March 01, 2001

An Independent Spirit

Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge was not born of the usual artist stock. And art was not a love from childhood, but a passion discovered in adulthood. Nonetheless, in a career that spanned the entire second half of the 19th century, Ge turned out to be one of Russia’s most influential and gifted artists.

Nikolai Ge was born in Voronezh on February 15, 1831. His was a noble family of foreign provenance, but one thoroughly russified. His great-grandfather was a member of the French gentry who emigrated to Russia during the French revolution. Ge’s father was a military officer and, ironically, returned to the family’s roots as part of the Russian force occupying Paris after Napolean’s defeat in 1814. Ge’s mother was also of foreign extraction—the daughter of a Pole exiled to Russia. She died when Ge was just three months old and Nikolai was brought up by a nanny who became his surrogate mother.

When Ge’s father retired from the army, he settled with his son in the Mogilev uezd of Podolsk guberniya (present-day Ukraine) and took up farming. He was a diligent and entrepreneurial farmer, doubling the size of his estate and increasing his revenues ten-fold. Yet, he was also known as a cruel barin who beat his serfs for the smallest misstep. Ge inherited his father’s penchant for rural life, but reacted against his despotism. When he found that his beloved nanny had been flogged for some minor transgression, it was enough to set him against serfdom decades before its abolition.

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