The use of light and shadow on the subjects in Nikolai Ge’s paintings add a dramatic pull into the stories he tells on the canvas; stories as dramatic as his own life story. He was a realist painter named Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge, of French descent (de Gay) but he was Russian by birth, being born in the city of Voronehz. His grandfather had moved to Russia in the 1700s, and Ge’s parents had a home there. Sadly he was orphaned at a young age and raised mostly by a serf who was his Russian nursemaid.
He was a graduate of the First Kiev Gymnasium and continued his education at the Kiev University and the St Petersburg University, specializing in physics and mathematics. He decided to make a change in career in 1850 so he left behind the field of science to enroll in the Imperial Academy of Arts, which was also located in St Petersburg. His teacher there was Pyotr Basin, a historical painter, who along with artist Karl Briullov, greatly influenced Ge. Ge, throughout his career, produced mainly historical and religious motifs. He studied at the Academy until 1857, and graduated from there, winning a gold medal for his painting which he had titled The Witch of Endor Calling Up the Spirit of the Prophet Samuel.
The gold medal also came along with a scholarship to go abroad and visit other countries in order to gain new perspectives on the art styles of different nationals. Ge traveled to Germany, Switzerland and France. His last stop was in Rome, Italy, in 1860; it was there that he met and was influenced by artist Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov. Nikolai Ge’s Last Supper (1861) was widely acclaimed for his use of Aleksandr Ivanovich Herzen as the central figure of Christ. Ge had asked Count Sergei Levitsky to introduce him to Herzen in London, but Levitsky replied to Ge’s letter with a photograph he’d taken of his cousin Herzen. It was the first time photography was ever used in place of a live or present subject. It would later be a great influence on French Impressionism and other schools of art.
The Russian Czar Alexander II bought Ge’s painting of the Last Supper and in 1863 he put it on public display in Saint Petersburg. The warm reception of his artwork caused Ge to be given a professorship at the Imperial Academy of Arts. Ge’s following religious paintings, made in Florence after 1864, were not considered successful at all and the Academy refused to put them in their exhibition. Ge decided to return to painting historical scenes again in 1870, achieving success with his Peter the Great Interrogates Tsarevich Alexey at Peterhot, which he completed in 1871, but his other paintings were not appreciated.
Ge felt insulted and chose to buy a small farm to live on and work as a farmer, rather than make art that was for sale. His farm was in what is now currently the Ukraine, and while there he met Leo Tolstoy and followed his philosophies. He could not give up his art forever, so he returned to painting portraits in the 1880’s. He said that everyone should have their portrait done and he would charge very low fees to those who could not afford to pay more. Ge painted Tolstoy’s portrait, as well as that of Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin. He made paintings of the New Testament too, at this time, which were praised, hated, and denounced as blasphemous too. Ge’s last paintings were not allowed to be shown at exhibition, and Tsar Alexander III banned his painting of The Crucifixion, which was made in 1894. Ge died on his farm that same year, and left his paintings to Beatrice de Vattville, a Swiss national, to pay off a debt. She passed away in 1952 but Ge’s paintings, which should have included The Crucifixion, have disappeared; only a few drawings have found their way to light, the last being discovered in Switzerland in 1974.