4 Jun 2014
St Olga, with a pencil sketch of rocks and trees on the reverse.
Pencil, ink, tempera and collage on paper, laid on paper, 31 by 24 cm.
Executed in 1915.
Provenance: Private collection, Europe.
Authenticity certificate from the expert O. Glebova.
Literature: Yu. Baltrushaitis et al., Roerikh, Petrograd, Svobodnoe iskusstvo, 1916, p. 225, listed as Sv. Ol’ga (eskiz rospisi).
S. Ernst, Russkie khudozhniki. N.K. Rerikh, Petrograd, Izdanie Obshchiny Sv. Evgenii, 1918, p. 126, listed as ris. Sv. Ol’ga (esk. rospisi).
F. Grant et al., Roerich. Himalaya. A Monograph, New York, Brentano’s, 1926, p. 194, listed as Saint Olga, Sketch for Church (Drawing).
A. Yaremenko, Nicholai Konstantinovich Roerich. His Life and Creations During the Past Forty Years, 1889–1929, New York, Central Book Trading Co., 1931, p. 33, listed as Saint Olga, Sketch for Church (Drawing).
Vs. Ivanov and E. Gollerbakh, Rerikh. Chast’ I, Riga, Rericha Muzejs, 1939, p. 155, listed as Svyataya Ol’ga. Eskiz rospisi dlya tserkvi. Risunok.
V. Sokolovskii, N.K. Rerikh. Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo. Sbornik Statei, Moscow, Izobrazitel’noe iskusstvo, 1978, p. 275, listed as Svyataya Ol’ga. Eskiz rospisi. Risunok.
E. Matochkin, Nikolai Rerikh. Mozaiki, ikony, rospisi, proekty tserkvei, Samara, Agni Publishing House, 2005, p. 171, illustrated.
Nicholas Roerich. In 2 volumes, Vol. 2, Samara, Agni Publishing House, Moscow, Fine Arts Academy Gallery, Zurich, Kunstberatung, 2011, p. 235, No. 272, illustrated; p. 688, listed.
The drawing on the reverse of the present lot is believed to be a sketch for the painting Werewolf, created the same year.
Nicholas Roerich’s St Olga is a rare depiction of the founder of the Russian state, executed as part of the design for the church of St Olga at Vybuty.
In 1908 Roerich was inspired to turn to the image of the Blessed Princess Equal-of-the-Apostles by the 950th anniversary of Princess Olga’s baptism, widely honoured in Russia, and by a whole series of celebrative initiatives and events. In particular, on the eve of the celebrations came the foundation of the All-Russian Society of St Olga chaired by S.V. Voyeikov. A major part of the society’s remit was to raise funds for the building of a memorial church at the village of Vybuty near Pskov, where legend has it the princess was born, but also to concern itself with erecting a memorial to the saint in Pskov itself. The idea of building the church and memorial received support from the Queen of Greece, Olga Konstantinovna, and also from the Imperial family. Nevertheless, time was needed to gather sufficient funds and it was only in July 1914 that the founding ceremony took place. Among those attending were the Queen of the Hellenes, her brother the Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinivich, his son Igor Konstantinovich, Baron N.N. Medem, Governor of Pskov, and Bishop Eusebius of Pskov. It was then that discussion turned to the projected memorial, for which the Municipal Assembly had allocated space in a square by the fortress wall on the riverbank.
Roerich saw Princess Olga as one of the key figures in the conversion of the Russian lands to Christianity and bringing them together. He was involved in planning the memorial project and in summer 1914 put forward his own idea of building a Saint Olga Museum of Art, to be based on the collection of F.M. Plyushkin, a Pskov merchant. This was one of the largest private collections in the Russian Empire. On this subject Roerich wrote: “They have got together to set up a memorial in Pskov to Princess Olga. Conversations are going on. Most important of all – the money is available. The matter has been formalised and one may say of it... Can the breadth of Princess Olga’s thinking really be answered by a memorial figure that will, of course, be quite unlike the original person? Only a memorial museum, which in the future would record the entire life of her native province, can be worthy of the memory of St Olga. A memorial museum is fitting for St Olga, who united lands. A museum is difficult to put together, and we have to think time itself has done the preparation for such a memorial in Pskov. Think and decide!”
Owing to the outbreak of war, and then revolution, neither the memorial, approved at the highest level in August 1914, nor the Vybuty project ever came about. Apparently, the painting for which this design has survived was intended for the church at Vybuty, together with Roerich’s design for a mosaic.
In creating his own image of Princess Olga, the first woman in Rus to be recorded in history and first Christian woman in the family of a Grand Prince, Roerich rejects loving-kindness and tender emotion. In this regard the artist undoubtedly follows Vasnetsov’s interpretation of the saint in his paintings for St Volodymyr’s Cathedral in Kiev, where she is portrayed with a blazing, furious glance, a cross gripped firmly in her hand. This entirely conforms to her description in the chronicle as a severe and ascetic ruler who took vengeance on the Drevlians for murdering her husband.
In Vasnetsov’s depiction Olga holds a church in her hand signifying that she built the first church in Rus. Keeping to the traditional iconography, Roerich also gives Olga a cross and a church to hold. In Roerich’s case, however, this is no abstract church but a model of the Trinity Cathedral the princess built at the confluence of the rivers Pskov and Velika after a vision she had of three rays of light pointing to where the building should stand. In his preparatory sketch for the Pskov memorial painting, the artist portrays St Olga surrounded by the walls of her native Pskov. In view of the painting’s intended technique and cult purpose, Roerich gave much careful thought to the language of his imagery. He is not interested in spatial and volumetric resolution or the effects of illumination. The composition is built exclusively on graphic elements – outline, the flat rightness of the ground colour, the lineaments. Space is conveyed through the distinct, rhythmic articulation of line. In striving to reproduce the style of the early Middle Ages, Roerich uses elements of 11th century fresco painting from the cathedrals of St Sophia in Kiev and Novgorod. The sketch portrays Olga full length, stretching from earth to heaven, in gold raiment that shines under the rays of light cast on her as a sign of the coming christening of Rus, against the oundless expanse of a background containing towns and future churches.
Though Roerich’s painting was destined never to see the light of day, this exquisite work allows the scale of his concept to be fully appreciated, as well as his masterly ability to think monumentally in small forms.
Notes on symbols:
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