Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947)
Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947)

The heavenly battle

Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947)
The heavenly battle
tempera and pastel on board
19 3/4 x 29 1/8 in. (50 x 74 cm.)
Painted in 1909
Dr Jan Bastiaan Hubrecht (1883-1878) and Ms Leonore Hubrecht van Alphen (1885-1975), by 1916. Jan Bastiaan Hubrecht married Leonore, a painter and sister of artist Antoinette Ludovica (Tony) van Alphen (1878-1910) in 1907. An Isaac Newton Student of Astronomy at Cambridge University, Hubrecht subsequently pursued a career in the Dutch diplomatic service with postings in Tokyo, Washington D.C., Madrid, Bucharest and Rome.
By descent to the present owner.
N. Kochetov, ‘Khudozhestvennye vesti' ['Fine Art News'], Rech’ [The speech], December 1909, p. 5, no. 340.
Exhibition catalogue, VII vystavka soiuza russkikh khudozhnikov [The seventh exhibition of the union of Russian artists], Moscow, 1909-1910, p. 20, no. 259.
Exhibition catalogue, VII vystavka soiuza russkikh khudozhnikov [The seventh exhibition of the union of Russian artists], St Petersburg, 1910, p. 22, no. 340.
I. Lazarevskii, ‘VIIai vystavka soiuza russkikh khudozhnikov [The seventh exhibition of the Union of Russian Artists]’, Moskovskii listok [The Moscow leaf], January 1910, no. 13, p. 3.
‘Vystavka 'Soiuza russkikh khudozhnikov [The exhibition of “the Union of Russian Artists]'’, Zaprosy zhizhni [The demands of life], March 1910, no. 12, pp. 741-746.
Exhibition catalogue, Les artistes russes: décors et costumes de théâtre et tableaux, Paris, 1910.
'Russkiia vystavki za granitsei [Russian exhibitions abroad]', Apollon, St Petersburg, no. 7, 1910, p. [56].
‘Svetoch [A torch]’ attachment to Russkii palomnik [A Russian pilgrim], St Petersburg, 1911, illustrated p. 20.
Exhibition catalogue, Esposizione Internazionale di Roma, Bergamo, 1911, listed p. 288, no. 280.
A. Gidoni, 'Tvorcheskii put' Rerikha [Roerich's artistic career]', Apollon, Petrograd, no. 4-5 1915, listed p. 38.
Iu. Baltrushaitis, A. Benua, A. Gidoni, A. Remizov and S. Iaremich, Nikolai Konstantinovich Rerikh [Roerich], Petrograd, 1916, illustrated p. 102, listed pp. 218 and 232.
S. Ernst, N. K. Rerikh, Petrograd, 1918, listed p. 120.
Roerich, New York, 1924, illustrated and listed as Clouds p. [27] .
F. Grant, M. Siegrist, G. Grebenstchikoff and I. Narodny, Roerich. Himalaya. A Monograph, New York, 1926, listed p. 190.
A. Yaremenko, Nicholai Konstantinovich Roerich. His life and creations during the past forty years 1889-1929, New York, 1931, listed p. 30.
N. Kuzmina (ed.), N.K. Rerikh. Zhizn i tvorchestvo [Roerich. Life and work], Moscow, 1978, listed p. 269.
J. Decter, Nicholas Roerich. The life and art of a Russian Master, London, 1989, p. 52 as Battle in the Heavens.
N. Rerikh, Molodomy drugu [To a young friend], Moscow, 1993, p. 13.
Moscow, The Vostriakov House, Bolshaia Dmitrovka, VII vystavka soiuza russkikh khudozhnikov [The seventh exhibition of the union of Russian artists], 1909-1910, no. 259.
St Petersburg, 42 Nevsky prospect, VII vystavka soiuza russkikh khudozhnikov [The seventh exhibition of the union of Russian artists], 1910, no. 340.
Paris, Galerie d’art Bernheim-Jeune, Les artistes russes: décors et costumes de théâtre et tableaux, 20 June-9 July, 1910.
Rome, Esposizione Internazionale di Roma, March-November 1911, no. 280 (label on the reverse).

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Sarah Mansfield
Sarah Mansfield

