The great poet, and realist artist, Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko, is one of the most outstanding masters of world culture. Shevchenko is truly a great artist of the people, as well as a national one. The inevitable value of his art heritage is in that it expressed the interests of the Ukrainian people living in his own epoch.
In his letter to the editor of the magazine, “The People’s Reader”, Shevchenko wrote, “The history of my life is a part of the history of my homeland”. These words are the key to understanding the creative work of Shevchenko the artist and poet. In 1837 and 1843 Shevchenko created the composition “The Death of Bogdan Khmelnitsky”, in 1844 — the etching “Gifts in Chigrin in 1649” which evidenced the young artist’s great interest in the heroic past of the Ukrainian people, in the image of Bogdan Khmelnitsky.
In his self-portrait of 1840—1841 Shevchenko is portrayed full of youthful exuberance, romantic inspiration. That is what the poet was like when his “Kobzar” was first printed. As to its artistic qualities, this self- portrait is on a much higher level than were the Ukrainian portrait-paintings of that time and can well be compared with the masterpieces of Karl Bryullov.
The themes of Shevchenko’s works, depicting life in the Ukraine at that time, are very diverse, indeed. Among them we can single out the watercolor composition of 1841, “Gypsy Fortune-Teller”, which was awarded a silver medal by the Council of the Academy of Arts. These, in turn, led to the still greater canvas, “Kateryna”, in which the acute social-exposing theme sounded out in full voice. The poem of the same name served as a basis for this painting. However, it would be erroneous to think that this illustration to the poem, “Kateryna”, just as the other works created to his own poems, in any way enriched his poetic word. The theme of “Kateryna” is an actual one for that period. In it Shevchenko exposed the tragic fate of a Ukrainian serf girl, who was seduced and then abandoned and disgraced by an officer of the gentry.
In the artistic performance of the painting, in its compositional and colour scheme, there is a lot that is conventional, which can be explained by the influence of the academic school. However, as to its ideological tendency, this painting is an important page in the history of Ukrainian art, a new word in the formation of the folk element and critical realism in art.
In the spring of 1843, after 14 years of separation from his homeland, Shevchenko visited his native Ukraine. Among the paintings of this period is a great number of portraits, including those of Mayevska, Olexandr Lukyanovich, Iliya Lizogub, Gorlenko, Elizabeth Kaykuatova and others. In these portraits, especially in those of the women, you can easily trace the influence of Bryullov. He was delicate not only in the manner of painting, but also in the way he revealed the images, when traditional idealization united with the desire to convey the personality of a person.
Here, in the Ukraine, under the influence of everything seen and experienced, the idea of a periodical art edition entitled “Picturesque Ukraine” came to Shevchenko. And so, having arrived in St. Petersburg, he enthusiastically commenced this work. Separate editions of etchings were to precede with explanatory texts. Shevchenko divided up the edition into three parts: Ukrainian landscapes, showing the beauty of the country or expressing its historical meaning, were included into the first part; the second part included scenes from the everyday life of that period; the third consisted of etchings, depicting the historical past of the Ukrainian people.
However, he was unable to completely accomplish this, for soon afterwards, he was arrested and sentenced to exile. In 1844 the first and only edition of “Picturesque Ukraine”, consisting of six etchings, came out in print. In “Picturesque Ukraine” Shevchenko depicted many themes from the life of the oppressed and suffering people. He painted what was most dear to his heart, “The Paternal Hut of T. G. Shevchenko in the Village of Kirilivka”… It was here that the little orphan, Taras, spent his gloomy and joyless childhood. Here his heart was first stung by human injustice, founded on the rule of the rich over the poor. Most probably it was here that began the tempering of Shevchenko’s will to fight against social injustice.
All the while Shevchenko dreamt of a happy life for ordinary people. He collected drawings to the painting “A Peasant Family”. This painting was warmed by the poet’s great love for the people and you can almost sense the compassion and lyrical peacefulness radiating from it. However, in the etchings “Match-Makers” and “Council of Elders” (also included in “Picturesque Ukraine”), which were accomplished the following year, the social-exposing motif rings out loud and clear.
