Nicholas Roerich: The Man Who Painted Shangri-La

Nicholas Roerich not only found the entrance to Shambhala, what author James Hilton immortalized as Shangri-La, but also lived to tell the tale in a sweeping series of ethereal paintings.

May 13, 2021By Ana-Teodora Kurkina, MA & PhD in History

shangri la paintings by nicholas roerich


Nicholas Roerich was many things – an artist, a scholar, an archaeologist, an adventurer, an editor, and a writer, to name a few. In combining all his pursuits, he wrote and introduced the world’s first “Treaty on the Protection of the Artistic and Scientific Institutions and Historic Monuments.” Roerich was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize and created a philosophical school of Living Ethics. But the most interesting of his endeavors was his search for the hidden mysteries of the world, including the elusive Shangri-La.  His undying love for different folk traditions – Slavic, Indian, Tibetan – was what sparked his interest in the mysterious Shambhala. His pursuits to see the unseen and understand the unfathomable are reflected in his art and his writings. 


Nicholas Roerich: A Renaissance Man

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The Portrait of Nicholas Roerich with the Sculpture of Guga Chohan by Svyatoslav Roerich, 1937, in the Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York


Nicholas Roerich was born to a German father and a Russian mother in 1874 in Saint Petersburg. A child of well-standing nobility, Roerich was surrounded by books and his parents’ intellectual friends. By the age of eight, he entered one of the most prestigious private schools in the city. His education was initially supposed to set him on a lawyer’s path. Roerich, however, had much grander plans in mind. Spending his holidays on the Izvara Estate, he discovered a passion that would define his later life: folk legends. Shrouded in mystery and filled with the uncovered ancient legacies, Izvara became a place where Roerich first tried himself as an archaeologist. 


Creating detailed maps of the region and describing his findings, young Roerich attracted the attention of one of Russia’s most prominent archaeologists of the time – Lev Ivanovski, whom he aided in excavating the mysterious local kurgans. The mystery of those burials and pagan traditions would later push Roerich to create several of his masterpieces inspired by Slavic legends. 


Back then, a provocative thought came to Roerich’s mind: what if fairy-tales contained a grain of truth? Perhaps what could not be uncovered by archaeology could be envisioned through art. 

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nicholas roerich hut mountains painting
Hut in the Mountains by Nicholas Roerich, 1911, via the Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York


Obsessed with the past, Roerich began to paint. Soon, his talent was noticed by a family friend, a sculptor named Mikhail Mikeshin. Since Roerich’s father wanted his son to become a successful lawyer like himself and never really approved of his pursuits, the young painter entered both St. Petersburg University and the Russian Academy of Arts. With Russian Symbolism and its search for hidden truths and harmony on the rise, Roerich was destined to fall under the spell of young painters who later created the group known as the World of Art. In 1897, he graduated from the Academy, submitting his final work, The Herald. A year later, he finished university but abandoned all ideas about a lawyer’s practice.


A Folklorist, An Archaeologist, And A Mystic

nicholas roerich invisible city kitezh battle kershenetz
The Battle of Kershenetz Near the Invisible City of Kitezh, by Nicholas Roerich, 1911, in the Russian State Museum, St. Petersburg


Fascinated by Russia’s medieval traditions, Nicholas Roerich traveled around the Empire, restoring monuments and collecting folklore. Before venturing to discover Shangri-La, Roerich turned to Russian myths. He hoped to find the legendary city of Kitezh. 


Allegedly situated on Lake Svetloyar and erected by a Russian Prince at the end of the 12th century, Kitezh occupied the space between dreams and reality. Like Shangri-La, Kitezh was supposed to be a place of artistic beauty and sophistication. Like Shangri-La, it was concealed from prying eyes. The city was swallowed by the waters of the lake that had once protected it from Tatar invasion. Roerich himself later believed that Kitezh and Shambhala could as well be the same place; its location untethered from this reality and its entrance hidden somewhere in the Himalayas.


