Nikolay Petrovich Bogdanov-Belsky
Nikolai Bogdanov-Belsky is a Russian artist, excellent portraitist and landscape painter, Academician of painting, a follower of the ideas of the Wanderers artistic group (Peredvizhniki), Chairman of the Arkhip Kuinzhi society. He devoted his work to the life of the village, convincingly reflected the everyday life of peasant children and vividly presented the mundane existence of a rural school of the pre-revolutionary period. The artist was born December 8, 1868, in a small village Shitiki of Belsky County, Smolensk province (now Oleninsky district of Tver region). Since the boy was born as the illegitimate son of a simple peasant, his name was formed from the pseudonym - Bogdanov, and the name of his native County - Belsky. The second part of the name was attached only in 1905 when the artist received the title of Academician. Bogdanov-Belsky has recalled this momentous event: "My common name was as though ennobled by the Emperor himself, writing it personally in a diploma with a hyphen - "Belsky". His childhood was unprivileged regarding the financial situation but peaceful: the young Nikolai used to work as a shepherd, he loved to carve figures of animals from wood and paint on the fences, he also studied at the local parochial school.
The future artist was very fortunate that his talent was noticed by a renowned Professor S. A. Rachinsky, who came from Moscow and at that time was organising schools for peasant children in the province. This person has played a grand role in the fate of Bogdanov-Belsky. The Professor was so impressed with his portrait, which was painted by a self-taught artist, that in 1878, he sent the boy to his school in the village of Tatevo, and then, in 1878, he referred young Nikolai to the icon-painting workshop of the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius monastery. All this time the boy was living in the Rachinsky's household as his rightful family member. In 1884, Bogdanov-Belsky went to study at the Moscow school of painting, sculpture and architecture while still being financially dependent on Professor Rachinsky. Bogdanov-Belsky's teachers were V. D. Polenov, who was a tutor in a landscape class, I. M. Pryanishnikov, who lectured in figure painting class, and a life drawing class was taught by E. S. Sorokin and V. E. Makovsky.
At the age of sixteen, in 1884, Nikolai Bogdanov-Belsky returned to Tatevo, where he continued to devote most of his time to painting, living in the house of Professor Rachinsky. At that time, he had already started to participate in exhibitions, and his works even began to be sold, such as "The Spruce Forest", for instance, which was bought by a famous entrepreneur and collector, V. G. Sapozhnikov. Already during his studies, Nikolai Bogdanov-Belsky proved himself as a successful and noteworthy painter: he received awards and was praised by his teachers. The painting "The Future Monk", which was created in 1889 as his diploma work, has brought to the young artist not only a silver medal and the official title of the painter but also has made him notable to many. With the help of his supporters, Bogdanov-Belsky was able to travel to Constantinople and make a pilgrimage to Mount Athos in 1890. That is where Nikolai met with Philip Malyavin who worked in the icon painting workshop in the monastery in Athos. Bogdanov-Belsky was very prolific during this trip concerning his creative output and had thoughtful conversations with the monks of the St. Panteleimon monastery as well as he was contemplating the great nature of this fascinating place. In the same year, when Bogdanov-Belsky began to participate in exhibitions that were held by the Wanderers (Peredvizhniki), the diploma painting of the artist was displayed for the wide public and highly appreciated by the eminent art critic V. V. Stasov. In general, being a permanent participant in the exhibitions of the Wanderers (Peredvizhniki), Nikolai Bogdanov-Belsky's style and artistic ideology was very close in its content and spirit to the Society for Traveling Art Exhibitions. Bogdanov-Belsky actually became an official member of the Society only in 1895. The artist has written about his memories: "These exhibitions were a huge success. There was complete harmony between society and us, the same interests, the same ideology united us". In 1891, the painting "The Future Monk" was acquired by a prominent Moscow businessman and the owner of the art gallery, K. T. Soldatenkov, and then later the painting passed to the Empress Maria Feodorovna. Subsequently, Bogdanov-Belsky has received many commissions for the replicas of this work, including one from M. P. Tretyakov. The artist continued his art education after graduating from the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture only in 1894 at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg in the studio of Ilya Repin. During the first two years at the Academy, Nikolai Bogdanov-Belsky went to Paris to develop his artistic skills in the private studios of F. Colarossi and F. Cormon. The artist also travelled and worked in Germany and Italy. Reproductions of Bogdanov-Belsky's paintings were published in popular magazines such as "Niva", "Art Treasures of Russia", "Capital and Manor". His paintings were bought by the State Tretyakov Gallery, the State Russian Museum, as well as other art museums of major cities such as Almaty, Arkhangelsk, Nizhny Tagil, Omsk and Samara.
Bogdanov-Belsky graduated from the Academy of Arts in 1903, and in 1905 he was awarded the official title of Academician of Painting. Nikolai Bogdanov-Belsky's fame as a portraitist has spread so far that Emperor Nicholas II ordered his portrait in 1904. The artist met Nicholas II in 1906, and the portrait was finished two years later. The Emperor was extremely pleased with the result. He also bought two paintings by Bogdanov-Belsky: "The Game of Checkers" and "Reading in a Rural School". In fact, there are many portraits made by the artist of those who were close to the Royal family as well as depictions of Empress Maria Fedorovna and Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. In 1914, Bogdanov-Belsky became a full member of the Academy of Arts. The social life of the artist was quite vibrant: he was elected Chairman of the Arkhip Kuindzhi Society and was holding this position until 1918.
The collapse of the monarchy and the revolutionary turmoil had a substantial impact on the artist's life. He was never able to recover from this shock and adapt to a new way of life: in the autumn of 1921, the artist at the invitation of his friend Sergei Vinogradov relocated to Latvia. He continued to paint on the familiar subject matters that were so dear to his heart: rural nature and peasant children. Bogdanov-Belsky has spoken with warmth about his newfound house, and particularly about the Eastern province of Latvia, Latgale, where he spent almost every summer: "Latvia generally is very picturesque, and especially Latgale. Its nature reminds me very much of the Northern part of Smolensk province, where I was born and spent my childhood". There were seven personal exhibitions of the artist held in Latvia in the period from 1922 to 1940. Also, the works of Bogdanov-Belsky were shown in Tallinn, Oslo, Munich, Toronto, Helsinki, Berlin, Hamburg, Prague, Copenhagen, Belgrade. The artist was highly successful in Latvia, his work was in demand and exhibited quite often. In 1936, Nikolai Bogdanov-Belsky was awarded the highest award of Latvia - the order of Three Stars. The last lifetime exhibition, which was showing Bogdanov-Belsky's work took place in 1941 in Moscow, where the artist presented the painting "Shepherd Proshka" which was created in 1939. Bogdanov-Belsky, being seriously ill, was forced to leave Latvia in 1944, and go with his wife Antonina Maximilianovna Erhard, a Baltic German, to Germany to be operated in a Berlin clinic. Nikolai Bogdanov-Belsky died in Berlin on February 19, 1945, during the bombing and was buried in the Russian Orthodox cemetery Tegel.