The only artist to have a museum in the United States dedicated to his work - 'The Nicholas Roerich Museum' in New York City - Nicholas Roerich's work has universal appeal. Lots 161, 163 and 166 come from the Bolling Collection and reflect Roerich's interest in Orientalism and Theosophy and they all originate from the Roerich Museum he created in the late twenties.
Born to an upper middle-class Russian family, Roerich displayed an early talent for drawing. Although he wanted to pursue a career as an artist, his father, a lawyer and notary did not consider it to be a fit vocation for a responsible member of society. A compromise was reached and in 1893 Nicholas enrolled simultaneously in the Academy of Art and at St. Petersburg University.
The late 1890s saw Russian arts blossom, particularly in St. Petersburg, where the avant-garde formed groups and alliances, led by the young Sergei Diaghilev, who was a year or two ahead of Roerich at law school, and was one of the first to appreciate his talents as a painter. Roerich designed Stravinskii's The Rite of Spring for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, and it was this success that established him as an exceptionally individual artist.
After leaving university, Roerich met, and later married, Helena, daughter of the architect Shaposhnikov and niece of the composer Mussorgskii. A talented pianist and author of many books, including The Foundations of Buddhism, Helena's collected Letters in two volumes, reveal the wisdom, spiritual insight and simple advice she shared with her many correspondents. Roerich and Helena became firm believers in Theosophy, which holds that spiritual masters of long ago can reappear in dreams, and even be reincarnated, to bring peace to the world.
This fervent desire for world peace led Roerich on a 16,000-mile expedition through Central Asia , to Kullu in the Himalayas, where, in 1928, he founded a research station and developed a philosophy in which art would unite humanity. He became involved in politics and launched the Roerich Peace Pact, which called for the worldwide protection of monuments and cultural treasures during war and peace. In 1929, Nicholas Roerich was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and finally, in 1935, the pact was signed in the presence of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who said, 'The pact possesses a spiritual significance far greater than the text itself.' The pact is still in force today. Nicholas Roerich died in Kullu on 13 December 1947. His body was cremated and the ashes buried on a slope facing the mountains he loved and portrayed in many of his paintings.
'The Last of Atlantis' is a highly unusual work in Roerich's oeuvre and appears to have been executed whilst Roerich was in Sikkim, India. Apparently unrelated to any series, the mythology of this lost city appears to have inspired Roerich to create a bleak vision of an ancient civilization facing ruin.
In the late 19th Century, Helena Blavatskii, one of the co-founders of Theosophy as a religious movement, proposed that the Atlanteans were cultural heroes, rather than military aggressors as suggested by Plato; Blavatskii's theory may have influenced Roerich making this work more of an expression of mourning for a lost culture than a straight-forward rendering of a mythological scene. Painted in subtle gradations of grey-blue, Roerich's striking cobalt blue is notably absent from 'The Last of Atlantis' as if to emphasize that the life of this civilization has already expired before the waves that ominously lap at the foundations of the building engulf the city in its entirety.
We are grateful to Gvido Trepsa and Daniel Entin of The Roerich Museum, New York, for their assistance in cataloguing lots 161, 163 and 166.