Roerich’s most famous work dedicated to Kitezh, The Battle of Kershenetz Near the Invisible City of Kitezh, was created for the Russian Seasons festival in Paris. It was a magnificent curtain that left the viewer, much like the painter, searching for the lost city. Roerich’s depiction of Kitezh glows red and orange, the waters of the lake reflecting the imminent bloodshed of the upcoming battle. In the foreground, Kitezh itself appears, the reflection of its onion domes and ornate porches visible in the orange lake. Playing with perspective, Roerich created a dream of a Russian Shangri-La that only revealed itself to the most observant of spectators. 


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The Idols by Nicholas Roerich, 1901, in the Russian State Museum, Saint Petersburg


Roerich’s interest in early Slavic history was shared by his contemporaries, including the composer Igor Stravinsky, whose ballet The Rite of Spring granted fame and success to both the composer and the painter. These Slavic themes reappeared in many of Roerich’s works. The Beginning of Rus, Slavs mirrors Roerich’s ideas about his ancestors’ mystical powers and knowledge. The Idols depicts a solemn pagan rite, announcing the presence of gods long gone. Immersing himself in Slavic myths, Roerich started searching for similar legends in other countries’ folklore – going from Kitezh to the more abstract notion of Shangri-La. Working with the most prominent Russian painters of his time – Mikhail Vrubel, Alexander Benois, Konstantin Korovin – he created sketches for mosaics and murals, resurrecting the techniques of the Medieval Russian and Byzantine masters. 


Roerich And The Call Of The East 

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Krishna or Spring in Kullu by Nicholas Roerich, 1929, via Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York


Roerich’s strivings for universality brought him to Eastern Art. As he collected East-Asian art, especially Japanese, and wrote articles about Japanese and Indian masterpieces, Roerich’s focus shifted from Slavic epos to Indian legends. As a lover of colors, Nicholas Roerich renounced oils and turned to tempera which allowed him to produce those sought-after warm hues and saturations. His depiction of the Himalayas is not too different from his portrayal of Russian fields, where nature always dominates the human, and the artificially reduced horizon overwhelms the spectator. 


From 1907 to 1918, ten monographs dedicated to Roerich’s work appeared in Russia and Europe. As for the painter himself, his destiny took an unexpected turn that brought him closer to the Shangri-La mystery. 


In 1916, Roerich fell ill and moved to Finland with his family. Following the October Revolution, Roerich was cut out of the USSR. The painter did not return home, moving to London instead and joining the Occult Theosophical Society that pursued the same principles of world harmony that guided Roerich’s life. The idea of discovering one’s inner potential and finding a connection with the cosmos through art pushed Roerich and his wife Helena to create a new philosophical teaching: The Living Ethics.


An Expedition To Shangri-La

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Tangela. Song of Shambhala by Nicholas Roerich, 1943, in The State Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow


Roerich spent the next years of his life in the USA and Paris, where he participated in successful exhibitions and sought out new legends that captivated him as much as Slavic folklore. While Russian topics remained prominent in Roerich’s life, his passion for Central Asia and India soon eclipsed his other endeavors. In 1923, Nicholas Roerich organized a grand archaeological expedition to Central Asia, hoping to find the mysterious Shangri-La. During the next years of his research in Asia, Roerich wrote two ethnographical books about the Himalayas and India. He also created more than 500 paintings that captured the beauty of the landscapes he encountered.


Roerich’s Shangri-La, like Kitezh, was a dream, a vision of untouched and magical beauty to which only a select few had access. It is impossible to find out where Roerich’s Shangri-La is, for the painter believed he found it roaming the mountains. His breath-taking landscapes prove him right. Relying on the legends of Kitezh and Shambala, he mapped his routes and recorded his experiences in several books. 


