Catalogue of the Collection of Paintings and Theatrical

Designs at the Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York

Sina Fosdick at the Nicholas Roerich Museum in 1982.


Tour of  the Museum and its Collection

These comments by Sina Fosdick on Roerich’s paintings and designs were made during Archer’s interviews with her in the autumn of 1982. They refer specifically to works in the museum’s collection. Starting in the entrance foyer, Fosdick took Archer on a conducted tour up the stairways, along the landings and through the galleries, answering his questions and indicating various interesting features as they went. It was a guided tour she had given to hundreds, maybe thousands, of people during her quarter of a century working as the museum’s director.  

KA: Is the mountain top building shown in Roerich’s 1931 canvas, Shambhala Daik, meant to be a depiction of Shambhala?

SF: In this painting about a message, a warrior in ancient garb sends an arrow to the Tower of Shambhala, announcing that he is going there. It is not imaginary. It is based on reality. Shambhala is a geographical place, but I did not go there with Prof Roerich on the Central Asian Expedition.

49. Tablets of Commandments

112. The Bridge of Glory

KA: Could you say something about Tablets of Commandments from 1931 and explain the strange cloud over the mountain?

SF: This canvas shows Moses cutting out the tablets of stone on Mount Sinai. Prof Roerich often took such episodes of the great teachers’ lives for his paintings. You will notice that the mountain is steaming, just as it was according to the Bible story.

96. Mahomet, the Prophet

KA: I know that Mahomet, the Prophet was painted in the 1920s or 1930s as a variant of a 1925 work. Could you give more details?

SF: According to legend Mahomet would wander in the mountains, where the Archangel Gabriel gave him the teaching taught in the world of Islam. According to Islam, no one could look at the face of the prophet. So Prof Roerich was wise to paint him from the back.

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Copyright, Kenneth Archer, 1986              

Landing on Second Floor

KA: I know that St Panteleimon, painted in 1931, is a tempera variant of a 1916 canvas in oil. Could you elaborate on it a little?

SF: It was a Himalayan version by Prof Roerich of the medieval Greek saint who collected herbs and plants to make healing remedies. He used them to cure people and was much loved for it.

KA: Saint Sophia––The Almighty’s Wisdom, painted in the early thirties, is clearly on the theme of Roerich’s peace pact, is it not?

SF: Yes, a messenger is bringing the message of peace: “There should be no war, only the preservation of culture in each country”. Prof Roerich’s idea was to bring Russia and America together and to teach everyone the meaning of culture. The buildings of various countries are depicted in this painting, including two Russian buildings. I ask the Russians who come to this museum to spot their own buildings.

122. St Sophia––The Almighty’s Wisdom

KA: Roerich’s painting, St Francis of Assisi, from 1932, reminds me of  his description of his teacher Arkhip Kuindzhi feeding the birds.

SF: Yes––compassionate. Prof Roerich was fond of painting great saints such as St Sergius of Radonega and St Francis. Mme Roerich told me to read their lives and those of St Catherine and St Theresa.

110. St Francis of Assisi

KA: You said that this canvas, Lord of the Night, painted in 1918, was one of Mme Roerich’s favourites.

SF: Yes––a woman looks from her tent into Lake Ladoga in Finland. Prof Roerich liked Finland because of its nature and climate. All his paintings for the period were in tempera and not  oil. 

111. Lord of the Night

97. St Panteleimon                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

KA: According to my records, this is a sketch for Building the Ships from 1903. Is that correct?

SF: Yes. It is Russia in the beginning––being made. An earlier painting than most of the others in the collection, it is done in oil not tempera.

20. Sketch for Building the Ships

37. Shambhala Daik

KA: I have listed The Bridge of Glory as having been painted in America in 1923. What does it represent and what is its symbolism?

SF: The aurora borealis––Prof Roerich painted some of the great wonders of various countries on his travels. The Maitreya Buddha, who is being awaited by Buddhists throughout the world, will come over the bridge of glory. The second coming is linked with America.

KA: Glory to the Hero, painted in 1933, has an unusual wooden frame. Could you explain why?

