He constantly sought to break down compartmentalization, and, indeed, even in his own art he defied categorization and created a universe uniquely personal.
~Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York
Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) was a Russian artist and writer fascinated by the world. He traveled extensively, wrote poetry, and produced thousands of paintings with subjects ranging from landscapes in Maine to the Buddha meditating in a cave.
Roerich was the son of a lawyer and was brought up to become one, but he was interested in art, science, and archaeology from a very young age due to the guests that frequented the upper-class Roerich home. When it came time for him to go to college, his father let him go to both law school and art school (probably hoping he would exhaust himself and drop out of art school!).
Through this arrangement, he gained a friend in law school that helped him in the worlds of art and theatre. Sergei Diaghilev was a fellow law student who invited Roerich to contribute to his magazine, The World of Art, and eventually introduced him to the famous composers of the day. Roerich designed the sets of many stage productions, including the then-inflammatory The Rite of Spring, a collaboration between Roerich, composer Stravinsky, and choreographer Nijinsky. (Anna Pavlova was a dancer in this ballet – lots of talented people involved!)
Another partnership that benefited both parties was with Helena Shaposhnikova, his wife. He met her after graduating, just before he was about to embark on a tour of Europe’s cultural sites. She was a pianist, polyglot, eventual art restorer, and all-around brilliant woman. In his journal, he wrote,
I dedicated my books to Helena, my wife, friend, traveling companion, inspirer! Each of these concepts was tested in the fire of life. And in Petersburg, Scandinavia, England, America, and in all Asia we worked, we studied, we broadened our consciousness. Together we created, and not without reason is it said that the work should bear two names—a feminine and a masculine.
Nicholas and Helena, and eventually their two sons, traveled all over Russia, Europe, the United States, and Asia. One of their great accomplishments was a research tour of Asia, in which they recorded the religion, customs, artifacts, and languages of India, Tibet, Mongolia, Chinese Turkestan (modern-day Xinjiang), and Altai (the modern-day Altai Republic). Roerich made five hundred paintings about the excursion.
Roerich hoped for an enlightened humanity in the future, united “in Beauty and Knowledge.” Starting in 1914, he campaigned for an international law to protect the ancient cultural and religious treasures of all nations, during wartime and peacetime. Twenty-one years later, in 1935, the Roerich Pact was signed by the United States and other members of the Pan-American union. (It would be great if everyone signed it, though!)