Shevchenko’s artistic heritage remains shaded by his poetic brilliance, and yet there is agreement among scientists, art-connoisseurs and my own humble self that he was a no less-gifted artist. Had his words not made such an impact on this country, his paintings, drawings, and engravings surely would have bestowed him with comparable fame. Perhaps it is time they receive all of the glory they deserve.
Born into a family of serfs, Shevchenko’s mother and father were property of the “pany” or lords of the village. What is interesting, however, is that regardless of this dependant position, his father was completely literate and his grandfather was a craftsman, a tailor in fact, or "shvets" in Ukrainian which is where the Shevchenko name stems from.
The Shevchenko children’s childhood was not a happy one. After the deaths of their mother in 1823 and their father just two years later, they would live out the rest of their days as orphans and quickly learned to fend for themselves. Just before his father died, however, one of the things the little Taras remembered him saying was, “Taras will either be a great man or a great slacker,” and fulfilling the prophesy, he opted for the former.
Almost at once, this nine-year old boy was forced to grow up, and, sent to his first proper school, he became the cantor’s servant in the local parish. Unfortunately, this particular cantor was known to drink heavily and treated his pupils as slaves, often imposing cruel and vindictive punishments on them.
Shevchenko spent two long and hard years in the cantor’s custody. In his autobiography Shevchenko writes in depth about all of the humiliation and injustice they suffered as children: “Having found him [the cantor] extremely intoxicated, I picked up the same weapon he used on us millions of times – tree branches – and I used all my power to pay him back.” Having taken revenge on his captor, Shevchenko left and never looked back. The only thing the young boy took with him that day was a small book of drawings which belonged to the parish.
With a genuine passion for art, Shevchenko would often take the opportunity to embellish someone’s gate or wall with a piece of chalk or coal, and so began looking for work with the village painters. He was prepared to do anything, but they were not interested.
Experience is Priceless
Beaten but not defeated, Taras Shevchenko was taken in by Lord Enhelhardt, a man who could often be found amongst higher circles in St Petersburg. Accompanying him on his travels, Shevchenko also came into contact with important people of the time. A gentleman who would later become a very significant character in the young man’s life was a painter by the name of Vasyl Shyryaev. Taking him on as his apprentice, the two worked together by day, where decorating the plafonds of the Bolshoi Theatre became one their responsibilities. By night, he could often be found in the city’s Summer Garden. It was here he took the opportunity to improve his artistic skills, and by the light of the White Nights, he would draw the statues he found there hundreds of times over.
During this time, another well-known painter, Ivan Soshenko, noticed Shevchenko’s work, and was incredibly interested in this as yet unknown talent. Not only introducing himself, Soshenko also began acquainting Shevchenko with all of the artistic and literary circles in St Petersburg, and soon, he was found socialising with some of the most respected and famous individuals of the day. Not least of which was the famous artist Mr Karl Bryullov.
Taking Shevchenko under his wing, Bryullov introduced Shevchenko to a life he would never have known back in his home village of Moryntsi. However, Bryullov was soon to learn that there was something else that influenced Shevchenko just as much if not more: his freedom. Unfortunately, Lord Enhelhardt (the landowner to whom Shevchenko was born a serf) was not going to let him go easily, and set his price for the boy at 2500 roubles. To raise the money, Bryullov painted a portrait of the famous poet Vasyliy Zhukovsky and asked 2500 roubles for it. The portrait sold, and so it was in 1838 that Taras Shevchenko took his life back. At which point he enrolled as a free man into the Russian Art Academy.
Winning three awards for his work there, Shevchenko became Bryullov’s best student. But as a so-called ‘outer’ student, meaning he received no financial support from the academy, he had to earn his tuition. The portraits he created at this time not only helped him through school, but they have proved to be some of Shevchenko’s best work.
No Writing, No Drawing
With all of the necessary skills at his disposal upon graduation, in 1843 Shevchenko returned to his meagre beginnings. Fourteen years had passed, and things seemed to be in an even worse state than when he had left. Deciding to turn his artistic attention to those most dear to him – common Ukrainians – he was the first to dare paint ordinary people doing ordinary things. Ironically, it was this pain and suffering of the people and the land that so inspired him, and he poured that feeling into both his poetic and artistic works.
It is interesting to note how his talents often worked in tandem. He would regularly add illustrations to poems he had written as he did with one of his most well-known works, Kateryna. This was a story of a girl who fell in love with a Russian soldier. Pregnant and about to give birth, her family and her village shun her. In the painting, an unforgiving society looks down on the girl, while she stands barefoot, looking down at the soil with a look of shame and guilt. Such a depiction would have been unheard of in those days. It has become, however, one of the artist’s signature pieces.
With her eyes full of tears, Shevchenko’s portrait of Hanna Zakrevska is another masterpiece. Displaying not only his talent as an artist, but also his insightfulness, the painting’s inherent sadness and gentleness touches anyone who looks at it.
While there were those who admired the honesty in his works, this cannot be said of everyone, and in 1847 he was arrested for his depictions of poverty, slavery and injustice. Knowing how passionately he felt about his art, The Russian Empire’s Tsar Nikolay I sent him to prison, and then on to exile near the Ural Mountains, and personally included in his sentence: “with a strict prohibition to write and draw.”
Exile was not enough to keep the artist from creating and regardless of his dire predicament, Shevchenko wrote some of his best masterpieces during that time. In fact, his talent allowed him a position on a scientific expedition to the Aral Sea in 1851 where he created more than 100 works. Depicting the laconic beauty of the deserted land and the great sea, these landscapes drawn and painted in watercolours reveal Shevchenko as a real lover of nature. While he may have took pleasure in various aspects of this time, it affected his health greatly, and not even a man of 50, portraits reveal him to be a tired elderly man upon his return from exile. Unfortunately, his earlier dream of becoming a home-owner and settling down with a wife were not to become reality. He died leaving all that he had loved about this land, Ukraine, and its people, on canvas.
Celebrating Taras Shevchenko
Featuring Chapel of Bandurists, Savenko (bass baritone)
Poetry by Shevchenko
Time: 19.00, National Philharmonic of Ukraine, 278-1697