Vision of St. Sergius, When a Child is arguably the most important painting of Mikhail Nesterov's career, and it is often considered the inaugural work of the Russian Symbolist movement. An earlier version hangs in the State Tretyakov Gallery under an alternate title: Vision of Young Bartholomew.
Nesterov's Vision could well be described as the apotheosis of the Realism, Symbolism, and religiosity that pervade his early oeuvre. In late summer of 1889, having just returned from travels abroad, Nesterov journeyed to the small town of Komyakino, not far from Savva Mamontov's estate at Abramtsevo. There he developed a vision of his own, inspired by the quiet country landscape and his own devout beliefs. He painted this vision well through the fall, and finished his masterpiece at home in Ufa in early 1890.
The image reveals a scene from the life of Sergius of Radonezh, a 14th-century saint who served as the subject of an entire cycle of Nesterov's paintings. According to the legend, young Sergius encountered a mysterious stranger who prophesied for him a divine future. He went on to become a great spiritual leader, monastic reformer, and one of the most venerated saints of the Russian Orthodox Church. He founded the Trinity-Sergius Monastery on the very ground where his vision took place.
Both anecdotally and compositionally, Vision evokes imagery of The Annunciation. Nesterov's painting thus suggests an appreciation for such artists as Botticelli and da Vinci, whose work he had recently viewed in Italy. Young Sergius learned of his fate from the stranger as Mary learned the fate of her unborn child from Archangel Gabriel. Here, the stranger's hood occludes our view of his face, and a halo distinguishes his divine status; the viewer is left to understand the stranger to be some mystical figure, whether a hermitic monk, as some accounts suggest, or even an archangel.
Nesterov imbues his landscape with a horizontality which is interrupted only by the verticality of Sergius and the stranger, whose figures are balanced by the two trees at left. Furthermore, Nesterov implements a very lyrical color scheme, where color serves both to distinguish and ultimately unify the composition. His careful juxtaposition of planes and colors is exactly what makes his painting so epic, for he creates a brilliant comparison between the holy figures and their environment, making their presence seem monumental and magical yet profoundly integrated.
Nesterov executed this variation of Vision in 1922, 32 years after he completed the work in the Tretyakov. Many identifiable factors contributed to Nesterov's return to the subject, but one stands out. Like the majority of artists who remained in Russia after the Revolution, Nesterov had fallen on very difficult times. Word spread of a fundraising exhibition of Russian artwork to be held in New York, organized by Sergei Vinogradov, Igor Grabar, and Sergei Sytin, and assisted by Christian Brinton, curator of the major Russian Exhibition held at the Brooklyn Museum in 1922. Nesterov quickly decided to submit his own work to the exhibition; not only did he hope to find a new audience in America, but, like the other 100 some artists who participated, he relied on financial relief to rejuvenate his artistic career.
Vision is listed as work number 547 in the Russian Art Exhibition catalogue, and Grabar and Brinton invoke Nesterov's name frequently in their essays as one of the most important names in Russian art. A number of New York Times articles from March 1924 also mention Nesterov, and Vision is illustrated as "Visions of St. Sergius When a Child." By M. Nesteroff in an article dated March 9, 1924.
Whereas the public perception of the Russian Art Exhibition was invariably positive, the exhibition's organizers and participants considered it an ultimate failure. Rental of exhibition space totaled $5000, but receipts from sales totaled just $2000; permanent debt would have been inescapable if not for the support of concerned American patrons. For Nesterov, the result was a bit more optimistic--of the over 900 paintings exhibited, Nesterov was lucky to count his Nightingales and Vision of St. Sergius, When a Child amongst the few that sold. Furthermore, the remainder of his submitted works sold afterward, in a series of smaller traveling exhibitions that spanned the Northern and Southern states.
Though the present Vision is very similar to its predecessor of 1889-90, there are a few discernable differences. First, the 1922 painting is smaller by almost half, exemplifying the artist's masterful skill in his ability to re-envision his subject on a smaller scale. Second, in the top left corner of the canvas appears a moon, much like the moon that appears in the upper left of his well known Elegy. Blind Musician. of 1928, now in the State Russian Museum. Finally, young Sergius' countenance is somewhat changed, revealing a more solemn character when judged within the context of his darkening environment.
These alterations make for a nostalgic composition, emphasizing the ways in which the world had changed since 1890, and the way those changes inevitably affected Nesterov's painting. Materials were now precious, life was more difficult, and the innocent youth of Sergius must have seemed a practical impossibility. Thus Nesterov must have found solace in painting Sergius once more, for it took him back to a time when his success was just beginning.
Fortunately, Mikhail Nesterov's career did not end in 1924. After his success in America, he lived for another 18 years. He went on to become a premier portrait painter, perhaps the most glorified of the entire Soviet Union.