“Match-Makers” depicts a habitual scene of match-making. The bride-to-be, as the tradition demands, has placed towels over the shoulders of both match-makers, tying them at the waist. She is seen giving a plate covered with an embroidered cloth to her betrothed. The mother and father have already given them their blessings. At first glance, it seems that this is an ordinary everyday scene, depicting a folk tradition. However, when we recall that in those days marriages were usually forced by the landlord of the village, it becomes quite clear that a great social meaning was put into this etching by Shevchenko, who defended the freedom of choosing one’s partner in life.
Even more acute is the social tendency of the etching “Tale”, in the basis of which Shevchenko put the theme of a human being who had outwitted Death (very popular in the folklore of many countries). Let us look more attentively at what is pictured here: Death is being treated- to a pipe of tobacco by the soldier. The background is a typical scene of a Ukrainian village with a hut amidst the trees and a windmill. At first glance we may say that this is an illustration to a fairy-tale, but under this fairy-tale mask is hidden a sharp satire on soldiers’ life during the reign of Tsar Nicholas l. Having served 25 years in the tsarist army and lost a leg in a war “for the tsar and homeland”, the soldier is returning home an old cripple. The only one awaiting him on-the village outskirts is Death. That is the true meaning hidden in the etching, “Tale”.
Into the first edition of “Picturesque Ukraine” are also included two landscapes, accomplished on the basis of real-life sketches. They are “In Kiev” and “The Vidubetsky Monastery in Kiev”. With his etchings “Picturesque Ukraine” Shevchenko laid the foundation of critical realism in Ukrainian art and it is for this reason that they are of great significance to us. “Picturesque Ukraine” is an important page in the history of not only Ukrainian and Russian printed graphics, for we have never seen the like of it in the graphic art of the Western European peoples.
While still a student at the Academy of Arts, Shevchenko took part in illustrating some of the best Russian literary works of that period. In 1840 he created a magnificent watercolor painting “Maria” on the theme of Pushkin’s poem “Poltava”. And already in the spring of 1841 Shevchenko’s name could be found alongside of such names as Karl and Olexandre Bryullov, Fyodor Tolstoy, Andrei Sapozhnikov and other outstanding artists in the edition “One Hundred Russian Writers”. The very next year Shevchenko did a sepia which he named “The Blind Woman and Her Daughter” based on the theme of his poem “Blind”. Also, he made his first try at illustrating M. Gogol’s “Taras Bulba”. In the summer of 1843, while in the Ukraine, Shevchenko created a sepia in two variants on the theme “Blind” (“Enslaved”).
In the spring of 1845 Shevchenko completed his studies at the Academy of Arts and returned to the Ukraine. But he did not stay in the Ukraine for long. As is known, on April 5, 1847 he was arrested and without trial exiled as a rank-and-file soldier to the far-off Caspian steppes. Tsar Nicholas I himself ordered that Shevchenko be prohibited to write and draw. The reason for Shevchenko’s arrest was the fact that he was a member of the “Kirilo-Mefodievsky Society”, a secret political organization that appeared in Kiev at the beginning of 1846 and existed till the spring of 1847. In reality, however, Shevchenko was exiled for being the author of such “impertinent and extremely offensive” poetry, as it was stated in the sentence. Included into that list of works was, first of all, the poem, “A Dream”, a satire on autocratic rule, in which Shevchenko wrathfully ridiculed Tsar Nicholas and his tsarina. The restriction to write and draw was a cruel and hard blow for the poet and artist, who was at that time at the peak of his creative endeavours.
And yet, in his “prison without doors”, as he himself called it, Shevchenko in the period of ten years created the greater part of his wonderful works, which were filled with a deep and ideological meaning. These works raised Shevchenko to still a higher level, for in them his mastery became even more exact and thorough and the meaning behind them — even more acute and profound. In these works Shevchenko stands before us as a confederate and companion-in-arms of the great revolutionary democrats.
