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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Nikolai Ge

The Last Supper, (completed in 1863), Nikolai Ge
Nikolai Ge Self-portrait, 1892
It's an accepted tool in most artists' working kits and starting to occupy and ever more important place with every passing year. I'm talking about the camera and now the digital images it produces for computer manipulation. Today it stands in place of time-consuming sketches and compositional experiments. Whereas once upon a time artists were forced to do such work mentally and then transfer such images to paper. All that can now be done visually, and with much greater detail, not to mention accuracy, than even the best "art minds" might have dreamed of even twenty years ago. In recent years, before I even buy the canvas I have a pretty complete color printout of the painting that will occupy that surface. That doesn't mean there won't be changes or that the whole project is "set in stone," so to speak. But it does mean I can tell quite accurately where there may still be compositional or color problems, predict difficulties, and most importantly, save time and effort in avoiding mistakes, large and small. All of which has sometimes made me wonder what artist was the first to use photographic prints as a major element in his painting...and when.
Alexander Herzen, photo by
Count Sergei Lvovich Levitsky
For years I've had in my mind that Edouard Manet was probably the first with his Luncheon on the Grass, painted in 1863. Some, if not all his figures were derived from photos. However, a Russian artist named Nikolai Ge (above, right, pronounced, gay), a couple years earlier, around 1861 began a fairly untraditional version of The Last Supper (top) in which he utilized a photo of the Russian publisher/journalist/political activist, Alexander Herzen (1812-1870) in the focal point role of Christ. Herzen was living in London at the time and Ge wrote him inquiring as to the possibility of traveling to London to paint his portrait. Instead, Herzen sent a photo of himself (left) by the Russian photographer Count Sergei Lvovich Levitsky. Nikolai Ge did, later, paint a portrait of Herzen, but not until 1864.

Even a cursory comparison of the photo to the figure of Christ in Ge's painting makes obvious that the artist did not just sit down and copy the photo into the painting. First, and most noticeably, the image in the painting is reversed from that in the photo. Likewise, upon closer inspection, the head angle in the painting is slightly different from that in the photo. However, the similarities are equally interesting. The likeness is there (though not without some minor adjustments), as is the body pose. The painting's composition is startling in its informality, and I'm not at all sure who (or what) the silhouetted figure on the right is supposed to represent, except to note that it seems to be of major concern to everyone except Christ. (Judas maybe?)

The Witch of Endor, 1857, Nikolai Ge
Leo Tolstoy, 1882, Nikolai Ge.
Nikolai Ge was born in 1831 and died in 1894. His grandfather came from France. Nikolai first trained in Physics and Mathematics at Kiev University before taking up painting at the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg around 1850. In the early years of his career he was quite successful as a portrait painter while also enjoying the patronage of the Imperial rulers of Russia. A gold medal in 1857 for his painting The Witch of Endor allowed him to travel and study elsewhere in Europe. He settled down in Rome about 1860 where he was to paint The Last Supper (top). Ge's use of the photo of Herzen was no secret. The Russian press lambasted him, calling the painting "...a triumph of materialism and nihilism." Nonetheless, the Russian Tsar, Alexander II, liked it well enough to buy it in 1863 when it came to be displayed in St. Petersburg.

The Crucifixion, 1892, Nikolai Ge--surrealistically painful
What is Truth? 1890, Nikolai Ge
In the years to follow Ge painted mostly Russian history for the Tsar and portraits for seemingly everyone else. However The Last Supper was not his last incursion into religious painting. In the 1890s Ge painted numerous incidents surrounding the final week before The Crucifixion (above, 1892), which Ge rendered with such horrific expressionism as to be painful to view. He also rendered images of Christ with Pilate in What is Truth (left, 1890), and Golgotha (bottom, 1893) in which he so powerfully captures Christ's agony as to appear ruthless. There's no indication Ge was aware of Manet's experimental use of photographs or whether he, himself, ever used them again, but any artist shooting his or her own source material then "fiddling" with it on their computer might want to give thought to the fact that they're following in some 150-year-old artists' footsteps.

Golgotha, 1893, Nikolai Ge



  1. Најзад, несрећни царевић побегао је из
    Русије са једном својом љубазницом. Доглавник Петров, лукави и
    безобзирни Петар Толстој, успео је да бегунце врати натраг и да га
    затвори. Настала је страшна парница, у којој је сам цар узео на се улогу
    истражног суца. Мучен на свиреп начин, царевић Алексије је био осуђен
    на смрт, али изгледа да је подлегао мукама још пре извршења пресуде.
    Мајка Алексијева тешко је настрадала, а неколико других личности биле
    су кажњене смрћу. Као политичка последица ове мрачне и страшне
    породичне драме, која је послужила Мерешковском за роман о
    „Антихристу,“ а сликару Николи Ге за дивну слику „Петар и Алексије,“
    јавио се указ Петров, којим је он присвојио неограничено право да
    располаже престолом.