Specialist Aleksandra Babenko with Nicholas Roerich’s Call of the Sun, 1919, offered at Christie’s in London on 25 November in the Important Russian Art auction

5 minutes with... The Call of the Sun by Nicholas Roerich

Six years after designing the costumes for Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring, Roerich painted this vision of primeval revelry in his native Russia. The artist was also an archaeologist and revered mystic, explains specialist Aleksandra Babenko 

When the modernist composer Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) was asked what he loved most about his Russian homeland, he said it was the violent sound of spring. He described it as ‘like the whole Earth cracking’.

The Call of the Sun, painted by the Russian artist-archaeologist Nicholas Roerich (1874–1947) in 1919, embodies this exhilarating tension. It depicts a group of ancient tribesmen worshipping the coming sunrise after months of darkness.

‘In Western Europe, spring is this gentle, benign experience,’ says Russian art specialist Aleksanda Babenko. ‘But in Russia’s Far North it is almost primeval — this burst of nature is long-anticipated.’

Roerich, like his friend Stravinsky, was born and brought up in St Petersburg on the River Neva. In winter, thick ice forms on the water. When it breaks, the sound is like gunfire.

Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947), The Call of the Sun, 1919. Oil and tempera on canvas, 46 x 59⅝  in (116.9 x 151.5  cm). Estimate £1,500,000-2,000,000. Offered in Important Russian Art on 25 November 2019 at Christie’s in London

Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947), The Call of the Sun, 1919. Oil and tempera on canvas, 46 x 59⅝ in (116.9 x 151.5 cm). Estimate: £1,500,000-2,000,000. Offered in Important Russian Art on 25 November 2019 at Christie’s in London

In the painting, a luminous band of pink and yellow radiates over a silhouetted mountain landscape. According to Babenko, it was inspired by the artist’s vast knowledge of Slavonic prehistory.

In his memoirs Roerich wrote: ‘Life was overtly joyous during the Stone Age… Long live the celebration that always rejoices at the victory of the spring sun. When fast-paced dances were performed. People rejoiced. They began to create art. They were close to us. Perhaps they were singing. And their songs were heard across the lake and in every island.’

Like many individuals in Russia in the latter part of the 19th century, Roerich was horrified by the rapid transformation of his country from an agricultural society to an industrial one. It awakened a fascination in Russia’s ancient past, its pagan peoples and their rituals.

When Stravinsky envisioned a dance of death to the sun, he described it to his friend Roerich, who, with his deep knowledge of Slavonic folklore, was able to provide the composer with historical insight that gave rise to the atavistic ballet The Rite of Spring. Roerich designed the costumes and the stage set for the ballet’s riotous premier in Paris in 1913.

Nicholas Roerich designed the sets and costumes for the 1913 Ballets Russes production of The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps) at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, 1913. Photo Keystone-FranceGamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Nicholas Roerich designed the sets and costumes for the 1913 Ballets Russes production of The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps) at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, 1913. Photo: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

The Call of the Sun  was painted six years later, by which time Russia was in the grip of a Revolution and Roerich was living in Finland. He was sent there on the orders of his doctor to recuperate from pneumonia. The revolution broke out while he was away, and he and his family never returned. ‘As a result,’ explains Babenko, ‘pre-emigration paintings by Roerich are rare and highly collectable.’

Nicholas Roerich, The Great Sacrifice. Stage design for the ballet The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps) by I. Stravinsky, 1910. Photo Fine Art ImagesHeritage ImagesScala, Florence
Nicholas Roerich, The Great Sacrifice. Stage design for the ballet The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps) by I. Stravinsky, 1910. Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Scala, Florence

In 1920 the family moved to the United States, where Roerich and his wife Helena, a theosophist, became celebrated figures for their enlightened mysticism. They met the Roosevelts and established an arts institution in Manhattan.

Later, Roerich was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for The Roerich Pact, an international treaty to protect cultural property from military destruction. The artist had formulated the idea during the First World War after witnessing the devastation wreaked on ancient monuments.

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‘Reading his speeches reveals just what a charismatic figure he was,’ says Babenko. ‘He was highly articulate and brilliant at persuading people to do things.’ 

Over the next 20 years, the Roerichs divided their time between New York and India, which they considered their spiritual home. It was in the Himalayas that the artist painted his most intensely symbolic mountain landscapes.

‘What’s so fascinating,’ says the specialist, ‘is that when you look at The Call of the Sun, you see him experimenting with oil and tempera to create that sublime luminosity and mysticism that he later became celebrated for. It is in this painting that it all began.’