'The poetry of my works is the poetry of loneliness, the quest for happiness and spiritual repose.'
Mikhail Nesterov, as quoted by P. Klimov, Mikhail Nesterov, St Petersburg, 2012, p. 7
Nesterov’s delicate tonal landscapes, which bathe verdant greens in silvery northern light beneath vast skies marbled with pinks and blues, are unexpectedly powerful. His idyllic tableaux of Russian nature, often framed by the sparse canopies and twisted trunks of native birch, are sombre and stark; and yet, in the depths of the rodina there is also a profound peace, a spiritual bliss and even a glimmer of hope in the eternal.
As the success of his 2013 exhibition at the State Tretyakov Gallery proved, Mikhail Nesterov remains an extremely popular Russian artist, receiving more than 10 significant solo shows during his lifetime. At once traditional and controversial, revered for his appreciation of Russian landscape, yet censored for the Christian symbolism in his work; Nesterov, like his art, has been described as a paradoxical figure.
His oeuvre, from monumental narrative works, such as In the land of Russia (The soul of the people) (1914-1916, State Tretyakov Gallery), to church murals, compositions devoted to St. Sergius of Radonezh and depictions of nuns and novices, exalts Russian nature and faith, while referencing the artist’s own experience with the practice of Russian Orthodoxy. Comparisons can be drawn with other exponents of National Romanticism; namely Finnish artists Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931) and Albert Edelfeldt (1854-1905), whose naturalistic style and Kanteletar-inspired work also fuses lyrical landscape with national history and philosophical ideas.
A jewel in the Quaade collection, the extraordinary Sacred lake has not been exhibited publicly for almost 90 years. The solitary figure instantly brings to mind Nesterov’s masterpiece, The great taking of the veil (1897-1898, State Russian Museum), depicting a procession of nuns accompanying a novice through the countryside as she prepares for a life of devotion. In contrast, at first glance the isolation of the novice depicted in Sacred lake is almost painful. She stands utterly alone, her loneliness intensified in the landscape, her body leaning against a tree for support. However, an alternative interpretation reveals new meaning. Looking for Nesterov’s 'spiritual repose', the novice deliberately turns her back against the viewer, choosing solitude and her own path. Literally and symbolically, the tree that she rests against is distinct from the others. With this reading, the magnificent Russian landscape unfolds in front of her eyes and the spiritual eternal is made accessible.
A DANISH COLLECTOR & HIS PASSION FOR RUSSIAN ART
Born in 1888, Johan Poul Quaade first worked in London before moving to Kargat, Siberia, in 1910 with the Danish dairy company, Sibiko. The company employed more than 100 people, exporting equipment for the dairy industry and importing dairy products into Denmark. Following his promotion to Branch Manager for the Minusinsk-Yenisei region in 1911, Quaade met his future wife, Xenia Ilinitchnaja Solonina, who he married in 1913. In 1916 the couple moved to St Petersburg, where Quaade became Director of the European and Russian Branch. Having left Russia following the October Revolution, by 1919 the couple had settled in Constantinople where Quaade occupied a senior position in a large Danish-English company overseeing operations in Romania, Bulgaria, Southern Russia and the Caucasus. In 1925 the family moved to Riga, where the entrepreneurial Quaade set up his own dairy business, trading between Denmark and Russia. The family eventually relocated to Quaade's native Denmark in 1938.
Along with noted collectors such as D. Kopelovich, L. Maskovskii and J. Grinberg and artists such as Ilya Repin, Quaade exhibited two works – Arkhipov’s Young peasant woman [Sieva] (sold Christie's, London, 30 November 2015, lot 35) and the present painting, Mikhail Nesterov’s Sacred Lake [Svetais ezers] – in an important show dedicated to Russian art and curated by a committee chaired by Nikolai Bogdanov-Belsky that took place in Riga in December 1932.