SF:  It is two paintings in one, joined by Prof Roerich’s ingenious wooden arching frame. A nun brings a candle from one part of an old French cathedral to another in dedication to St Michael, leader of the heavenly hosts. The colours of the stained glass window are so bright that vistors to the museum sometimes try to look behind the painting to see if there is a light there.

126. Glory to the Hero

KA: I am interested to know the meaning of the three swords depicted in this 1932 painting, The Three Glaives.

SF: This is a prophetic painting––three swords of Gessar Khan carved into a rock. As an archaeologist, Prof Roerich on seeing something of interest would stop and inquire. Ancient man had used these symbols as a prediction that mankind could have to endure three great wars: two would devastate the earth and the third, if it should happen, would mark the end of humanity.

KA: Was there any particular story underlying the tempera canvas, The Host of Gessar Khan, painted in the Himalayas in 1931?

SF: Gessar Khan is a legendary hero of Asia. Whenever there is great need, Gessar Khan will appear with his caravan and help the people. Prof Roerich was very attracted to the epic of Gessar and dedicated several paintings to it.

53. From Beyond                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

KA: Could you explain what is taking place in From Beyond, painted by Roerich in the Himalayas in 1936?

SF: This painting is a sequal to his 1924 canvas, The Mother of the World. The young woman is a pure human being, quite close to the Mother of the World. A messenger comes over the bridge from a higher plane. He brings a message to the young woman that her time––the era of woman––has come. Before that, in the pre-Christian era, a young woman would be sacrificed.

Entrance Foyer on First Floor

7.  Sketch for Decor, Prince Igor series

KA: I can find no record of these very late sketches for the “Polovtsian Dances” from Prince Igor being realized on stage.  

SF: Prof Roerich became world famous when he designed for Diaghilev. His Prince Igor designs in Paris in 1909 were his first. When there is a new production of “Polovtsian Dances,” like the last one at Covent Garden, we let them see these sketches.                               

KA: The canvas that initially caught my eye, when I entered the museum for the very first time, was Pearl of Searching from 1924.

SF: It is a painting of Kanchenjunga, the mountain Prof Roerich had wanted to find and paint since childhood.  He did so in 1924 soon after reaching India. In the foreground he places a pupil sitting at the feet of his teacher. The teacher examines a string of pearls, each one represents a previous incarnation of his pupil. 

2. Pearl of Searching

KA: He Who Hastens, another painting from his 1924 Banners of the East series, also made an immediate impact.

SF: It is a painting of the same mountain range. This time Prof Roerich places a galloping horseman in the foreground. He is a messenger with a vital message that he hastens to deliver.

6. He Who Hastens

KA: I think this oil on canvas rendering of Launching the Ships, from 1915, is a study for a later tempera work of the same title.

SF: Yes, it is. The picture shows how the early Slavs are learning from the Scandinavians, who drag their ships on rollers from one waterway to another.

19. Launching the Ships (detail)

41. Song of the Waterfall 

26 and 38. Portraits of Nicholas Roerich and Helena Roerich by Svetoslav Roerich

  1. 59. The Curtain, Le Sacre du Printemps series

81. The Host of Gessar Khan

60. Mt M––Lahul

74. Star of the Hero

83. Drops of Life

88. Remember

91 Entrance to Urga

KA: Has it always been the case that Svetoslav Roerich’s portraits of his parents are the only paintings by any artist other than Nicholas Roerich to be part of the permanent collection?  

SF: Yes, that is correct. The portraits of Prof and Mme Roerich on this floor are the images we use at the museum. We make colour reproductions available for people wishing to buy them. They were painted at the Roerich’s home in India in 1937.  

43. Song of the Morning

KA: Song of the Waterfall and Song of the Morning, painted by Roerich in London in 1920, show a strong Art Deco influence.

SF: Living in London at that time, Prof Roerich showed these two canvases to the great Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore, who was also there. Tagore told him they were masterpieces that captured the spirit of India and he should never part with them.

KA: I think Roerich’s final series of Le Sacre designs are strongly parallel in style and technnique to his final designs for Prince Igor.

SF: Prof Roerich designed for all the various episodes Stravinsky had composed for Le Sacre du Printemps, and Diaghilev staged it on his company in Paris in 1913. Le Sacre was a celebration of spring. At that time nature became alive and was felt by the maidens, young men, the Sage and the whole tribe.

