Again brought to my attention by our amazing artist friend Santa Robaina Rodriguez.
Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge (his French ancestors’ last name was de Gay), Russian: Николай Николаевич Ге; 27 February [O.S. 15 February] 1831 – 13 June [O.S. 1 June] 1894) was a Russian realist painter famous for his works on historical and religious motifs.
In 1850 he gave up his career in science and entered the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg. He studied in academy under the historical painter Pyotr Basin until 1857. He graduated from the academy in 1857 with a gold medal for his painting The Witch of Endor Calling Up the Spirit of the Prophet Samuel. According to Ge himself, during that period he was strongly influenced by Karl Briullov.
His gold medal provided him a scholarship for studying abroad . He visited Germany, Switzerland, France and in 1860 settled in Italy. In Rome he met Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov who strongly influenced Ge.
In 1861 Ge painted The Last Supper; using the image for his central figure of Christ a photograph taken by Russian photographer Count Sergei Lvovich Levitsky (1819–1898) of Levitsky’s cousin Aleksandr Ivanovich Herzen (1812–1870); the pro-Western writer and outstanding public figure.
Ge would recall, “I wanted to go to London to paint Herzen’s portrait,… and he responded to my request with a large portrait by Mr. Levitsky”. The final painting’s similarity between the pose of Levitsky’s photo of Herzen and Ge’s pose of the painted Christ led the press of the day to exclaim the painting as “a triumph of materialism and nihilism”.
It is the first time photography became the main starting point for the solution to a central character of a painting and speaks to the deep influences that photography would have later on in art and movements like French Impressionism.
In 1864 Ge returned to Florence and would paint not only Herzen’s portrait but also the Messengers of the Resurrection and the first version of the Christ on the Mount of Olives. The new religious paintings at that time were not much of a success, and the Imperial Academy refused to exhibit them in its annual exhibition.
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