Where there is Culture, there is Peace; Where there is Peace, there is Culture.Nicholas Roerich
Nicholas Roerich, a Russian archaeologist, poet, art historian, scientist, philosopher, lawyer and painter was one of the greatest minds of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the only non-Indian to have ever been recognized as a ‘National Treasure’ artist. His love for art, philosophy and science, along with ideologies on peace and cultural preservation, led him to embark upon extensive expeditions of the Himalayas, resulting in hundreds of paintings depicting the glorious mountains ranges.
Just west of Central Park in New York City, near the banks of the Hudson River, lies the Nicholas Roerich Museum. Nestled inside an old brownstone on a relatively quiet street, the three levels of the museum contain a vast number of paintings from artist Nicholas Roerich’s long and respected career. It was originally the location of the Master Institute of United Arts founded by the artist in 1921 where students could receive a top quality theoretical and practical art education.
Roerich was born into an upper middle-class family in St. Petersburg, Russia on October 9th, 1874, to Konstantin Roerich, a lawyer and notary, and his wife Maria. While growing up, he was surrounded by circles of avant-garde artists, writers and scientists who would be part of the catalyst for his pursuits ahead. To fulfill his father’s wishes, he studied law at St. Petersburg University but simultaneously enrolled himself at the Imperial Academy of Arts in 1893 to explore his own desire to be an artist.
After completing his university studies, Roerich met the person who would change the course of his life forever — his wife, Helena Shaposhnikov, whom he married in 1901. She was a gifted pianist and prolific writer who penned The Foundations of Buddhism and the Russian translation of both volumes of spiritualist Helena Blavtasky’s The Secret Doctrine, the Synthesis of Science, Religion and Philosophy (originally published in 1888). Helena and Nicholas Roerich were not only romantic and intellectual soulmates but also spiritual ones as they together launched the Agni Yoga Society in 1920 during their time in New York—where they found themselves while escaping the Russian Revolution in their homeland— which was not so much a physical practice but one that synthesized the spiritual with the scientific, the modern with the ancient, and the East with the West.
They had two sons, George de Roerich (1902-1960) and Svetoslav Roerich (1904-1993) —the former became a prominent Tibetologist who worked extensively alongside his father, and the latter was an award-winning painter who went on to marry the famous Indian actress Devika Rani, who co-founded Bombay Talkies, a pioneering film studio during the golden age of Bollywood. In the summers of 1903 and 1904, the family visited forty historic cities across Russia where Nicholas noticed that much of the architecture in those places had been neglected. He produced seventy-five paintings of the decaying structures he saw, along with a plethora of sketches, to bring awareness to the importance of cultural preservation. This became the foundation for a lifelong mission which was realized on April 15, 1935 as the Roerich Pact and Banner of Peace, signed by U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and twenty-one nations of the Pan-American Union (with other countries signing on over time), which came into effect for the protection of artistic and scientific institutions. The Roerich Pact is evidence that Nicholas Roerich held progressive ideas for the times in which he lived as the modern day governing body for similar initiatives, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, did not hold its first session until 1977.
Roerich believed Russia could serve as a peaceful link between the East and West and since his views aligned with the beliefs of many Eastern thinkers, there was only one way to further his study of this part of the world to which he was naturally drawn —to actually visit the East, and take his family with him. As a result, in December of 1923, the Roerichs arrived in Bombay, India but quickly made their way to Sikkim in the Himalayas. From there, they set upon a five-year-long expedition, along with a group of six friends, throughout Central Asia, in search of Shambhala, a utopian land of peace and happiness mentioned in Buddhist texts. The team documented what they saw and learned about other cultures as well as the geographical terrains as they travelled through thirty-five mountain passes which were from fourteen to twenty-one thousand feet in elevation. Roerich’s written accounts aided in the success of rewriting inaccurate scientific data, recording the flora and fauna of the areas, adding multiple mountain ranges onto maps, uncovering old manuscripts and more. He also wrote Heart of Asia and Altai — Himalaya during this journey providing detailed accounts of the expedition which was lengthy and arduous as they tragically lost four of their friends along the way. Remarkably, Roerich complemented his scientific research during the expedition with more than 500 paintings which provides a sense of the amount of work he accomplished during these years. After a predominantly nomadic existence, the Roerich family eventually settled in a cottage in the small Himalayan village of Naggar in Kullu, Himachal Pradesh in 1928 which is where Nicholas Roerich lived until his death at the age of 73 on December 13th, 1947. It is also the resting spot of his cremated ashes.
Roerich’s paintings of the Himalayas reached such high acclaim that he has been proclaimed a National Treasure as part of The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act passed by the Indian government in 1972 making him the only non-Indian amongst the group of nine artists to receive this prestigious recognition, which means the works, unless they are already outside of India, cannot leave the country. (Interestingly, he had initially been accused of being a Russian spy when he first arrived in the country that became his ultimate home.) The National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi which held the exhibition Nicholas Roerich; An Eternal Quest in 2010 described him as:
“… like no other painter, Roerich was able to grasp and depict the subtle-most shades, hues and tone of the mountains, and their ethereal transparency. He was proclaimed the ‘Master of the Mountains.’ He sensed the subtle spirit and harmony of the mountains, their solemn, mighty essence and significance for humanity as the symbol of the purest, highest aspiration towards beauty and knowledge.”
His works have fetched high prices at auctions, such as Madonna Laboris (1931) (sold at Bonham’s for £7.9 million in 2013) making it one of the most expensive paintings by a Russian artist.
Nicholas Roerich was a true Renaissance man whose interests in art, archaeology, peacemaking, spirituality and science shaped him into one of the most influential and widely respected figures of the 19th and 20th centuries. It is not surprising then that he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in the years of 1929, 1933 and 1935 and visited at his home in the Himalayas by eminent scholars and political leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India following the country’s independence from British rule. The mountains in which Roerich travelled, lived, and worked became the emblem for his vision for a world filled with art, beauty, harmony and knowledge. His work and legacy remains alive in several museums across the world in addition to the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York City and his home in Naggar, The Roerich Estate, is still open to visitors. Nicholas Roerich proved, that in a single lifetime, it is possible to accomplish a lot. And if we ever needed to be reminded of his ideals, now is the time.
Story by Rupi Sood // All images courtesy of Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York City
"Let us be united - you will ask in what way? You will agree with me: in the easiest way, to create a common and sincere language. Perhaps in Beauty and in Knowledge."Nicholas Roerich
Nicholas Roerich believed in a utopian land of peace and harmony which led him to Asia and specifically the Himalayas where the mountains represented to him the challenges of life as well as the pinnacle of spiritual enlightenment.