The works of the exile period can be divided up into three groups: portraits, landscape paintings and genre compositions. Of the portraits the most interesting are Shevchenko’s self-portraits. It should be mentioned that during his lifetime Shevchenko created a great number of self-portraits. Taken as a whole, they comprise one of the most valuable sources of learning about the artist’s life. During his first year in exile Shevchenko portrayed himself in a uniform of a rank-and-file soldier. When looking at this self-portrait, it is quite easy to comprehend the poet’s hurt and grief upon learning of the cruel punishment which so suddenly fell upon him. The famous Shevchenko’s words “I am punished, I suffer… but I do not regret!..” belong to this period.
Having been sent as a soldier-guard on the Butakov expedition, which during 1848—1849 explored the shores of the Aral Sea, Shevchenko served as the expedition’s artist. During the Aral expedition and later too, during another expedition into the Kara-Tau Hills, that discovered several coal-fields in Kazakhstan, and still later, during his stay at the Novopetrovsky Fortress Shevchenko created a great number of water-colour landscape paintings. These landscape paintings attract us by their maturity of realistic mastery. Here, we see no conventionality which was so typical of the academic school of landscape painting. The Kazakhstan country-side itself with its boundless territory prompted Shevchenko as to the local colour and compositional manner of executing these landscape paintings. In the well-known watercolor painting, “Novopetrovsky Fortress Viewed from Khivinskv Road”, Shevchenko portrayed the fort where he spent seven long hard years.
With an extraordinary true flair for Central Asian countryside Shevchenko portrayed a sun-baked sleepy steppe from which rose high on a hill the lone Novopetrovsky Fortress. The dark cloud that hangs over the land not only gives us a feeling of boundless territory, but stresses even more the feeling of loneliness of an uninhabited desert.
Besides being of artistic value, the watercolor painting “Turkmenian Tombs in Kara-Tau” is of great educational significance. Thanks to this work we learn of the monuments of the Turkmenian people, monuments, that have not been preserved to this day. The genre themes in the creative work of Shevchenko during the exile period are also of great importance.
Shevchenko viewed the everyday life of the people, whom tsarist autocracy called foreigners, with the eyes of a friend. The artist saw that, which he had known and experienced from childhood in the Ukraine-social and national oppression.
In the sepia “Kazakh Beggar Children” Shevchenko portrayed himself in the background, looking on with an expression of sadness and sympathy. This self-portrait, combined with a genre scene, gave the artist an opportunity to show his own attitude to poor orphan children, as well as to all the Kazakh people, doomed by the tsar to suffer hunger and deprivation. His work “State Fist”, which has not been preserved and is known only by its photo, is a sort of continuation of this series. Shevchenko portrayed poor children begging for alms at a window, from which a huge fist was menacingly extended. This painting arouses our indignation and deep sympathy for the children, for the oppressed Kazakh people.
In the sepia “Kazakh Katya” Shevchenko portrayed a girl holding a candle in front of a tombstone. In the brightly candle-lit face of the girl the artist lovingly and with deep sympathy conveyed her spiritual purity. Prior to Shevchenko no one had ever portrayed the everyday life of the Kazakh people so truthfully. And in return, the Kazakh people with great thanks and respect called Shevchenko their first national artist.
During the last years of exile, Shevchenko created one of his main compositions — a series of works entitled “The Parable of a Prodigal Son”. The works included in this series impress us with their deep thought, critical acuteness, with which the artist condemned the evils of surrounding reality. According to Shevchenko, “The Parable of a Prodigal Son” was supposed to be a satire on the savage habits and traditions of the Russian merchants, but it soon grew into a wrathful exposure of the whole system of autocratic serfdom. Included in the series is “Punishment in the Stocks”. We see the hero of the “Parable” with a wooden block in his mouth portrayed on the background of the Novopetrovsky barracks. This served to signify the people, who had no freedom of speech. In the right-hand corner of the painting we see Shevchenko’s profile, as if conveying that he himself was a witness of these inhuman tortures. In another unfinished work, “Running the Gauntlet”, Shevchenko ardently protested against this savage willfulness.
