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Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) is generally acknowledged to be the major, formative presence in modern Ukrainian cultural history—and, arguably, political history as well. In the Ukrainian popular consciousness his standing is unrivaled, and his impact is palpable to this day. In the European, and particularly the East European and Slavic, context, he is, like Adam Mickiewicz in Poland and Alexander Pushkin in Russia, the paradigmatic National Poet, a writer whose work exemplifies, molds, and inspires collective identity and endows his readers with a transcendent sense of belonging and self-validation. Already in his lifetime, and certainly after his death, he became for generations of Ukrainians the father of the nation, “bat’ko Taras.” For a great number of Ukrainians today, he remains the implicit image and voice of the nation—a “prophet,” an icon.

 Fort Novopetrovsk from the Khiva Road
1856-1857, watercolor on paper, 4 3/4 x 12 5/8 (12.7 x 32.5)

Taras Shevchenko National Museum

As always with national icons, the reality of the individual, the complexities of the forces that shaped him and his reception, his very biography, and the aesthetic and intellectual range of his works are much broader and more nuanced than the powerfully affective and totalizing vision that animates the popular perception. This is especially true when the poet is a product of his own mythical vision: his reception becomes numinous or indeed religious. Soon after his death, Shevchenko became the object of a broad cult that, despite varying political circumstances—it flourished before and both during and after the Soviet experiment—remains basically constant. Parallel to it, various scholarly and critical issues relating to his person and his work continue to be addressed, but many central and exceedingly interesting moments still remain unexamined and unformulated.

George G. Grabowicz
Professor of Ukrainian Literature, Harvard University


 

Portrait of Vasilii A. Zhukovsky
Copy of a painting by K.P. Briullov St. Petersburg, 1838 Watercolor on Bristol paper 10 3/4 x 8 1/4 (27.2 х 21) Taras Shevchenko National Museum

Taras Shevchenko was born on March 9, 1814 in the village of Moryntsi in the Kyiv province, to a family of serfs belonging to the Senator and Privy Councillor of the Russian Empire Vasilii V. Engelhardt. Taras was orphaned when his mother died in 1822 and his father in 1825, leaving him basically homeless without any regular care. After V. V. Engelhardt died in 1828, his estate was inherited by his son Pavel V. Engelhardt who soon selected Shevchenko for special attention, making him a page (kozachok) in his household. When Engelhardt set out to return to his posting in Vilnius and then to St. Petersburg, Shevchenko accompanied him as a servant.

A Kyrgyz Child
Fort Novopetrovsk, 1857 Sepia on Bristol paper
10 x 7 3/4 (25.3 x 19.7)
Taras Shevchenko National Museum

Between 1831 and 1836, Shevchenko, who displayed artistic talent from an early age, was apprenticed to learn the art of decorative interior painting. In the spring of 1835, Shevchenko submitted some of his works to the St. Petersburg Society for the Encouragement of Artists, which had become particularly involved in securing the freedom of artists who were serfs. With the Society’s help, he was accepted into the Academy of the Arts. In St. Petersburg he became engaged in circles of intellectuals, among whom was his influential teacher, Karl Briullov, a brilliant painter renowned for his contributions to Neoclassicism and Romanticism. Through the efforts of Briullov and others, his freedom from serfdom was purchased with the sale of Briullov’s portrait of the poet Vasilii Zhukovsky. By 1838 Shevchenko was working as intensely on his poetry as he was on his painting and his small collection Kobzar (The Minstrel) appeared in 1840. The collection was epochal. In 1843 he returned to Kyiv and again in 1845, where he worked for the Archeographic Commission and produced a second collection of poetry, Try lita (Three years), for which he earned great praise, but also the ire of authorities. He was arrested in 1847 for what was considered his subversive poetry and for his connection with the Brotherhood

Shevchenko was sentenced to serve an indefinite term in Orenburg, one of the most distant outposts of the Russian Empire with a provision that he be forbidden to write and paint. He was arrested again in 1850 and transferred to Novopetrovsk fortress in the Caspian Sea, where he spent the next seven years. Shevchenko’s art of this period impresses in various ways.

Moses Draws Water from a Rock
St. Petersburg, 1839 Ink & sepia on paper
9 1/2 x 6 3/4 (24 x 17)
Collection of Christina Czorpita Gallery

Perhaps most striking are the self-portraits; through his art he would continually remind himself that he was still living and creating. When Shevchenko finally arrived in St. Petersburg upon his release from exile in 1858, he was received triumphantly as the National Poet. He began to study Rembrandt’s engraving technique in particular and two works from this period earned him the title of Academic engraver, which he received in late 1860 from the Academy.

Taras Shevchenko died of heart and liver complications on March 10, 1861, a few days before the emancipation of serfs in Russia was formally announced. Shevchenko’s legacy provided an unprecedented, galvanizing force for the Ukrainian national revival of the 19th century and for modern Ukrainian identity.

 

Consultative Curator of the exhibition
Prof. George G. Grabowicz

Exhibition production and graphic design
Maria Shust

Associate curator
Myron Stachiw

Brochure © 2014 copyright by The Ukrainian Museum. All rights reserved.