The Artistic Legacy of Taras Shevchenko
Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) was a vitally important figure in Ukrainian history, admired as a poet, writer, humanist thinker, and patriot who campaigned for Ukraine’s national liberation. He also made significant contributions to Ukrainian art as a talented painter and graphic artist. Famous for incorporating folk elements into Ukrainian fine art, he is one of the founders of Ukrainian critical realism.
As an artist he is well known for lively portraits, including many self-portraits, which capture the likeness and personality of the sitter. He also created landscapes in water colour, ink, pencil, and etchings in aquatint, which are known for their refinement, delicacy, and detailed capture of the complex natural world. His genre and historical works depicting life in Ukraine or in exile are exemplary of his creative vision and keen eye for composition. These realistic works display the artist’s maturity and technical mastery.
Born into serfdom and acutely aware of the oppressive conditions in Ukraine, Shevchenko saw service to humanity as the highest vocation of an artist, and accordingly was committed to social commentary in his work. This is evidenced in his Picturesque Ukraine series, the first attempt by a Ukrainian to capture the aspirations and lived experiences of working Ukrainian people. His work is also significant for rejecting the popular naturalistic approach of his time in favour of an intense focus on human subjects, which produced the unique and impactful themes visible in his work.
For example, his 1842 work Kateryna depicts a real incident in which a Ukrainian serf girl was seduced by a Russian officer before being abandoned in disgrace, an experience he sought to expose and critique. In Kazakh Beggar Children (1853), the artist sympathetically depicts the living conditions of Kazakh people, recognizing the similarity of their lives to those of Ukrainians under empire, and painting himself as witness into the background of the composition. Shevchenko’s Portrait of Ira Eldridge (1858) depicts the African American Shakespearean actor, demonstrating the artist’s commitment to often overlooked subjects as well as his technical skill.
While Taras Shevchenko is celebrated both for his literary works, and as a symbol of the nation, his contributions as an artist have been underemphasized. In his own lifetime he achieved great success in this field and was awarded the title of Academician Engraver by the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. He was a prolific artist, creating more than 1,000 works of art over the course of his life, of which about 278 paintings are thought to be lost forever.
The Taras Shevchenko and Maria Prymachenko portions of The Immersive World of Ukrainian Art are created in partnership with The National Museum of Taras Shevchenko in Kyiv. On February 26th, 2022, aggression by Russian Armed forces near the museum resulted in all these original art pieces being packed up and taken to safety in wooden crates built in 1941 to evacuate the same works out of Kyiv before Nazi occupation. They will remain in storage until it is safe to return them to their homes in the museum.