In his diary, novels and first of all in his autobiographical novel, “The Artist”, there are quite a number of important apophthegms of Shevchenko about art, in which he comes forth as a true realist. Sharply criticizing idealism, Shevchenko utilized his native landscape and life itself as the basis of his artistic work. At that time he resolutely opposed the blind copying of landscapes, i. e. naturalism. Shevchenko looked upon nature’s highest creation —the human being — as the main object in art.
“There are a great deal, a very great deal of wonderful things in divine and immortal Nature, but the crowning glory of immortal Nature is the radiant and happy face of a human being. I know nothing else in Nature that is more exalted, more magnificent”.
His view on the role of art in society is directly connected with his materialistic outlook. He considers the service to humanity as the highest vocation of an artist.
“Best of all in the arts I like engravings. And not without reason. To be a good engraver means to be a propagator of the wonderful and useful things in a society. It means to be a propagator of the truth. It means to be useful to the people… The most wonderful and noblest calling of an engraver! How many works of art that are accessible only to the rich would be wasted away in gloomy galleries without your magical chisel? Heavenly calling — the engraver’s!”.
The best works of Shevchenko after his exile were those done in the technique of etching with acquaint. The exceptions are some of the self-portraits and portraits in paints and pencil. Among the latter mentioned are the wonderful portraits of the actor Shchepkin, and the outstanding negro actor, Ira Aldridge It is enough to compare these portraits with the artist’s earlier ones to be convinced of the growth of Shevchenko’s realistic mastery. As to the free and easy stroke and the profound psychological depiction, these portraits can be placed on a par with the best portraits of the masters of the late XIX century.
Among the etchings of later years are those illustrating the works of other artists: “Friends” by I. Sokolov, Rembrandt’s “The Parable About the Workers in the Vineyard”, as well as works illustrating his own themes: “An Old Man in the Graveyard”, “Mangishlatsky Garden” and others. Special attention is attracted by portrait and self-portrait etchings. Very impressive is the profound psychologism, with which Shevchenko portrayed the image of the well-known sculptor, vice-president of the Academy of Arts, F. P. Tolstoy, who played a great role in freeing Shevchenko from exile.
Of his portraits, executed in the technique of etching, the “Self-Portrait with a Candle” and “Self-Portrait in a Hat and Sheepskin Coat” can be singled out. The first was executed after a drawing of his childhood years, that has not been preserved. We see Shevchenko with a candle raised high in his hand and this is symbolic, for it was with a lighted candle that Shevchenko started out on the road of creative work; it was with it that he died, leaving behind him the flame of artistic heritage, which to this day warms the hearts of people the world over.
In the summer of 1859, during his last days in the Ukraine, Shevchenko created only a small number of sketches, for he was carefully watched by gendarmes. Under these conditions there could be no freedom of creative work. But even so, that which Shevchenko accomplished still is of great interest to us. His works, executed while in the Ukraine, as to their mastery and realistic expression, are way ahead of the epoch and can be undoubtedly placed on a par with the drawings of the most outstanding Ukrainian masters-realists of the late XIX century.
The great poet, ardent patriot, thinker and humanist, Shevchenko, is at one and the same time an outstanding master of Ukrainian painting and graphic art, the founder of critical realism and the folk element in Ukrainian fine arts. The creative work of Shevchenko was in the core connected with and directed into the future. It is an important stage in the development of realism and the folk element in art. Ukrainian artists refer to the artistic heritage of Shevchenko as to one of the greatest and most valuable national traditions. And like all the heritage of Shevchenko, his works in the fine arts are immortal. They will continue to live for ages reminding mankind of the great creative deed that the great son of the Ukrainian people accomplished for the welfare of people the world over.