79. The Three Glaives

KA: Could you tell me something about the mountain in Lahul that inspired Roerich to paint Mt M––Lahul?

SF: Mount M is a sacred mountain quite close to Kulu. A saint lived there not long ago and in India they honour it with prayer.

KA: What did Roerich have in mind when he painted Star of the Hero in 1932?

SF: Prof Roerich had in mind the legend of wishing upon a falling star. A young Tibetan boy sits in front of a monastery and dreams of the future. All at once he sees a shooting star and knows that his wishes will come true. The Indian sky is so beautiful and clear that the stars seem to hang.

KA: Is the painting, Drops of Life, imaginary or is it based upon something factual ?

SF: Prof Roerich was interested in the reports of small sheltered areas in the Himalayas that are heated by underground springs and enjoy warm climatic conditions. Here he shows a woman sitting and meditating in such an oasis amid the snowy heights. 

KA: In Roerich’s painting, Remember, from 1924, is there some special or personal significance regarding the two female figures?

SF: It is another canvas in the His Country series, painted by Prof Roerich on the road to Darjeeling. It shows a young boy leaving his paternal home. He is leaving his mother and sister and looks back at them before making a final farewell.

KA: Would you say something about these six Mongolian sketches, one of which is entitled Entrance to Urga?

SF: The lower three sketches of the six are of Urga, the capital of Mongolia. There is plenty to see in Urga whether you travel by plane or by Buick as I did!

KA: Would you agree that Madonna Oriflamma from 1932 is one of Roerich’s most powerful paintings? And how do you feel about people reproducing the Banner of Peace in black?

SF: Yes it has power. Prof Roerich created the Roerich Pact and Banner of Peace to safeguard culture. To do so he took an ancient symbol: a circle of eternity within which are spheres of past, present and future. The past examined in the present shows what the future should be. In this tryptich canvas Prof Roerich shows a serene medieval Madonna reverently holding his Banner. Red is a more appropriate colour for the symbol––black is too sinister.

69. Madonna Oriflamma

89. Wanderer from the Resplendent City

KA: One wonders when looking at The Wanderer from the Resplendent City from 1933 how far the Wanderer has been.

SF: The Wanderer has been to the resplendent city and has come back to tell everyone about it. His profile resembles Prof Roerich.

KA: Could you say something about the 1924 “Banners of the East” canvas, Padma Sambhava, painted by Roerich in Sikhim?

SF: This is one of several images of great Buddhist teachers that we have here on the third floor. The Sanskrit words Padma Sambhava literally mean “born of the lotus”. Tibetan lamas portray their great Buddhist teacher stylistically as sitting on a lotus, and in this canvas Prof Roerich has portrayed him in the same way. 

100. Padma Sambhava

KA: Tell me of the meaning underlying Chintamani––Treasure of the World, painted soon after Roerich first reached India in 1924.

SF: Chintamani is the Steed of Happiness sent by the Teachers of Humanity to bring us fire. We have lost our fire.

102. Chintamani––Treasure of the World

109. Burning of Darkness

KA: Roerich’s 1924 canvas, Burning of Darkness, one of the “His Country” series from Sikhim, is clearly on an Agni Yoga theme.   

SF: It is an important painting. Prof Roerich has shown the Teachers of Humanity, the Mahatmas, coming in procession from the Himalayas to alleviate ignorance and superstition.

KA: Among so many paintings on spiritual themes, The Greatest and Holiest of Thangla from 1928-9 seems to be something rather special.

SF: When people on expeditions are travelling in the direction of Thangla, the leader of the caravan will stop and say to them: “If you are permitted to go there, you will not need me. If you are not permitted to go there, I will not take you.”

113. The Greatest and Holiest of Thangla

KA: What is the meaning underlying, Command of Rigden Djapo painted, I think, in 1933?

SF: Rigden Djapo, the ruler of the world, brings the great scroll of the future. It is the Tibetan concept of Maitreya––call it what you will, it is all the same. His waiting horsemen ride throughout the whole world carrying his messages.