Falling In Love With India And The Himalayas

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Kanchenjunga or The Five Treasures of High Snow by Nicholas Roerich, 1944, in The State Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow, Russian Federation


Following the expedition, the Roerich family founded the Himalayan Research Institute in New York and the Urusvati Institute in the Himalayas. In 1928, Roerich wrote the Charter that would later be known as the Roerich Pact – the world’s first treaty that protected monuments of art and culture from war and armed conflicts. As an art historian, a painter, and an archaeologist, Nicholas Roerich was the ideal candidate to champion the cause of monument protection. 


In 1935, Roerich moved to India, immersing himself in Indian folklore and creating his most acclaimed paintings. He never once turned away from his love for jagged lines and contracts, nor the drawn-out horizons that mark many of his paintings. Roerich considered India to be the cradle of human civilization and strove to find connections between Russian and Indian culture, seeking similar patterns in legends, art, and folk traditions. This included his favorite topic of the lost city Shangri-La from which Shambhala was inspired.


Nicholas Roerich wrote that a path to Shambala is a path of consciousness in his Heart of Asia. A simple physical map will not bring one to Shangri-La, but an open mind accompanied by a map could accomplish the task. Roerich’s paintings were maps that would provide a spectator with a quick glimpse of Shangri-La: a place of serene wisdom wrought in bright colors and twisted forms. Roerich immersed himself in Indian cultural life, becoming friends with Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and continuing to paint his beloved mountains and legends. 


A Master Of Mountains And Legends

svyatogor nicholas roerich painting
Svyatogor by Nicholas Roerich, 1942, in The State Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow


In his later writings, Roerich pointed out that two themes always captured his imagination: Old Russia and the Himalayas. While working on his Himalayan Suite, he created three other paintings – The Bogatyrs Awaken, Nastasia Mikulichna, and Svjatogor


At this time, the Soviet Union was devastated by the Second World War. Roerich wished to express the plight of the Russian people in his paintings, combining both Indian and Russian themes. 


In painting the Himalayas, Roerich believed he did discover Shangri-La and even left his paintings and writings to guide others to it. Part of his tale may even be true. All of Roerich’s later pictures share one quality – their sprawling bird’s-eye view over the jagged outlines of mountains and clustered architecture. 


Stylewise, his paintings depicting Russian epics are similar to his Indian paintings. His love for contrasts and exaggerated forms dominate the composition. The immersive nature of his works sweeps the onlooker away, transporting him to a mystical place; Kitezh or Shambhala, or, perhaps, Shangri-La, the term that became a moniker for any lost city.


Nicholas Roerich As An International Artist

nicholas roerich en no gyoja friend travelers painting
En-no-gyoja, The Friend of the Travelers by Nicholas Roerich, 1925, in the Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York


Unlike other painters of his time, Roerich escaped the trap of Orientalism. He never depicted the East as “other.” For Roerich, both East and West were simply two sides of the same coin, his fascination with Russian bogatyrs equaling his interest in Indian heroes and gurus. He refused to distinguish between the two and instead sought connections, his theosophic views pushing him to explore the limits of the spiritual in his paintings. 


As an international figure, Roerich never stopped searching for these connections, his distinctive painting style adjusting to depict Russian, Indian, and even Mexican themes. Perhaps it was the desire to make sense of all the world’s legends that prompted him to paint Shangri-La in the first place. 


Over 20 years, Roerich painted 2000 Himalayan paintings, part of a jaw-dropping collection of 7000 pictures. Kullu Valley, located amidst imposing snow-capped peaks, became his home and his workplace. It was here that Nicholas Roerich died in 1947. According to his wish, his body was cremated. The title of a saint or “maharishi” was bestowed upon him. Between the two countries he intimately loved, he died in India, close to the entrance to the mystical Shambhala. For a man who found his Shangri-La, his last wish to remain near there is rightly appropriate.


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By Ana-Teodora KurkinaMA & PhD in HistoryAna is a social historian who holds a PhD in history from LMU Munich and UR Regensburg. She earned her second MA from Central European University, Budapest and her first MA from MSU, Moscow. When she is not writing about art and propaganda, she plays strategic boardgames. Her professional interests revolve around Eastern Europe.