

But what was it with the saints in the background?What a roaring contradiction in a realist painting from a realist artist.

Impressionism (nature) and iconography (holy figures), and realism (Joan) all in one?

Though canst serve more than one lord, was the verdict of the critics, as they moved on to the next painting.

But one person, a Russian, was spellbound.

Mikhail Nesterov, artist of nostalgia and monks, was in Paris at the time.

When he saw the painting at the same exhibit, he decided that it was the one most priceless thing he had seen in all of Europe; the one thing that justified the time he spent in the exhibition, in Paris, in Europe in its entirety.

He said:

“I kept trying to comprehend how BastienLepage could have risen to such a height, a height unattainable to the outward vision of the French.

BastienLepage, here, was a Slav, Russian, with our secret, sacred search for the depths of human drama…

The entire effect, all the power of Joan D’Arc was in her extreme simplicity, naturalness, and in that unique, never to be repeated, expression of the eyes of the shepherdess from Domrémy; those eyes were the special secret of the artist:

they looked and they saw, not outer objects,but that cherished ideal, the goal, her mission, the calling that this wondrous girl had to fulfill.”

He came home and eventually drew what came to be known as his masterpiece: A painting of the beloved Russian Saint, Sergius of Radonezh.

The painting catches the saint still a vulnerable, tortured boy at his first encounter with the divine world.

It’s the same dynamic looking, and seeing–for the first time–something different, something extraordinary, something…from above.

The Vision of the Young Bartholomew

Why We Need Russian Art in Our Lives

I am an editor, translator and writer. As I child I was a homeschooled, the oldest in a large, loud Russian family (10 children) in Upstate NY.

At age 17, I moved to Russia for over a year, drinking tea in tiny kitchens with peeling wallpaper, reading Dostoevsky, roaming the streets, riding trolleys with cracked windows and old grandmas, visiting monasteries and museums. Upon my return, I completed a humanities degree in New York University in New York City

The contrast between the multiple worlds I’ve occupied has made me realize a few things about art and its role in the formation of an individual and society.

  • Art can help us build lives of beauty and spiritual health, despite the focus on madness and ugliness that seems to be so ‘in’ today in schools and universities.
  • We live in a time when art is often used to promote liberal values and undermine traditional understandings of beauty and purity. It is getting harder and harder to find art–or art critics and curators– who do not use art in a way to teach the liberal ideals.
  • But there is art that teaches and reflects a traditional, healthy, communal way of life. Art that teaches us to reach high. And today, that is what we desperately need.

I want to help those people with traditional worldviews to find art that speaks to them and their beliefs and dreams.

Art that builds, and doesn’t destroy the idea of higher beings and higher purpose and art criticism that doesn’t try to rewrite has traditionally been held to be valuable and beautiful–but rather builds upon it.

For this end, Russian art and culture offers a particularly rich, and almost mysterious (because ignored) resource .

This is in part because historically, Russia is a country in which a traditional faith fundamentally influenced the development of culture, and partly because Russians just notoriously obsess over the meaning of life.

But also, Russian art is mysterious and charming and new because it is too often ignored and forgotten.

So I propose that we go on a journey to find and understand largely unknown, but meaningful and deep art and the worlds of artists and thinkers. Why?

Because both we and our children need something to strive for, colours to dream in, and things to contemplate that give us peace and help us search for the transcendent and perfect in life and beyond it.

We need something that replaces advertisements and the art of chaos. We need culture, a beautiful, meaningful, or, at least, aspiring culture.

So let’s begin?