‘A huge figure in Russian art’: Mikhail Nesterov and the mystery of Sacred Lake
Never before seen at auction, Nesterov’s haunting painting of a novice nun was produced under Soviet rule — during which, of course, religion was strictly suppressed. It is offered in London on 23 November
In the mid-1870s, Vasily Nesterov was worried about his family business. The merchant, from the city of Ufa at the foot of the Urals, had a single son to take over from him. Young Mikhail Nesterov’s teachers, however, insisted the boy’s talents lay in art, not business, and recommended he further his education at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.
Reluctantly, Vasily agreed and, before long, closed his business down. He told Mikhail that he would only consider himself vindicated if the latter had a painting purchased by the great Russian collector Pavel Tretyakov. In 1889, this happened — when Tretyakov bought a canvas called The Hermit.
Depicting a bearded old man by a river, it brought the then unknown Nesterov much acclaim when it was shown at the 17th Wanderers exhibition.
The Wanderers (or Peredvizhniki, to give them their Russian name) were a group of painters who had rejected the conservatism of the Imperial Academy of Arts and, from 1871 on, had been holding exhibitions of their own. They took contemporary Russia as their subject, particularly its vast landscape (which hitherto had been deemed an unsuitable topic for painting).
Thanks to Peredvizhniki such as Alexei Savrasov and Ivan Shishkin, there grew a sense that the country’s broad, flat expanses and tumbledown villages were vital emblems of Russianness.
On the face of it, The Hermit might seem a classic Wanderer work, given its tranquil riverbank setting and background of scrub pines and brush. Nesterov’s landscapes, however, are less naturalistic than those of Shishkin et al. They’re permeated by an atmosphere that’s both religious and mysterious — to the point where they might best be described as pantheistic.
According to the professor of Russian history Abbott Gleason, ‘Nesterov’s landscapes make reference to the idea of Eden [and a] Russia, where nature is a kind of an emanation of God.’
The artist had been brought up in a keenly church-going family. His world view is also sometimes said to have been shaped by reading Dostoevsky’s final novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), which made a plea for religious faith in an age of increased scepticism.
Nesterov himself, though, said the spiritual nature of his art could predominantly be explained by the tragic death — after complications in childbirth in 1886 — of his first wife, Maria.
‘My love for her, and losing her, made me an artist,’ he said in later life. ‘It brought substance into my art that hadn’t been there before, gave it feeling and a living soul: in a word, everything that people came to value, and still value, in my art.’
Following The Hermit, Nesterov painted landscapes with more explicitly religious subject matter, such as The Vision to the Youth Bartholomew (also bought by Tretyakov). He took on commissions to paint murals in a number of churches, too: in Kiev, St Petersburg and, perhaps most famously, Moscow in the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent.
In 1900, he even travelled to the far north of his country, to a monastery on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea, to live briefly with monks in a harsh climate.
All of which made the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 seem such a bolt from the blue. Within weeks, the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment had been set up to remove all references to religion from school curricula. Bishops and Christian intellectuals were rounded up and exiled; churches were systematically destroyed, and their property and land appropriated.
As the Nobel Prize-winning writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it, ‘Militant atheism [was] not merely incidental or marginal to Communist policy… but the central pivot’.
Aged 55, Nesterov suddenly found himself an outsider. For a few years, he struggled to find a way forward creatively. He ended up reinventing himself as a portrait painter.
In the main, he depicted members of the intelligentsia rather than politicians — the likes of architect Alexei Shchusev, sculptor Vera Mukhina and physiologist Ivan Pavlov.
In letters to friends, he regularly insisted ‘I’m no portraitist’. Yet, he was deemed talented enough by the Soviet establishment, who awarded him the Stalin Prize in 1941 for his portrait of Pavlov.
Remarkably, though, he continued to paint more than the occasional religious landscape after the Revolution. One particularly striking example, Sacred Lake, above, is being offered in the Russian Art sale at Christie’s in London on 23 November.
Likely painted in the mid-1920s, it features a novice nun alone in the countryside, leaning against a tree trunk for support. She has her back to us, looking at the titular lake immediately before her and the unfurling landscape beyond it.
The subtle range of greens helps lend the scene an air of peace. Like the hermit in Nesterov’s painting of decades earlier, the nun here is a figure wholly at one with the landscape. Her black habit matches the black trunk of the pine tree she rests on.
By turning her back on the viewer, she seems metaphorically to be choosing a life of solitude — one of the spiritual eternal, as represented by the Russian landscape.
Not long after it was painted, Sacred Lake was purchased by the Danish dairy magnate Johan Poul Quaade — and it hasn’t come to the market since. It was last exhibited publicly in Riga in 1932.
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Almost a century on, one key question remains. How did Nesterov manage to produce works of such religiosity as Sacred Lake and escape the wrath of the Soviet authorities? He lived peacefully and prosperously until his death in 1942, aged 80.
Many of his friends and family weren’t so lucky. His son-in-law, the lawyer Victor Shreter, for example, was executed in 1938 on charges of espionage.
‘Nesterov’s fate is one of great paradox,’ says Sarah Mansfield, International Director of Russian Art at Christie’s. ‘How did he get away with working in an Orthodox Christian vein during a time of strict censorship? Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that he was so highly regarded as a portraitist, a blind eye was turned to his other work. Nobody can really say.
‘What we can say is that Nesterov was a huge figure in Russian art of the early 20th century. His work has such a popular place in public and private collections that it rarely comes to auction.’