As the youngest son of renowned Russian artist, humanist, and philosopher Nicholas Roerich, Svetoslav Roerich developed a deep appreciation for the arts in his earliest years. By the age of thirteen he painted his first portrait of his father, and by fifteen he was assisting him with stage designs for productions at London's Covent Garden. After the Roerich family's brief period in London, they traveled to the United States at the invitation of the Art Institute of Chicago. Once in New York, Svetoslav enrolled at Columbia University to study architecture, but never lost his interest in painting, for he always believed that 'the search for inner life, the search for the self-realization can only come through conscious and creative effort' (Svetoslav Roerich, 'Creative Thought,' Creative Thought: Articles By Svetoslav Roerich, Moscow 2004, p. 21).
In 1923 Svetoslav Roerich had his first exhibition at the Arden Gallery in New York prior to accompanying his family on an expedition to India. Although his experience in India instilled in him a profound interest in Indian culture, he returned to the United States in order to continue his studies and to support the organizations previously established there by his father. Gradually, however, Svetoslav Roerich's interest in Eastern cultures intensified and eventually culminated in his decision to join his parents permanently in India in 1931.
While Nicholas Roerich is remembered primarily for his vivid landscapes and early set designs, Svetoslav Roerich's oeuvre is characterized by portraiture. Among the most famous portraits that he completed in India are those of Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, which are now displayed in the historic Central Parliament Hall in New Delhi.
Portrait of Nicholas Roerich in a Tibetan Robe is an iconic portrait. Painted a couple of years after he joined his family in India, it reflects both his great admiration of his father, as well as his particular artistic process of selecting or omitting specific details when painting a portrait. In an essay from 1942, he argued that a portraitist should convey 'those features and characteristic accents which are the most essential, the most telling, the most worth-while of recording, and either 'obliterate or render less prominent, important ones that may otherwise detract from the whole' (Svetoslav Roerich, 'Portrait Painting,' Creative Thought: Articles By Svetoslav Roerich, Moscow 2004, p. 81).
Although Portrait of Nicholas Roerich in a Tibetan Robe informs the viewer of Nicholas Roerich's outward appearance, it is primarily concerned with communicating his place in a grander spiritual realm. Svetoslav Roerich portrays his father as if he is outside of space and time by incorporating many of the methods of Orthodox icon painting such as the use of inverse perspective in the buildings, frontal depiction of the figure, unclear light source, and the central and dominant placement of the figure on the canvas. It is these elements of icon painting, combined with the implied architecture of a Tibetan temple, the inclusion of the banner of peace symbol by his signature, and the Buddhist symbol that distinguish this portrait from all others of Nicholas Roerich in Svetoslav Roerich's oeuvre. Moreover, all of these additions to work serve to communicate the enormous love and respect he had for his father, whom he described as:
'Kind and patient, never wasting even a moment of his time, perfectly balanced in stress and felicity, always helpful and always mindful of the welfare of his associates, his personality stands out as a complete example of the 'Superior Man' for whom life had assumed the sublime aspect of greater service. When I think of my father I am filled with the inexpressible riches of love and regard, for all he gave and continues to give me in infinite ways' (Svetoslav Roerich, 'My Father,' Creative Thought: Articles By Svetoslav Roerich, Moscow 2004, p. 29).