Nicholas Roerich

From Wiki Shangri-La

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia[1]

Nicholas Roerich (October 9, 1874 – December 13, 1947) — also known as Nikolai Konstantinovich Rerikh (Russian : Никола́й Константи́нович Ре́рих — was a Russian painter, writer, archaeologis, theosophist, enlightener [2] philosopher, and public figure.[3]

Born in Saint Petersburg, Russia to the family of a well-to-do notary public, he lived around the world until his death in Naggar,,[4] Himachal Pradesh, India. Trained as an artist and a lawyer, his interests lay in literature, philosophy, archaeology, and especially art. Roerich was a dedicated activist for the cause of preserving art and architecture in times of war. He earned several nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize. The so-called Roerich Pact was signed into law by the United States and most member nations of the Pan-American Union in April 1935.


Early life

Guests from Overseas, 1901 (Varangians in Russia)

Raised in late 19th century St. Petersburg, Roerich matriculated simultaneously at St. Petersburg University and the Imperial Academy of Arts in 1893. He received the title of "artist" in 1897 and a degree in law the following year. He found early employment with the Imperial Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, whose school he directed from 1906 to 1917. Despite early tensions with the group, he became a member of Sergei Diaghilev's "World of Art" society; he chaired the society from 1910 to 1916.

Artistically, he made a mark as his generation's most talented painter of Russia's ancient past, a subject that meshed well with his lifelong interest in archaeology. He also succeeded in the field of stage design, achieving his greatest fame as one of the designers for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. His best-known designs were for Borodin's Prince Igor (1909 and later productions), and costumes and set for The Rite of Spring (1913), composed by Igor Stravinsky.

Another of Roerich's passions was architecture. His acclaimed "Architectural Studies" (1904–1905) – the dozens of paintings he completed of fortresses, monasteries, churches, and other monuments during two long trips through Russia—inspired his decades-long career as an activist on behalf of artistic and architectural preservation. He also designed religious art for places of worship throughout Russia and Ukraine: most notably the Queen of Heaven fresco for the Church of the Holy Spirit which the patroness Maria Tenisheva built near her Talashkino estate; and the stained glass windows for the Datsan Gunzechoinei in 1913-1915.

During the 1900s (decade) and early 1910s, Roerich, largely due to the influence of his wife Helena, developed an interest in eastern religions, as well as alternative (to Christianity) belief systems such as Theosophy. Both Roerichs became avid readers of the Vedantist essays of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, and the Bhagavad Gita. The Roerichs' commitment to occult mysticism steadily increased. It was brought to a new pitch during World War I and the Russian revolutions of 1917, to which the couple, like many Russian intellectuals, attached apocalyptic significance. The influence of Theosophy, Vedanta, Buddhism, and other mystical strains of thought can be seen not only in many of his paintings, but in the many short stories and poems Roerich wrote before and after the 1917 revolutions, including the Flowers of Morya cycle, begun in 1907 and completed in 1921.

Revolution, emigration, and the United States

Nicholas Roerich. 1916.

After the February Revolution of 1917 and the collapse of the tsarist regime, Roerich, a political moderate who placed spiritual values and Russia's cultural heritage above ideology and party politics, played an active part in artistic politics. With Maxim Gorky and Aleksandr Benois, he participated in the so-called "Gorky Commission" and its successor organization, the Arts Union (SDI). Both attempted to focus the Provisional Government's and Petrograd Soviet's attention on the need to form a coherent cultural policy and, most urgently, protect art and architecture from destruction and vandalism. At the same time, however, illness forced Roerich to leave the capital and reside in Karelia, the district bordering Finland. He had already resigned the chair of the World of Art society, and he now gave up the directorship of the School of the Imperial Society for the Encouragement of the Arts. After the October Revolution and the rise to power of Lenin's Bolshevik Party, Roerich grew increasingly discouraged about Russia's political future. In early 1918, he, Helena, and their two sons George and Sviatoslav emigrated to Finland.