Lot Essay

Today Nicholas Roerich is best known as Master of the Mountains. Indeed mountainous landscapes dominated his oeuvre in his last and most mature period. The artist also however deserves the title of Master of the Sky: it is the sky, first clear, now cloudy, then star-studded that features persistently in his work, from the very first to the very last of his paintings. Roerich took particular pleasure in painting cloud compositions. In 1939 in his essay ‘Heavenly Architecture' from the series 'My Life' he wrote: ‘From the very early years I indulged my passion for heavenly architecture. My earliest childhood memories evoke decorous clouds. Their eternal movement, intricate rearrangements and incredible creativity glued my eyes to the sky endlessly. Wondrous animals, heroes who fight dragons, white horses with wavy manes, boats with coloured gilded sales, alluring ghostly mountains – all this and much more appeared in these indefinitely profuse and inexhaustible heavenly pictures! [...] Paintings such as The heavenly battle; The vision; The call of the sky; Karelia, the waiting woman, as well as many others are created exclusively on the basis of cloud constructions’.
The heavenly battle is one of the first works in which the artist decided to make the action of the clouds the prime subject, devoting four fifths of the canvas to them. Three subjects, so crucially important for his oeuvre, are brought together here: the striking realm of misty vapours and grey clouds in their intricate transformations; the archaic landscape of Northern Rus' with her pagan and medieval inhabitants; and the cataclysms in the skies above and their reflections on earth.
From the late 1890s to the mid-1940s Roerich elaborated on the subject of the sky in numerous drawings, sketches and paintings, with the word 'cloud’ featuring in every title: A cloud; Clouds; Clouds above the hill fort; A cloud over the islands; A cloud over the mountains; A storm cloud; A white cloud.
The second subject is elaborated on in Early life (1904), The Stone Age (1910), Our forefathers (1911) and The call of the sun (1919). The two subjects merge in such works as Volkhov. Ladoga (1899-1900); Beyond the seas there are great lands (1910); An ancient landscape (1910), The straight path (1912), Near the frontier (1915), and many others.
In the course of his work on The battle in 1906, Roerich fleshed out the theme of heaven-born forces struggling above, while other forces battle below. The artist's idea here was to juxtapose the Vikings' naval battle against that of Valkyries in the sky. He makes a pencil sketch, transfers it on to the canvas, but half-way into it radically changes his mind and in the place of warring female figures, racing clouds emerge against the background of the sunset sky, fiercely aglow. He says to himself: 'Let them fight an invisible battle.' (N. Roerich, Iz literaturnogo naslediia [Of literary heritage], Moscow, 1974). This theme culminates in the tragic year of war, 1915, when in the monumental canvas The arrows of heaven. Spears of the Earth, the atrocious conflict in the sky will again spill over into a bloody fight on earth.
Meanwhile, in the 1909 painting The heavenly battle, the artist depicts an epic battle between the clouds, apparently of no threat to anyone. It is a natural conflict between the mighty elements, part of the grandiose mystery of life on earth. This painting vividly demonstrates Roerich's singular faculty: a unique combination of artistic vision and staunch realism. That is why modern critics, in their attempts to define the genre the artist pursued, inevitably proceed from the word 'realism' adorning it with various attributes: heroic, archaic or fantastic. In The heavenly battle however the illusion of a phantasmagorical cloud performance in the sky is in fact a true depiction of one of the most intriguing of natural phenomena. It is not accidental that the second version of the painting (1912) was used as an illustration for a popular article on meteorology (A. Monin, 'Gidrodinamika i prognoz pogody [Hydrodynamics and the weather forecast]', Nauka i chelovechestvo [Science and Humanity], Moscow, 1964).
Simultaneously the main attraction for the viewer is indeed the spirituality of the Roerich-esque performance in the sky: it fascinates the spectator with enigmatically glittering and oscillating pastel colours, making the viewer stand and stare at the harmony of the grandiose interplay of natural forces.
In 1909, the eminent Russian poet, artist and art critic Maximilian Voloshin (1877-1932) ranked Roerich alongside Konstantin Bogaevsky (1872-1943) and Léon Bakst (1866-1924) as a founder of 'archaism' in Russian painting. The celebrated art historian and theoretician A. Alyokhin said that Roerich's paintings had laid the basis for the 'historic landscape'. These features vividly show in this work.
This painting was first revealed at the 7th exhibition of the Union of Russian Artists, which was unveiled on the eve of 1910. From then on the Press incessantly promoted the painting; and after the exhibition critics and journalists were unanimous in their praise of the work as one of the most appealing of Roerich’s paintings. They emphasised that, compared to the academic boredom of the whole exhibition, Roerich's collection was noted for an outbreak of new subjects (including The heavenly battle) and warranted a separate event. The heavenly battle was not one of the two paintings purchased by the Tretyakov Gallery, but the publishers of the 'Commune of Saint Eugenia' (Red Cross nurses) chose this painting alongside two more of Roerich's works to launch a popular series of artistic postcards. Due to extensive reproduction the painting became extremely popular. The painting was exhibited that same year together with some other canvasses in Paris where it apparently entered a private collection.
The idea of this painting was so deeply entrenched in the artist's mind that in 1912, Roerich created a new and final version of the composition. This work on cardboard is noticeably larger in size; while in the first variant the artist, having sketched the image in tempera, made a point of finely treating every detail in pastel, this time he changed the technique, fully concentrating on tempera. Today, The later version of The heavenly battle adorns the collection of the State Russian Museum, St Petersburg; it is extensively reproduced in various artistic publications and often referenced by art critics and Roerich's biographers. This fact alone emphasises the significance of the very first, ingenious and highly compelling artistic solution. Only by comparing the two variants of this picture can we fully realise how the artist elaborated on the subject all its complexity.
We would like to thank Dmitrii Popov of the State Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow for providing this note and Gvido Trepsa, Senior Researcher at the Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York for his assistance in cataloguing the present work.

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