Two sketches for the majolica frieze “Northern Life”

Nicholas Roerich. Two sketches for the majolica frieze
“Northern Life”, 1905

Two sketches for the majolica frieze “Northern Life” on the facade of the insurance company “Russia” building in St. Petersburg. 1905. Gouache and ceruse on cardboard, 7 × 25 cm and 4.3 × 14 cm.

In July 2015 the Museum acquired a set of two Nicholas Roerich sketches from 1905. The sketches were originally commissioned for a monumental majolica frieze that decorated the facade of the headquarters of the insurance company "Russia" in St. Petersburg. We know Roerich primarily as a painter and set designer, but he also produced mosaics, murals and friezes for numerous churches and buildings during his Russian period (1897–1916). Having these sketches in our collection allows us to present this lesser-known, though significant, part of Roerich’s oeuvre.

The sketches are a wonderful example of Roerich’s fascination with Russia’s past at the start of his career, when he was known as the painter-poet of primitive life. Here we see how Roerich adapts his style for architecture, using dynamic, forceful lines to make a bold statement on such a stately building. The restricted space bursts with intensity, as one can almost hear the marching sounds of Mussorgsky or Rimsky-Korsakov in the background.

Another interesting aspect of these works is their provenance. The owner, Mrs. Semeka-Pankratov, currently a resident of Boston, was George Roerich’s secretary in Moscow from 1958–1959. The sketches, though, were in her family already starting from the 1920s. On behalf of our Museum I would like to extend our deepest gratitude to Mrs. Semeka-Pankratov for giving us the opportunity to purchase these sketches. In the spirit of a true art lover, she was adamant that our Museum would be the right place for her beloved works.

Incidentally, Mrs. Semeka-Pankratov has authored a short article (in Russian) about her time with George Roerich which I would highly recommend.

Please scroll down for the photos of the actual building decorated with the majolica panels executed from Roerich's sketches. The original building was destroyed during the Second World War but restored in 2008. You'll recognize the two sketches in the triangular majolica panels (3rd and 4th photo).

And last but not least, here is our collection manager Dmitry Popov's article (in Russian) expanding on the importance of these two sketches and their place within Roerich’s oeuvre.



The headquarters of the insurance company "Russia" in St. Petersburg, with the majolica frieze “Northern Life” decorating the facade. Built 1905–1906, restored 2008.