If one would attempt to divide Nicholas Roerich’s long artistic career in just two main periods, the year 1924 would mark a distinct turning point. Roerich came to India at the end of 1923 and spent the first nine months of the next year living in Darjeeling. He traveled throughout the region, painting his vision of how spiritual forces shaped the material world: Himalayan landscapes, mountains, and monasteries. He expressed his fascination with 'The roof of the World' (the Himalaya) by developing a new style of painting, marked by richness of colour, forcefulness of line, and freshness of perspective. His eighty canvases from this period, neatly organized into four series — His Country, Sikkim, Banners of the East (The Birth of Mysteries) and Himalayan — all bear the signs of that particular vigour and spontaneity which comes with leaving behind old shores and discovering new inspiration. For Roerich, India became much more than another travel destination. It was where he embarked on a new chapter in his life, recalibrating his search for mission and identity and continuing to work towards spiritual fulfillment. His creative capabilities expanded accordingly, and all that he painted from then on is distinguishable clearly from his work before 1924. Canvasses from the first year of this new stage in his life and career, of which the present work is an outstanding example, illustrate such passion and radiance that if we had to define Roerich with only a painting or two, it would almost certainly have to come from 1924.
The title of the series, His Country, which includes this painting, carries a special meaning. Coming to India was Roerich’s life-long dream, born out of an interest in the great Indian philosophical traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism. But the strongest driving force behind his journey was his belief in the Mahatmas, a brotherhood of highly evolved spiritual masters residing in the Himalayas, among other places. In his book Heart of Asia he quotes a friendly lama: 'Formerly even in Sikkim we had several Ashrams of the Mahatmas. These wise Mahatmas of the Himalayas direct our lives through unceasing work and study. They master the highest powers. As ordinary people, they appear in various places, here, beyond the ocean and throughout Asia.' Roerich united the first paintings he completed in Darjeeling in a series called His Country, meaning the country of the Mahatmas. In Roerich’s own words about His Country: 'In Sikhim, itself, was one of the Ashrams of the Mahatmas. To Sikhim, Mahatmas came on mountain horses. Their physical presence communicates a solemn importance to these parts. Of course now the Ashram has been transferred from Sikhim. Of course now the Mahatmas have left Sikhim. But they were here, and therefore the silver peaks of the chain glimmer still more beautifully.'
His Country consists of twelve works, most of which interpret the Himalayan landscape. The titles of the paintings are quite evocative: Burning of Darkness, Pearl of Searching, Treasure of the World, Book of Wisdom. The present work, White and Heavenly is distinct from the others. Unlike other paintings in the series, and much of his later works from the period, White and Heavenly depicts the snow-capped peaks and clouds from a high vantage point, higher than he would have been able to reach with his physical body. Roerich loved to remark that in the mountains you can discern clearly 'the two worlds' — the higher being the one of aspiration towards beauty, harmony and perfection. Here, he gives us a glimpse of that world, devoid of the narratives and figures that sometimes fill his other work, and depicts light and texture with brushwork that verges on abstraction. He focuses solely on the point where the earth and heavens meet, mountaintops mingling with clouds, as a place of transition that no doubt had particular significance for him in his own spiritual journey.
Roerich brought this painting to New York in October of 1924 and it stayed in the permanent exhibition of the Roerich Museum until 1935. Then it passed on to Louis Horch (1888-1979), after the latter claimed the collection of the Roerich Museum as his property. In 1951 nine of the paintings from the series were bought by the well-known Roerich collector Baltzar Bolling (1890-1969). Roerich’s wife Helena wrote to Bolling in 1949: '… I’ll be happy to see the His Country series in your possession. But, if possible, I would like to ask you the following favor: if the series is to be sold some day, let my sons be offered it first.' Bolling willed White and Heavenly to the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York, where it has been exhibited since 1973. At present, the paintings in the His Country series are distributed evenly between two museums — the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York, with seven canvasses, and the Museum named after N. K. Rerikh in Moscow, with five. The present lot is a unique opportunity for a savvy collector to obtain a part of Roerich’s work from the series that will likely never be offered on the market again in the future.
We would like to thank Gvido Trepša, Curator at the Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York for his assistance in cataloguing the present work and providing this catalogue note.