Two unresolved historical debates are associated with Roerich's departure. First, it is often claimed that Roerich was a leading candidate to head a people's commissariat of culture (the Soviet equivalent of a ministry of culture) which the Bolsheviks considered establishing in 1917–1918, but that he refused to take up the post. In fact, Benois was the most likely pick to lead any such commissariat. It appears that Roerich was a preferred choice to run its department of artistic education; the point is rendered moot by the fact that the Soviets elected not to establish such a commissariat. Second, when he wished to reconcile with the USSR, Roerich later maintained that he had not left Soviet Russia deliberately, but that he and his family, living in Karelia, had been cut off from their homeland when civil war broke out in Finland. However, Roerich's extreme hostility to the Bolshevik regime – prompted not so much by a dislike of communism as by his revulsion at Lenin's ruthlessness and his fear that Bolshevik rule would lead to the destruction of Russia's artistic and architectural heritage – was amply documented. He illustrated Leonid Andreyev's anti-communist polemic "S.O.S." and had a widely published pamphlet, "Violators of Art" (1918–1919). Roerich believed that "the triumph of Russian culture would come about through a new appreciation of ancient myth and legend".[5]

Altai. Peaks and passes named in honor of the Roerich family

After some months in Finland and Scandinavia, the Roerichs moved on to London, arriving in mid-1919. Fully engrossed in Theosophical mysticism, the Roerichs were now consumed by millenarian expectations that a new age was imminent, and they wished to reach India as soon as possible. They joined the English-Welsh chapter of the Theosophical Society. It was in London, in March 1920, that the Roerichs founded their own school of occult thinking, Agni Yoga, which they also referred to as "the system of living ethics." To earn passage to India, Roerich worked as a stage designer for Thomas Beecham's Covent Garden Theatre, but the enterprise collapsed in 1920, and the artist never received full payment for his work.

Luckily, a successful exhibition led to an invitation from a director at the Chicago Art Institute, offering to arrange for Roerich's art to tour the United States. In the fall of 1920, the Roerichs set sail for America. Among the notable people Roerich befriended while in England were the famed British Buddhist Christmas Humphreys, philosopher-author H. G. Wells, and the poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (whose grand-niece Devika Rani would later marry Roerich's son Sviatoslav).

Car of Nicolas Roerich in his museum at Naggar

The Roerichs remained in the United States from October 1920 to May 1923. A large exhibition of Roerich's art, organized in part by U.S. impresario Christian Brinton and in part by the Chicago Art Institute, opened in New York in December 1920 and toured the country, to San Francisco and back, in 1921 and early 1922. Roerich befriended acclaimed soprano Mary Garden of the Chicago Opera and received a commission to design a 1922 production of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow Maiden for her. During the exhibition, the Roerichs spent significant amounts of time in Chicago, New Mexico, and California.

They settled in New York City, which became the base of their many American operations. The Roerichs founded several institutions during these years: Cor Ardens and Corona Mundi, both of which were meant to unite artists around the globe in the cause of civic activism; the Master Institute of United Arts, an art school with an exceptionally versatile curriculum, and the eventual home of the first Nicholas Roerich Museum; and an American Agni Yoga Society. They also joined various theosophical societies, and their activities in these groups dominated their lives.

Asian Expedition (1925–1929)

Roerich's family. (Kullu valley, India)

After leaving New York, the Roerichs – together with their son George and six friends – went on the five-year long 'Roerich Asian Expedition' that, in Roerich's own words: "started from Sikkim through Punjab, Kashmir, Ladakh, the Karakoram Mountains, Khotan, Kashgar, Qara Shar, Urumchi, Irtysh, the Altai Mountains, the Oryot region of Mongolia, the Central Gobi, Kansu, Tsaidam, and Tibet" with a detour through Siberia to Moscow in 1926. Roerichs' Asian expedition attracted anxious attention from the foreign services and intelligence agencies of the USSR, the United States, Great Britain, and Japan. Between the summer of 1927 and June 1928 the expedition was thought to be lost, since all contact from them ceased for a year. They had been attacked in Tibet and only the "Superiority of our firearms prevented bloodshed... In spite of our having Tibet passports, the expedition was forcibly stopped by Tibetan authorities." The expedition was detained by the government for five months, and forced to live in tents in sub-zero conditions and to subsist on meagre rations. Five men of the expedition died at this time. In March 1928 they were allowed to leave Tibet, and trekked south to settle in India, where they founded a research center, the Himalayan Research Institute.