114. Command of Rigden Djapo

KA: Could you comment on Roerich’s 1925 “Banners of the East” canvas, Milarepa, The One Who Hearkened?

SF: Milarepa was a Tibetan Buddhist lama of the yellow habit  Mahayana sect. He has refined senses and is shown here listening to the morning sun as it rises behind the mountains. The life of Milarepa is well worth reading. It was very difficult. He was here to give humanity an example of how to live.

115. Milarepa, The One Who Hearkened

KA: Roerich in his travel diary mentions seeing caves similar to the ones he depicts here in Sacred Caves from 1933.

SF: Three yogis––yellow hatted lamas, adherents of Mahayana Buddhism––live in mountain caves decorated with ancient frescoes. That their meditation is on the coming of Maitreya is indicated by Prof Roerich in the image of the rider on a red horse.   

128. Sacred Caves (detail)

KA: In this 1933 canvas, Issa and the Skull of the Giant, Roerich shows Jesus in Central Asia. Is this work purely imaginative?

SF: Prof Roerich based this painting on a legend about Christ living in India. During his Central Asian Expedition he found a manuscript confirming it.

138. Issa and the Skull of the Giant

KA: Hermitage of St Sergius seems to be one of a matched pair of canvases that were painted in the Himalayas in 1933.

SF: Yes, they both have similar colours and Russian motifs, but one is so still and the other so active.

129 Hermitage of St Sergius

130. Zwenigorod

KA: The second of the matched pair is Zwenigorod of the same year. The two works are the same size and harmonious together.

SF: Zwenigorod is the city of the bells––the ringing city. Three saints come out of a cathedral carrying a model of a future city.

KA: Could you explain what is taking place in Roerich’s 1924 “His Country” canvas entitled, Fire Blossom?

SF: There is a Russian fairy tale about a fire blossom that blooms only once every hundred years and whoever gets the flower has all their wishes granted. But it blooms on a mountain top and, first of all, you have to find and climb the mountain. 

145. Fire Blossom

KA: I should say that Roerich’s 1933 canvas, Shekar Dzong, is a really fine example of his Himalayan mountain painting. 

SF: It is typical of Prof Roerich’s landscapes of that time. Shekar Dzong is a beautiful Lahaul mountain village in Little Tibet.

118. Shekar Dzong

KA: Ashram, from 1931, seems to have a peaceful effect on the people I see viewing it. Could you say something about it?  

SF: An ashram is a sacred abode. It is a place you go to when you want knowledge. All of us should belong to it. It is not easy to get there. It has a narrow passage, and you can only go there alone.

140. Ashram

KA: The high building in Castle of Ladak, painted by Roerich in the Himalayas in 1933, is like a watchtower with a commanding view.

SF: The Maharaja of Mundi invited Prof Roerich to go to the top of the castle to enjoy the view. He did so and stayed there for a while  to paint.

99. Castle of Ladak

KA: I noticed that in the 1929 “Sketch for Curtain––Le Sacre du Printemps,” Roerich has given the setting a Himalayan background.

SF: Prof Roerich based his first decor sketches for Le Sacre du Printemps on pre-Christian Russia.  Later he travelled to England and Central Asia. In this sketch the stone circle is like Stonehenge.

139. Sketch for Curtain––Le Sacre du Printemps

KA: In this 1921 Lel and Snegurochka––Costume Sketch, Roerich’s garments and accessories seem simpler than in his earlier designs.

SF: These are the two main characters in The Snowmaiden Prof Roerich designed for the Chicago Opera while here in America. Earlier, in Russia, his designs would have been more traditional.

142. Lel and Snegurochka––Costume Sketch

Front Gallery on Second Floor

Back Gallery on Second Floor

Stairway to Third  Floor

Third Floor Landing

Back Gallery on Third Floor

by Kenneth Archer

108. Tidings of the Eagle––Mongolia

KA: I find the surface texture of Roerich’s 1927 Mongolian painting, Tidings of the Eagle, unusual and different from that of the others.

SF: That is because it is painted on wood and not on canvas or card. Prof Roerich ran short of canvas in Mongolia and, as I mentioned before, improvised by painting on wood taken from packing cases.