Nicholas Roerich Museum

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Time spent 69 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Nicholas Roerich was a major collaborator with Stravinsky on “The Rite of Spring,” helping him sketch out the plot and designing the costumes and scenery. He did a ton of other things, too, but for me, this notable contribution to the most scandalous classical music event of the 20th century is  huge.

Nicholas Roerich and his wife were Russians by birth (he was born in 1874), seekers and spiritualists by inclination.  He had a varied education and early career, but started painting based on Russia’s long and mystical past.

nicholas roerich museumAnd for reasons that I have yet to quite figure out, a brownstone tucked away on a side street in Morningside Heights is home to a museum of his art, along with works he collected in his journeys.

Architecturally, the Nicholas Roerich Museum is a place after my own heart.  It’s a beautifully intact rowhouse, three stories of which are open to the public, with lots of period detail–fancy fireplaces, beautiful ceiling moldings, a terrific staircase–that in most similar New York buildings was lost during apartment conversions long ago.  The big windows on the parlor floor are blocked out, so that the former living room functions better as a gallery space.  But the museum conversion was very gentle and you can clearly see the house’s past in its present.

nicholas roerich museumRoerich’s early paintings led to him working on stage design for operas and ballets for the many of the great late 19th/early 20th century Russian composers, including Stravinsky as mentioned above.  His stage work extended to Wagner and designs for plays by playwrights outside Russia as well. Even his later paintings often have a sort of backdroppy, set designish look to me.  His landscapes are very still and serene, often distant mountains. It’s easy to imagine great events unfolding in some unpainted foreground.

Nicolas Roerich, “Star of the Hero,” 1936. Tempera on canvas.

There’s also something Georgia O’Keefe-light about some of his works, which sounds somewhat like a criticism, and I guess it is that, although I also mean it as a compliment as well.  Both worked to convey in paint a sense of place distilled down to its essence in color and form.

nicholas roerich museum
Roerich himself, painted by his son, in the land he loved

But my favorite thing about the way the museum is curated is the mix of objects from the Roerich’s travels alongside his work.   Buddhas, Native American ceramics, Russian Orthodox icons, and a gigantic geode all happily and serenely coexist in the syncretic world Roerich’s paintings create.  A painting of St. Francis right above one of Kuan-Yin makes perfect sense.

nicholas roerich museumThe Roerichs moved around a lot during the tumultuous 20th century.  They got into yoga and developed their own brand of theosophy, creating a group called the Agni Yoga Society, which was (quoting from the museum brochure) “dedicated to the recording and dissemination of a living ethic that would encompass and synthesize the philosophies and religious teachings of all ages.”  Small dreams…

Eventually their wanderings took them from New York to India, where they lived in the Himalayas and studied and explored the region, and, judging by the number of mountainous paintings, thoroughly loved the place.  Roerich died there in 1947 and the museum was founded in New York in 1949.

nicholas roerich museumI’m amazed it’s taken me this long to go to the Nicholas Roerich Museum.  I live literally three blocks from it, I have no excuses. Is it mind boggling?  Does everyone have to go?  No, and no.  But it’s a perfect example of how this city hides treasures behind anonymous rowhouse facades on anonymous streets in random neighborhoods.  If you’re nearby and feeling stressed, take 30 minutes and drop in.  I wager you will leave feeling better for it.

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Address 319 West 107th Street, Manhattan
Cost  Free
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