In 1929 Nicholas Roerich was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the University of Paris.[6] He received two more nominations in 1932 and 1935.[7] His concern for peace led to his creation of the Pax Cultura, the "Red Cross" of art and culture. His work in this area also led the United States and the twenty other members of the Pan-American Union to sign the Roerich Pact on April 15, 1935 at the White House. The Roerich Pact is an early international instrument protecting cultural property.

Manchurian expedition

In 1934–1935, Roerich conducted an expedition in Inner Mongolia, Manchuria and China, organized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture along with H.G MacMillan, and James F Stephens. The expedition's purpose was to collect seeds of plants which prevent the destruction of benign layers of soil.

The expedition consisted of two parts. The first itinerary included Khingan mountain ridge and Bargin plateau (1934); the second encompassed the Gobi desert, Ordos and Alashan (1935). These expeditions passed through a territory of Inner Mongolia located in northern and northeastern parts of modern-day China. As a result of the expedition, nearly 300 species of xerophytes were found, herbs were collected, archeological studies were conducted, and antique manuscripts of great scientific importance were found.

During World War II

Roerich was in India during the Second World War, where he painted Russian epic heroic and saintly themes, including: Alexander Nevsky, The Fight of Mstislav and Rededia and Boris and Gleb.[8]

Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Nicholas Roerich, M. Yunus. (Roerich's estate, Kullu)

In 1942, before the Battle of Stalingrad, Roerich received Jawaharlal Nehru at his house in Kullu and Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi.(Necessity of citation - 2013) Together they discussed the fate of the new world, where long-enslaved peoples would triumph in freedom: "We spoke about Indian-Russian cultural association, – Roerich wrote, – it is time to think about useful and creative cooperation ...”.[9]

Gandhi would later recall about several days spent together with Roerich's family: "That was a memorable visit to a surprising and gifted family where each member was a remarkable figure in himself, with a well-defined range of interests." ..."Roerich himself stays in my memory. He was a man with extensive knowledge and enormous experience, a man with a big heart, deeply influenced by all that he observed".

During the visit, "ideas and thoughts about closer cooperation between India and USSR were expressed. Now, after India wins independence, they have got its own real implementation (clarify:phrase after the comma is totally unclear;date=June 2013). And as you know, there are friendly and mutually-understanding relationships today between both our countries”.[10]

In 1942, American-Russian cultural Association (ARCA) was created in New York. Its active participants were Ernest Hemingway, Rockwell Kent, Charlie Chaplin, Emil Cooper, Serge Koussevitzky and Valeriy Ivanovich Tereshchenko. Association’s activity was welcomed by scientists like Robert Millikan and Arthur Compton.[11]


Roerich died on the 13 December 1947

Cultural legacy

Minor planet 4426 Roerich in Solar System

Vice President of the United States Henry A. Wallace was a frequent correspondent and sometime follower of Roerich's teachings. This became controversial when Wallace ran for President in 1948 and portions of the correspondence were printed by Hearst Newspapers columnist Westbrook Pegler, becoming known as the "Guru Letters".(citation needed|date=June 2013)

Today, the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York City is a major center for Roerich's artistic work. Numerous Roerich societies continue to promote his theosophical teachings worldwide. His paintings can be seen in several museums including the Roerich Department of the State Museum of Oriental Arts in Moscow; the Roerich Museum at the International Centre of the Roerichs in Moscow; the Russian State Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia; a collection in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow; a collection in the Art Museum in Novosibirsk, Russia; an important collection in the National Gallery for Foreign Art in Sofia, Bulgaria; a collection in the Art Museum in Nizhny Novgorod], Russia; the Roerich Hall Estate in Nagar village, Kullu Valley, Himachal-Pradesh (India); in various art museums in India; and a selection featuring several of his larger works in The Latvian National Museum of Art.

Roerich's biography and his controversial expeditions to Tibet and Manchuria have been recently explored by a number of authors, including two Russians, Vladimir Rosov and Alexandre Andreyev, American (Andrei Znamenski), and the German Ernst von Waldenfels.[12]

H.P. Lovecraft referred to the "strange and disturbing paintings of Nicholas Roerich" in his Antarctic horror story At the Mountains of Madness.

