• Christies auction house James Christie logo

    Sale 7629

    Russian Pictures Part I

    26 November 2008, London, King Street

  • Lot 257

    Nikolai Roerich (1874-1947)

    Set design for Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tale of Tsar Saltan: The Gates of Tmutarakan

    Price Realised  


    Nikolai Roerich (1874-1947)
    Set design for Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tale of Tsar Saltan: The Gates of Tmutarakan
    inscribed 'C. M.' (on the reverse)
    tempera on canvas
    25¼ x 30¼ (64.1 x 76.8 cm.)
    Painted in 1919

    Contact Client Service
    • info@christies.com

    • New York +1 212 636 2000

    • London +44 (0)20 7839 9060

    • Hong Kong +852 2760 1766

    • Shanghai +86 21 6355 1766

    Nikolai Roerich's fascination with Russian folklore and the life of the Ancient Slavs was naturally complemented by his interest in the East, traditionally the cradle of human civilization. The inherent duality of Russia, situated in a pivotal position between East and West had long been a source of inspiration for Russian artists, philosophers and writers. Together with his wife, Roerich participated in numerous archaeological expeditions to ancient Russian sites which further strengthened his belief in the exoticism of the past and anticipated his search for universal spirituality.

    In 1919, while awaiting visas for a planned trip to India, Roerich received a commission from the impresario Sir Thomas Beecham to design sets and costumes for a production of N. Rimsky-Korsakov's opera The Tale of Tzar Saltan at the Royal Opera House, London. Founder of the London Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic, Sir Thomas was a champion of Russian opera and ballet in the West and had been the first to bring Diaghilev with Nijinsky and Karsavina to Covent Garden in 1911. Composed in 1899-1900 to mark the centenary of Alexander Pushkin, Rimsky-Korsakov's opera was based on Pushkin's beloved tale of Tzar Saltan whose young bride is slandered by her two jealous sisters and as a result, both the Tzarina and her son, are locked in a barrel and tossed out to sea. Stranded on an island, the prince rescues an enchanted swan who then grants his wishes, turning herself into a princess. The young couple marry, the Tzarina is reunited with the Tzar Saltan and her wicked sisters are forgiven.

    Rimsky-Korsakov's opera sets the kingdom of Tzar Saltan in Tmutarakan - an ancient city that controlled the Cimmerian Bosphorus, the passage from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov. Situated on the Taman peninsula, in present-day Krasnodar, in modern Russian the name conjures the idea of a distant and obscure place - a perfect setting for an opulent fantasy such as The Tale of Tzar Saltan.

    Roerich started work on his commission in July 1919. By his own admission, by October 1919 he had completed over a dozen stage designs, curtain sketches and costume designs that reflected his unique blend of Russian folklore with an oriental tonality. The rich Turkey red and mustard yellow of the present work anticipate Roerich's planned expedition to India which, no doubt, was an immediate source of inspiration for his commission.

    Unfortunately, due to financial difficulties, the production was never realized. Roerich stepped aboard the SS Zealand accompanied by over 400 works and set off on his next expedition; this time to the United States for an exhibition tour launched at the Kingor Gallery, New York. Another three years would pass before Roerich and his family finally reached the shores of India.

    The C.M. inscription on the reverse refers to the Corona Mundi (Crown of the World) International Art Center, which was established by Roerich in New York on July 11, 1923. The goal of the centre was to 'foster mutual understanding among all peoples through the international language - art.' (J. Decter, Nicholas Roerich: The Life and Art of a Master, 1989, p. 121).

    We are grateful to Gvido Trepsa, Senior Researcher at the Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York, for his assistance in cataloguing the present work.

    Special Notice

    VAT rate of 5% is payable on hammer price and at 15% on the buyer's premium


    A gift from Louis Horch to Sarah Lawrence College, New York, circa 1972.

    Pre-Lot Text



    N. Roerich, List of Paintings, 1917-1924, Nicholas Roerich Museum Archive, New York, listed as no. 11 under 1919.
    Christian Brinton, The Nicholas Roerich Exhibition, New York, 1921, no. 87.
    F. Grant et al. Roerich, Himalaya, A Monograph, New York, Brentano Publications, 1926, p. 197.
    Roerich Museum Catalogue, New York, Roerich Museum, 1930, p. 15.


    London, The Goupil Gallery, Nicholas Roerich. Spells of Russia, 1920, no. 141.
    Worthing, The Public Art Gallery, Nicholas Roerich. Spells of Russia, 1920, no. 86.
    New York, Kingor Gallery; Boston, Boston Art Club; Buffalo, Albright Art Gallery; Chicago, Art Institute; St Louis, City Art Museum; San Francisco, Museum of Art; Denver, Art Association; Kansas, City Art Institute; Cleveland, Museum of Art; Indianapolis, Herron Art Institute; Minnesota, State Fair exhibition; Milwaukee, Art Institute; Detroit, Institute of Art; and elsewhere, The Nicholas Roerich exhibition, 1920-1923, no. 87.
    New York, Nicholas Roerich Museum, Permanent Collection, 1923-1935, no. 87.