Rerikh, Nikolai

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Rerikh, Nikolai Konstantinovich


(also Nicholas Roerich). Born Sept. 27 (Oct. 9), 1874, in St. Petersburg; died Dec. 13, 1947, in Nagar, Kulu Valley, Punjab, India. Russian painter, archaeologist, traveler, and public figure.

Rerikh studied with A. I. Kuindzhi at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts from 1893 to 1897. During this period he also attended the University of St. Petersburg, graduating from its faculty of law in 1898. Rerikh also took courses in the university’s faculty of history and philology. In 1900–01 he studied painting in Paris at the studio of F. Corman. Rerikh became the secretary of the Society for the Promotion of the Arts in 1901 and served as the director of the society’s school of drawing from 1906 to 1918. He was made a member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts in 1909. Rerikh was a member of the World of Art (Mir Iskusstva), serving as its chairman between 1910 and 1919.

In the late 1890’s Rerikh’s art was influenced to a large extent by the artist’s archaeological studies and his interest in Slavic and Scandinavian pagan antiquity. Its essence—an understanding of history’s indissoluble ties with eternal nature—was reflected even in Rerikh’s early works. This understanding is exemplified in The Messenger (Tribe Rose Up Against Tribe, 1897, Tret’iakov Gallery), the first part of the cycle The Beginning of Rus: the Slavs.

Later the thematic specificity of Rerikh’s early works, such as Merchants From Beyond the Sea (1901, Tret’iakov Gallery) and Building the City (1902, Tret’iakov Gallery), gave way to the interpretation of the past in accordance with its symbolic harmony with the present and to the representation of the milestones in man’s history as a chain of repeated momentous events or as episodes in a certain “cosmic” evolution. This change is seen in The Heavenly Battle (1912, Russian Museum, Leningrad) and The Sign (1915, Odessa Museum of Art).

Rerikh’s mature paintings, dating from roughly 1915, show the influence of Kuindzhi’s late period, with a predominance of landscape and lighting effects. Also evident are influences of art nouveau—flat ornamentation and decorative stylization—and of Byzantine and ancient Russian art—static forms and hieratic staffage. The paintings are marked by intense emotionality and abundant use of symbolist devices. Lapidary expressiveness is achieved by precision of line and the use of vividly contrasting colors. (Beginning in 1906, Rerikh worked in tempera; in the 1920’s he primarily used synthetic paints.)

Between 1910 and 1920, Rerikh worked as a scenic designer. He created sets for Stravinsky’s ballet Le Sacre du printemps (1913) and Borodin’s opera Prince Igor (1914), both of which were productions of S. P. Diaghilev’s Russian Seasons. During this period Rerikh also produced sketches for religious wall paintings and mosaics (for example, for the Church of the Holy Spirit, Talashkino, 1914) and for tile friezes and murals in private mansions.

In 1918, Rerikh left his homeland to live abroad. In the early 1920’s he lived mainly in the United States. He went to India in 1923 and settled there permanently in 1936. Rerikh made two long expeditions through Central and East Asia, one from 1924 to 1928 and the other in 1934 and 1935. On his first expedition, which he made with his wife and his son Iurii, Rerikh gathered valuable archaeological and ethnological materials. This expedition involved crossing Central Asia twice: once from India to Siberia (passing through Sikkim, Kashmir, the Himalayas, Karakoram, Tarim Basin, and Dzhungaria toward Lake Zaisan and the city of Omsk) and once from Mongolia into India (passing through Tsaidam, Tibet, and the Himalayas). During a trip to the USSR in 1926, Rerikh visited Moscow and the Altai.

The Institute of Himalayan Research was founded in Nagar by Rerikh and his son Iurii. From 1926 to 1942 the institute was a center for the study of archaeological and ethnological materials.

Rerikh’s paintings of the 1920’s through 1940’s include symbolist compositions and a series of mountain landscapes of Mongolia, Tibet, and the Himalayas. These works are marked by epic qualities, majestic and romantic images, sharpness and clarity of form, and wealth of coloristic effects. Examples include Guga Chogan (1931, Tret’iakov Gallery), The Signs of Gesar (1940, Russian Museum), The Himalayas: Nanda Devi (1941, Russian Museum), Tibet: Monastery (1942, Russian Museum), and Remember (1945, Russian Museum). Some of Rerikh’s works of this period have a complex and often pretentious allegorical conception, related to the artist’s personal world view, closeness to Buddhist philosophy, and Utopian hopes for a global, messianic role for art.

Beginning in the 1920’s, Rerikh actively sought to alert the world community to the importance of preserving cultural monuments. His Roerich Pact led to the signing in 1954 in The Hague of the International Convention for the Protection of Cultural Properties in the Event of Armed Conflict. The convention was ratified by many countries, including the USSR. Rerikh’s patriotism toward his homeland during the Great Patriotic War of 1941–45 is well known. The artist made a significant contribution in bringing about better cultural relations between the Soviet and Indian peoples. Illness prevented Rerikh from returning to his homeland. More than 400 works executed by the artist in India have been contributed to museums in the USSR.


Pis’mena. Moscow, 1974.
Iz literaturnogo naslediia. Moscow, 1974.
Altai—Gimalai. Moscow, 1974.


Rerikh. Petrograd, 1916.
Kniazeva, V. P. N. K. Rerikh, 1874–1947. Leningrad-Moscow, 1963.
Kniazeva, V. P. N. Rerikh. Moscow, 1968.
Belikov, P., and V. Kniazeva. Rerikh. Moscow, 1972.
Poliakova, E. N. Rerikh. [Moscow] 1973.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.