Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) was a Russian-born artist, historian, archeologist, writer, naturalist, traveler, philosopher and theosophist. He is best remembered for his more than 7000 paintings, drawings and set designs, and especially his extraordinary Himalayan landscapes. He was recognized as well for his tireless pursuit of beauty and his unwavering efforts to promote world peace through culture. One of his most worthy achievements was the development of a Peace Pact in the years before the Second World War, “On the Protection of Artistic and Scientific Institutions and Historic Monuments.” A major achievement of this Pact was an initiative to protect cultural objects during wartime as well as the staffs of scientific, educational, cultural and art institutions and museums under the authority of the Pact. The so-called Roerich Pact was signed into law by the United States and member nations of the Pan-American Union in April 1935. Roerich was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize for his efforts.
Although he was not well-known in the West during his lifetime, Nicholas Roerich’s many friends and admirers included heads of state, as well as leading scientists, writers, poets, musicians, religious leaders and philosophers. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, referred to Roerich as a “creative genius” and the poet Rabindranath Tagore considered him a voice for “what every sensitive mind feels about…the Art of Living.”
Born Nikolai Konstantinovich Rerikh in St. Petersburg to educated parents of Scandinavian and Russian descent, he was raised in an enlightened home often visited by scholars, historians and archaeologists. Nikolas was strongly attracted to archaeology as a child and showed a precocious talent for drawing, which his parents encouraged by enrolling him in private art classes. After graduation from high school, Roerich’s father urged him to follow in his footsteps and become a lawyer. Although Nicholas matriculated in (and graduated from) law school, he enrolled in the prestigious Imperial Art Academy at the same time. While mastering the art of landscape painting at the Academy, he focused on the interdisciplinary study of art along with philosophy, history, natural science, psychology, aesthetics and mythology. In 1897, his graduation painting “The Messenger,” based on Russian mythology, was immediately purchased by one of St. Petersburg’s leading art collectors, and brought him official recognition as an artist.
The following year, Roerich became an assistant to the Director of the Imperial Society for the Encouragement of the Arts and was appointed assistant editor for the Society’s art magazine. In 1906 he became Director of the school that was part of the Imperial Society. Roerich believed that that school’s main goal should be not only to create competent artists, but to develop aesthetic taste and support artistic individuality as well. He also stressed that art should be incorporated into daily life as much as possible.
In 1905, Roerich’s paintings began to be exhibited in major European cities, including Prague, Paris, Berlin, Venice, Rome, Brussels and Vienna. Many of his paintings were purchased by art collectors and major museums. In 1909 Nicholas Roerich became a member of the Imperial Academy of Art and a member of the Academy of Reims in France. He was considered one of the finest painters of his day, with an unparalleled command of the subtleties of color and light.
Roerich also became involved in creating set designs for operas, plays and dance performances. He worked with the renowned composer Igor Stravinsky for the theme and music of the Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) and with Sergei Diaghilev for the ballet, costumes and scenery of the Sacre, performed by the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1913. It revolutionized ballet at the time. He also created sketches for stage sets and costumes for Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden, Borodin’s Prince Igor, Richard Wagner’s The Valkyrie, Maeterlinck’s Princess Maleine, and Ibsen’s Peer Gynt.
A Partnership for the Ages
In the summer of 1899 Roerich met Elena (Helena) Ivanovna Shaposhnikova (1879-1955) and quickly fell in love. They married two years later. Their extraordinary marriage lasted almost 50 years, with each partner being nurtured and complemented by the other. Observers saw their marriage as unusually strong, with common world views combined with a high level of spirituality and deep feelings for each other. They worked together, travelled together, and enjoyed a happy family life with their two sons, George (who eventually became a noted Tibetologist) and Svetoslav, an acclaimed artist and architect.
In addition to being an avid reader and an accomplished musician and writer, Helena Roerich was a highly spiritual woman, and shared her interest in Eastern religions, as well as an interest in Theosophy and the writings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (she was the primary translator of Blavatsky’s magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine, into Russian) with her husband. Both Roerichs became members of The Theosophical Society. They were also serious readers of the Vedantist essays of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa and Swami Vivekananda, and devoted students of the ancient Hindu classic, the Bhagavad Gita.
The Roerichs’ interest in Theosophy and related subjects increased over the years and the influence of Theosophy, Vedanta, Buddhism, and other mystical topics can be detected not only in many of Roerich’s paintings. These influences can also be seen in the numerous short stories and poems Roerich wrote before and after the 1917 Russian revolution, including the Flowers of Morya cycle, begun in 1907 and completed in 1921.
It is said that throughout the period between 1907-1950, Mahatma Morya- one of the Himalayan Masters who was Mme. Blavatsky’s guru and inspired the founding of The Theosophical Society in 1875- was cooperating with Helena and Nicholas Roerich. Helena is said to have received messages from the Master through automatic writing. She was considered Morya’s primary messenger for the Agni Yoga series of books, which remain in publication today.