The minor planet 4426 Roerich (pictured) in our Solar System was named in honor of Roerich.


See also

  • Agni Yoga
  • Pax Cultura
  • Helena Roerich
  • Roerich Pact
  • Svetoslav Roerich
  • George de Roerich
  • Yuli Mikhailovich Vorontsov — President of International Centre of the Roerichs (Moscow)
  • Henry A. Wallace
  • 4426 Roerich — Minor planet in Solar System


  1. Wikipedia contributors, 'Nicholas Roerich', Wikipedia, 24 August 2013, 15:16 UTC, <> [accessed 25 August 2013]
  2. Электронная библиотека Международного Центра Рерихов, ПЛАНЕТА «РЕРИХ»
  3. Рерих Николай Константинович // Большая биографическая энциклопедия
    Рерих Николай Константинович // Русская философия: словарь/Под общ. ред. М. А. Маслина / В. В. Сапов. — М.: Республика, 1995
    Рерих Николай Константинович // Краткий философский словарь / А. П. Алексеев, Г. Г. Васильев и др.; Под ред. А. П. Алексеева — 2-е изд., перераб. и доп. — М.: ТК Велби, Изд-во Проспект, 2004.
    Рерих Николай Константинович // С. Левит. Культурология. XX век. Энциклопедия., 1998 г.
    Рерих Николай Константинович / Новейший философский словарь /Грицанов А. А.. — Научное издание. — Минск: В. М. Скакун, 1999 г. — 896 с.
    Рерих Николай Константинович // Биографический словарь
    Рерих Николай Константинович // Современная энциклопедия
    Рерих Николай Константинович // Большая советская энциклопедия
    Рерих Николай Константинович // Энциклопедический словарь Ф. А. Брокгауза и И. А. Ефрона
    Рерих Николай Константинович // Энциклопедия «Кругосвет»
    — Рерих Николай Константинович // Современный Энциклопедический словарь. Изд. «Большая Российская Энциклопедия», 1997 г.
    Nikolay Roerich // Gallery of Russian Thinkers
    Nikolai Konstantinowitsch Roerich / Meyers Konversations Lexikon. Online-version
  4. Nicholas Roerich
  5. Bowlt John E. Moscow and St. Petersburg 1900–1920: Art, Life and Culture. Publisher : The Vendome Press.- 2008. - New York. - p. 69. ISBN 978-0-86565-191-3
  6. Roerich Nominated for Peace Award - | New York Times - March 3, 1929 - Web access 2009-02-03
  7. Nomination database
  8. Peter Leek. Russian Painting. Google Books. Web access 23 June 2013. - 2005. - Parkstone International. - p. 256.- ISBN 978-1-78042-975-5
  9. N. Roerich. Diary Leaves. V. 3. – Moscow, International Centre of the Roerichs. – 1996. – p.39. ISBN 5-86988-056-4
  10. Interview with Indira Gandhi / Roerich's Empire. (Derzhava Rerikhov) (in Russian). / Collected Articles. – Moscow, International Centre of the Roerichs, Master-Bank. – 2004. – p.65. ISBN 5-86988-148-X
  11. Ruth Abrams Drayer. Nicholas And Helena Roerich: The Spiritual Journey of Two Great Artists And Peacemakers. Google Books. Web access 23 June 2013. - 2005. - Quest Books. - p. 330 - ISBN 978-0-8356-0843-5
  12. Nicholas Roerich: the Messenger of Zvenigorod (vol. 1: The Great Plan, vol. 2: The New Country) (2002-2004) [summary of the books in English at]; Alexandre Andreyev, Gimalaiski mif i ego tvotry [Himalayan Myth and its Makers] (St. Petersburg: St. Petersburg University Press, 2004) [in Russian]; Andrei Znamenski, Red Shambhala: Magic, Prophesy, and Geopolitics in the Heart of Asia (Quest Books, 2011) [see an excerpt from the book at (Verify credibility|date=November 2012)]; Ernst von Waldenfels, Nicholas Roerich: Kunst, Macht und Okkultismus (Osburg, 2011)

External links