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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Mikhail Nesterov

Holy Russia, 1905, Mikhail Nesterov
Today, if we were to list all the major content areas in art, there are more than a few which we'd probably forget to mention, areas such a group portraits, history painting, narrative art, maybe even genre. Virtually every one of these, and others, have such a small following among contemporary artists as to be negligible in importance today. Even in listing those mentioned above there's one I've purposely left out, and my guess is it's so inconsequential in this day and age you probably can't look at the list and name it. I'm talking about religious art. Other than the Catholics, few churches today have much in the way of such work. Some even find it doctrinally abhorrent. Others simply have better uses for their congregational funds than paying painters to pictorially precipitate prayer. Yet, hardly more than a 150 years ago, religious painting was still a vital content area for artists. And in the centuries before that, it was often the most important type of painting done. Some artists before, during, and for a time after the Renaissance (for a century or more) painted little else.
Hermit, 1890, Mikhail Nesterov
Mikhail Nesterov, Self-portrait, 1915
What changed? Initially, the purpose for such work changed. Parishioners learned to read. They no longer needed painted images to reinforce what they heard from their priest. Religious works became mostly decorative, grander, and far more costly. The printing press came along. The first books printed were Bibles, which led to translations from Latin into modern day languages, further diluting the need for paintings to depict the Gospels. The Reformation and the Iconoclasts followed. In the Protestant North, mural frescoes were seen as idolatrous. Thus, artists were forced to look elsewhere for the financial backing religious works had previously generated. All that was left in the way of religious painting were smaller, domestic pieces, usually portraits of Christ for home devotional nooks. And finally, with the advent of "art for art's sake," around beginning of the 20th-century, contemporary religious painting nosedived, all but disappeared from mainstream art. The Russian Orthodox painter, Mikhail Nesterov, witnessed this demise first hand.
The Empty Tomb, 1889, Mikhail Nesterov

The Resurrection, 1890, Mikhail, Nesterov
Actually, had Nesterov been living in virtually any other country than Russia, he might never have seen the final dying gasp of religious painting at all (or at least hardly noticed it). He would have been too young. Religious painting in western Europe and American had largely dissipated as much as a generation before his birth in 1862. In Russia though, and other regions dominated by Eastern Orthodoxy, it remained a viable content area for painters to pursue until after the turn of the century. However, Nesterov was one of the last, perhaps the last important Russian artist to concentrate his talents on religious subjects. His paintings, The Empty Tomb (above) from 1889 and The Resurrection (right), from 1890 were among the last such works from a Russian artist. His Holy Russia (top) from 1905, may well be the last such work on canvas.

The Vision of the Youth Bartholomew, unknown date, Mikhail Nesterov
Crucifixion, Church of St. Alexander
Nevski in Abastumani, Mikhail Nesterov
Like virtually all Russian artists of his day, Mikhail Nesterov was a product of the Imperial Academy of Art in St. Petersburg (then the capital of Russia). His painting The Vision of the Youth Bartholomew (above) from around 1890–91, depicts the conversion of the medieval Russian Saint Sergei Radonezhsky. It is said to be the earliest example of the Russian Symbolist style. Yet, even in a modern style, even as Nesterov continued painting religious works on canvas, he spent most of his time painting portraits or decorating the walls of churches with frescoed murals much like his Crucifixion in the Church of St. Alexander Nevski in Abastumani (left). Nesterov's Tolstoy (below), painted in 1906 when both men were living and working in Moscow, is typical of his portraits and his gradual shift toward secular content in his work on canvas.

Tolstoy, 1906, Mikhail Nesterov
With the advent of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918, Nesterov's days of climbing around scaffoldings decorating the interior walls of Russian Orthodox churches were over. The Communists not only discouraged religious practices, but had more important things to occupy their artists, many of which welcomed the monumental Social Realist style and political content of the new regime. Nesterov did not. Had he been a younger artist, he might have suffered for it, but as the last of a dying breed, Nesterov was seen as inconsequential, allowed to content himself with painting portraits such as that of his daughter (below) until his death in 1942 at the age of eighty.

Portrait of Natasha Nesterov (On a Garden Bench), 1914, Mikhail Nesterov.
Notice that his style changed along with his content.



  1. Holy Russia is breathtaking. Great blog.

  2. Sophie--

    I agree, which is why I ran it at the top. Thanks for your comment.