In 1915, Nicholas became ill with pneumonia and they left their home in St. Petersburg for a better climate. In 1918 they went to England and in 1920 came to the United States for Nicholas’ first exhibition in America. Their trip included a nationwide tour, with extended visits to Chicago, New Mexico and California. Long a magnet for scientists, artists, musicians and writers, New York City became both home and an important center of activity for the Roerichs. They founded several institutions there, including Cor Ardens (“Flaming Heart”) and Corona Mundi (“Crown of the World”), both of which were meant to unite artists around the world in the cause of civic activism. They also established the Master Institute of United Arts, which included an art school with a varied and eclectic curriculum, and the eventual home of the first Nicholas Roerich Museum. They also founded the Agni Yoga Society.
Nicholas Roerich also oversaw the construction of Master Apartments, a 27-story art-deco building on Riverside Drive and West 103rd Street in Manhattan. In addition to housing the Master Institute of United Arts and the Nicholas Roerich Museum, the lower floors included classrooms, meeting rooms and performance space for music and dance. The upper floors were devoted to apartments for writers, artists and musicians. The top of the building was to include a bronze stupa to attract celestial energy, but financial constraints caused this project to be scaled down to a form reminiscent of a Buddhist stupa that still crowns the building today.
Shortly after opening in 1929, both the Master Institute and apartment building experienced financial problems and went into foreclosure. Master Apartments was eventually sold, but remains one of the premier high-rise apartment buildings on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In 1949, the Nicholas Roerich Museum found a new home nearby on 319 West 107th Street. The present museum, the first in the world devoted to the work of a single artist, is considered by many an absolute gem, and contains several hundred examples of Roerich’s most iconic and beautiful works of art.
In 1923, Nicholas Roerich left the United States and set out for the Himalayas with Helena and son George. They initially settled in Darjeeling, in the same house where the 13th Dalai Lama had stayed during his exile in India. During this period, Roerich painted many of his iconic Himalayan paintings and met with various writers, explorers, mystics and Tibetan lamas. It was also during this time that lamas from the Moru monastery recognized Roerich as the incarnation of the Fifth Dalai Lama due to a mole pattern on his right cheek. It was also noted that during his stay in the Himalayas, Roerich learned about the flight of Thubten Choekyi Nyima, the 9th Panchen Lama. He interpreted his escape as the fulfillment of the Maitreya prophecies and the bringing about of the Age of Shambhala. The Roerichs returned to New York the following year.
In 1925, the Roerich’s undertook a five-year-long “Roerich Asian Expedition” that brought them to Sikkim, Punjab, Kashmir, Ladakh, the Karakoram Mountains, Khotan, Kashgar, Urumqi, Irtysh, the Altai Mountains, the Oyrot region of Mongolia, the Central Gobi, Kansu, Tsaidam, and Tibet. This expedition likely inspired Nicholas Roerich’s most famous paintings of Himalayan scenes. In conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Roerichs traveled to Inner Mongolia, Manchuria and China in the mid-1930s to collect seeds of plants that prevented soil erosion. This was followed by another expedition in Manchuria and Mongolia where they collected herbs, conducted archeological studies, and discovered ancient manuscripts of scientific importance.
After returning to the United States, Nicholas Roerich initiated the aforementioned Roerich Pact, the first international treaty dedicated to the protection of artistic and scientific institutions and historical monuments. He also developed the Banner of Culture Through Peace as the symbol of the Pact.
During and after the Second World War, Nicholas Roerich and his family lived in Kullu, a district in the Indian Himalayas, where he continued to paint prolifically and devoted his efforts to several cultural and peace-related initiatives, including Indian-Russian cultural cooperation and the American-Russian Cultural Association, founded in 1942.
Roerich died in Kullu on 13 December 1947, leaving behind an unparalleled legacy devoted to beauty, culture, world peace and the upliftment of humanity. In addition to the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York, museums in Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod and St. Petersburg in Russia, the National Gallery for Foreign Art in Bulgaria, and the National Museum of Serbia feature collections of Roerich’s work. For a full list, consult Wikipedia.
Collection Nikolay Roerich, (Sofia: National Gallery for Foreign Art), 2012.
Cranston, Sylvia, HPB: The Extraordinary Life & Influence of Helena Blavatsky, founder of the modern theosophical movement (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher / Putnam), 1993.
Decter, Jacqueline, Nicholas Roerich: The Life and Art of a Russian Master, (Rochester, VT: Park Street Press), 1989.
“Nicholas Roerich,” “Helena Roerich,” “Master Apartments.” Wikipedia (www.Wikipedia.org). Accessed 19 August 2020.
Bakhmut Roerich Society, Ukraine. http://art-roerich.org.ua/
Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York. http://www.roerich.org
Agni Yoga Society, http://www.agniyoga.org/index.php