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Roerich, Nicholas K(onstantin) (1874-1947)

Roerich, Nicholas K(onstantin) (1874-1947)

Versatile Russian-born painter, poet, writer, and mystic, and founder of the Agni Yoga Society. He was born in St. Petersburg on September 27, 1874, and educated at the University of St. Petersburg, becoming a graduate of the law school. He studied drawing and painting at the Academy of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, and in Paris, France. In 1901, he married Helena Ivanov Shaposhnikov; they had two children. Both Nicholas and Helena Roerich were initially influenced by the theosophical writings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the co-founder of Theosophy, and later by Rudolf Steiner, founder of Anthroposophy, and Alice A. Bailey.

Between 1901 and 1904, Roerich made a pilgrimage through Russia during which he produced some 75 paintings, exhibited at La Purchase Exposition, St. Louis. From 1906 to 1910, he was director of the School for Encouragement of Fine Arts, Russia, president of the Museum of Russian Arts, first president of Mir Iskusstva, and a leader in Moscow Art Theatre Diagilev Ballet.

The Roerichs escaped Russia at the time of the revolution and in 1920 migrated to the United States under the auspices of the Art Institute of Chicago. Roerich established a number of institutions with the aim of bringing humanity together through education, art, and culture. He traveled extensively and spent much time in Eastern countries, which strongly influenced his philosophy.

He exhibited his paintings in New York in December 1920. In 1921, he showed his work at the Institute of United Arts in New York. He took an active part in the foundation of Cor Ardeus (Flaming Heart) by a group of artists in Chicago, and in September 1922, he associated himself with an international cultural center named Corona Mundi (Crown of the World), promoting cooperation among scientists and cultural workers in different countries.

In 1923, the Roerich Museum was inaugurated in New York, an occasion marked by President Calvin Coolidge with a greeting to the founders. Roerich was also concerned with the American-Russian Cultural Association. Although the Roerichs had left Russia after the revolution, they devoted much time to attempting to bring about friendly cultural relations between the newly-established Soviet Union and the United States. Their efforts were appreciated by the Soviet authorities. Georgi Chickerin, a People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs, once described Roerich as "a half-Communist and a half-Buddhist."

Roerich spent five years in Central Asia as head of an expedition, making 500 paintings. He took a great interest in United States agriculture at a time when soil erosion threatened the holdings of American farmers during the thirties. Roerich had established an institute at Uruswathi, in Kulu, India, and sent specimens of drought-resistant plants collected in Central Asia to botanical research agencies in the United States. At the suggestion of the U.S. Department of Agriculture he headed an expedition to collect seeds of plants that prevented the destruction of fertile layers of soil. He also headed a further expedition to Japan in May 1934 and later continued these studies in Manchuria.

Roerich was internationally accepted at a time when his mysticism and artistic talents ranked equally with his efforts to improve agriculture and to bring about world peace. He was honored by many counties, and awards included: Commander, lst class, Royal Swedish Order of North Star; Grand Cross, Legion of Honor (France); Order of Saint Sava, lst class (Yugoslavia); Commander of Order of Imperial Russians of St. Stanislas, St. Anne and St. Vladimir; medal of city of Bruges, Belgium (for plan of Roerich Pact and Banner of Peace). His Roerich Pact and Banner of Peace was signed by twenty-two Pan-American countries at the White House, Washington, D.C., in 1935.

Among his many artistic activities, he was responsible for a number of works for the Chicago Opera Company, for the Russian Ballet (scenery in Prince Igor ), and for Konstantin Stanislavsky (setting of Peer Gynt ). He wrote libretto, and designed scenery and costumes for Sacre du Printempts, for which Stravinsky composed music. Ten Roerich Halls were established, in Paris, Belgrade, Riga, Benares, Bruges, Allahabad, Zagreb, Buenos Aires, Kyoto, and Praha. Roerich authored books on all of the artistic and social activities which he sponsored.

In all these activities, he was assisted by his wife Helena, who had in the meantime become a channel for Master Morya, one of the masters first brought forth by Blavatsky. Her channelled materials became the basis of what became known as Agni Yoga, a variation on theosophical teachings very much like those of Alice Bailey.

Roerich died December 12, 1947. The books of the Roerichs are kept in print by the Agni Yoga Society and the Roerich Museum, 319 W. 107 St., New York, NY 10025.


Conlan, Barnett D. Nicholas Roerich: A Master of the Mountains. Liberty, Ind.: Flamma, Association for Advancement of Culture, 1938.

Fosdick, Sara. Nicholas Roerich. New York: Nicholas Roerich Museum, 1964.

Melton, J. Gordon. Religious Leaders of America. 2nd edition. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999.

Nicholas Roerich, 1874-1947. New York: Nicholas Roerich Museum, 1974.

