Nicholas Roerich, painter, archeologist, writer, lawyer and peace builder was born in St. Petersburg, Russia on October 9, 1874. At an early age he showed a talent for a variety of activities including archeology and drawing. At the age of sixteen he wanted to enter the Academy of Art to pursue a career as an artist, but his father insisted he follow his career and become a lawyer. A compromise was reached, and in 1893 Nicholas enrolled simultaneously in the Academy of Art and at St. Petersburg University.
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 ahead of Roerich at law school and was among the first to appreciate his talents as a painter. The young painter was introduced to many of the composers and artists of the time - Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, and the basso Fyodor Chaliapin. He later designed opera sets for these composers.
After finishing university, Roerich met and married Elena, daughter of the architect Shaposhnikov and niece of the composer Mussorgsky. They subsequently had two sons, Svetoslav and George.
Roerich won the position of Secretary of the School of the Society for the Encouragement of Art, later becoming its head, the first of many positions that Roerich would occupy as a teacher and spokesman for the arts.
The cross-fertilization of the arts that Roerich promoted was evidence of his ability to harmonize, and find correspondences between apparent conflicts or opposites in all areas of life. His talent for synthesis enabled him to correlate the subjective with the objective, the philosophical with the scientific, Eastern wisdom with Western knowledge, and to build bridges of understanding between such apparent contradictions.
The Painter and Designer
In the summers of 1903 and 1904, the Roerichs set off on an extended tour of forty cities throughout Russia. Roerich's purpose was to contrast the styles and historical context of Russian ancient monuments, churches, city walls, and castles. He found that these had, in many instances, been neglected for centuries. As an archeologist and art historian he was aware of what an important key they were to Russia's cultural history. He determined to draw attention to the situation and somehow arrange to have them protected and preserved, and with this goal in mind painted a series of seventy-five works depicting the structures.
The experience of this journey had a lasting effect, for on his return in 1904 Roerich promulgated the plan that he hoped would create protection everywhere for such cultural treasures, a plan consummated thirty-one years later in the Roerich Pact. This kind of thinking was not common in those days, and anticipated the importance that, today, most countries of the world place upon preservation of their cultural heritage.
In 1906, Sergei Diaghilev arranged an exhibition of Russian paintings in Paris. These included sixteen works by Nicholas Roerich. In 1909 he presented Chaliapin in Rimsky-Korsakov's "Ivan the Terrible", with costumes and sets designed by Roerich. In the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin's "Prince Igor," also designed by Roerich, and in other ballets, Diaghilev introduced a corps of Russian dancers; that later became famous as the Ballets Russes, which included Pavlova, Fokin, and Nijinsky.
Nicholas Roerich not only created the sets, but was the prime mover with Igor Stravinsky, the co-creator of the ballet "Le Sacre du Printemps" ("The Rite of Spring").
In 1915 to 1917 the Roerich family was living in Finland. The revolution was raging in Russia, and returning there would have been dangerous. The following year, he had a painting exhibit in Stockholm and from there the family went to London. Sir Thomas Beecham had invited the artist to design a new production of "Prince Igor" for the Covent Garden Opera.
Meanwhile, Roerich accepted an invitation to come to America from the Chicago Art Institute. The tour of the exhibit opened successfully in New York in 1920. In addition to exhibiting over 400 paintings there and in many cities through the United States, Roerich designed the scenery and costumes for productions of "The Snow Maiden" and "Tristan and Isolde" for the Chicago Opera Company.
During his travels in America, he painted a series in New Mexico and the Ocean Series in Monhegan, Maine. He responded to the spirit of enterprise he found in America and wrote about the positive influence its developing technology would have on the world.
In 1921, in New York, he founded the Master Institute of United Arts, in which he planned to realize the educational concepts he had incorporated into the curriculum in St. Petersburg. The Institute flourished, but it did not survive beyond 1937 because of the Great Depression. Funds ran out and events caused a complete collapse of the organization that Roerich and his supporters had labored to build.
In 1949 the institution was reborn as the Nicholas Roerich Museum, in a brownstone on West 107th Street, where it still remains. It houses one of the most comprehensive collections of the artist's work in the world.
Faith and Spirit
In May 1923, the Roerichs went to India, where, in that ageless land, amid the snows of the Himalayan range, they sought to turn their thoughts to the Eternal. They landed in Bombay in December, 1923 and began a tour of cultural centers and historic sites, meeting Indian scientists, scholars, artists and writers along the way. By the end of December they were in Sikkim on the southern slopes of the Himalayas where they began an arduous trek. They crossed thirty-five mountain passes from fourteen to twenty-one thousand feet in elevation.
Roerich believed the challenges of the mountains helped one to find courage and develop strength of spirit. And, in spite of obstacles, wherever they went, the Roerichs' faith in the essential goodness of life and the spirituality of man was reinforced.
Roerich's Banner of the East series of nineteen paintings depicting the world's religious teachers, Mohammed, Jesus, Moses, Confucius and Buddha, and the Indian and Christian saints and sages was a testimonial to the unity of religious striving and the common roots of man's faith.
At the end of their major expedition in 1928, the family settled in the Kullu Valley at an elevation of 6,500 feet in the Himalyan foothills. There they established their home and the headquarters of the Urusvati Himalayan Research Institute, which was organized to study the results of their expedition, and of those explorations that were yet to come. The Institute's activities included botanical and ethnological-linguistic studies, and the exploration of archeological sites.
The Banner of Peace
In the following year, on a trip back to New York, Roerich proposed a treaty for the protection of cultural treasures during times of both war and peace. Using the Red Cross as an example, he drafted a Pact suggesting that a flag, called the Banner of Peace, be flown over all places under its protection. The design of the Banner shows three spheres surrounded by a circle, in magenta color on a white background. Of the many interpretations of this symbol, the most usual are perhaps those of Religion, Art and Science as aspects of culture, which is the surrounding circle; or of past, present and future achievements of humanity guarded within the circle of Eternity.
The Roerich Pact was first agreed to by twenty-one nations of the Americas and signed as a treaty in the White House with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on April 15, 1935. It was later signed by other countries as well. This treaty is still in force. Many individuals, groups and associations around the world continue to promote awareness of the Pact, the Banner and their underlying principles. Roerich was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for the work he had accomplished in this area.
The pursuit of refinement and beauty was sacred for Roerich. He believed that, although earthly temples and artifacts may perish, the thought that brings them into existence does not die but is part of an eternal stream of consciousness - people's aspirations nourished by their directed will and by the energy of thought. Finally, he believed that peace on Earth is a prerequisite to planetary survival and the continuing process of spiritual evolution, and he exhorted those who would help achieve that peace to unite in the common language of Beauty and Knowledge.
Nicholas Roerich died in Kullu on December 13, 1947 and his ashes were buried facing the mountains he loved and portrayed in many of his nearly seven thousand works.
Based on the philosophy of Nicholas Roerich, the mission of The Center for Peace Through Culture, is to promote a psychology of peace that focuses on the identification of belief systems that separate people, and to help transform these belief systems into attitudes of inclusion and acceptance.
Special thanks to the Nicholas Roerich Museum.
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