Pealian, Gerhard. Nicholas Roerich. Agoura, Calif.: Aquarian Education Group, 1974.

Roerich, Nicholas. Adamant. New York: Corona Mundi, 1922.

. Flame in Chalice. New York: Nicholas Roerich Museum, 1929.

. Heart of Asia. New York: Atlas Publishing, 1929.

. Realm of Light. New York: Nicholas Roerich Museum, 1931.

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Roerich, Nicholas Konstantinovich


(18741947), artist, explorer, and mystic.

Born in St. Petersburg and educated at the Academy of Arts, Roerich established himself as a painter of scenes from Slavic prehistory. Works such as The Messenger (1897), Visitors from Overseas (19011902), and Slavs on the Dnieper (1905) combined a bold use of color with Roerich's expertise as a semi-professional archaeologist. Roerich joined the World of Art Group and designed sets and costumes for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. His greatest fame resulted from his designs for Prince Igor (1909) and The Rite of Spring (1913), the libretto of which he cowrote with Igor Stravinsky.

In 1918, Roerich and his family left Soviet Russia for Scandinavia, England, then the United States. In New York, Roerich and his wife, Helena, founded a spiritual movement: Agni Yoga, an offshoot of Theosophy. Roerich's followers included Henry Wallace, Franklin Roosevelt's secretary of agriculture (and later vice-president). His backers built a museum for him in Manhattan and sponsored him on two expeditions to Asia. From 1920 onward, Roerich's painting took on an Asiatic, mystical character, featuring gods, gurus, and Himalayan mountainscapes.

Roerich visited India in 1923. From 1925 to 1928, he and his family completed a mammoth trek through Ladakh, Chinese Turkestan, the Altai Mountains, the Gobi Desert, and Tibet. Ostensibly leading an American archaeological, ethnographic, and artistic expedition, the Roerichs also secretly visited Moscow, and the true purpose of their journey remains a matter of debate. Roerich established a research facility in the Himalayan village of Naggar, India, and lobbied for the passage of an international treaty to protect art in times of war. This effort gained him two nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 19341935, Roerich, bankrolled by Wallace and the U.S. government, traveled to Manchuria and Mongolia. The expedition stirred up great scandal, leading Wallace and most of Roerich's supporters to break with him by 1936. Roerich's U.S. assets were seized. The Roerichs remained in India, supporting the freedom movement there and befriending its leaders, such as poet Rabindranath Tagore and Jawaharlal Nehru. Roerich died in 1947. Nehru, the new leader of independent India, gave his eulogy.

Roerich's occultism and the mysteries surrounding his expeditions have shaped both popular and academic understanding of his life. Western scholars acknowledge the importance of his early art, but have criticized his later works; they have tended to be suspicious about the political and mystical motives underlying his expeditions. After the late 1950s, Soviet scholars reinstated Roerich as an important figure in the Russian artistic canon, but downplayed his occultism and controversial actions. Non-academic writing on Roerich is either hagiographicAgni Yoga has a worldwide following, and the Russian movement has enjoyed tremendous popularity since 1987or lurid and sensationalistic, accusing Roerich of espionage and collaboration with the Soviet secret police. Since the early 1990s, emerging evidence indicates that the Roerichs believed a new age was imminent and that one of its necessary preconditions was the establishment of a pan-Buddhist state linking Siberia, Mongolia, Central Asia, and Tibet. The Roerichs also sought to involve themselves in the struggle between Tibet's key political figures, the Panchen (Tashi) Lama and Dalai Lama. Rather than straightforward espionage, the purpose of Roerich's expeditions seems to have been the fulfillment of these grandiose, but ultimately quixotic, ambitions.

See also: ballet; occultism


Decter, Jacqueline. (1997). Messenger of Beauty: The Life and Visionary Art of Nicholas Roerich. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press.

McCannon, John. (2001). "Searching for Shambhala: The Mystical Art and Epic Journeys of Nikolai Roerich." Russian Life 44 (1):4856.

Meyer, Karl, and Brysac, Shareen Blair. (1999). Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia. Washington, DC: Counterpoint.

Williams, Robert C. (1980). Russian Art and American Money: 19001940. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

John McCannon

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Roerich, Nicholas Konstantin

Nicholas Konstantin Roerich (nē´kōlous kənstəntyēn´ rör´Ĭkh), 1874–1947, Russian artist, scene designer, and archaeologist. He was connected with the Moscow Art Theatre and the Diaghilev ballet. His stage sets for Stravinsky's Sacre du printemps (1913) revealed him as a brilliant colorist. He traveled to the United States where the Roerich Museum, New York City, was founded (1923) in his honor. His exploration of the Himalayas resulted in 500 pictures. He is represented in the chief European collections and many American galleries. Among his books are Heart of Asia (1929) and Realm of Light (1931).

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