Niko Pirosmani: Get to Know the Tragic Hero of Georgian Art

Niko Pirosmani went from a homeless, self-taught painter to a national hero of Georgia. His tragic life story inspired generations of artists.

Mar 3, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

nikos pirosmani georgian art hero


Niko Pirosmani was one of the brightest stars of Georgian art, who was excluded from the art historical canon for decades. He brought tears to the eyes of experienced and well-accepted painters but still could not make a living for himself, choosing to live as a homeless wanderer on the streets of present-day Tbilisi. According to a legend, he once sold all of his possessions to impress a French actress who never reciprocated his feelings. Read on to learn more about Niko Pirosmani, the Georgian prodigy and a tragic hero.


Niko Pirosmani Never Studied Art

Self-Portrait by Niko Pirosmani, 1900. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The enigma of Georgian art, Niko Pirosmani, also known as Nikolay Pirosmanashvili, was born in the early 1860s to a poor peasant family in the village of Mirzaani. From his early childhood, Niko worked as a servant for a noble Kalantarov family that lived nearby. The family treated the boy as their son, they taught him how to read and write in both Georgian and Russian. They also supported his interest in painting. The Kalantarovs were even ready to assist with Pirosmani’s further education, yet Pirosmani was unsure and reluctant, and almost indifferent, to his future. He was well-read and well-educated, yet he had no ambitions or aspirations towards establishing a career.


Among his well-adjusted peers, Pirosmani had a reputation as a harmless yet mentally unstable man. His indifference to work and family, combined with heavy drinking and a penchant for philosophical musings were off-putting to some. At first, Pirosmani actually tried to make a living for himself like others did. He spent several years working as a train conductor in Tbilisi but he was repeatedly fined for skipping work and not paying enough attention.


Pirosmani somehow managed to ruin all the opportunities that he received. A short period of prosperity came when he decided to open a milk stand with one of his friends. He got a chance to design signs and advertisements for it. His paintings of cows and farmers attracted the locals’ attention, yet a couple of years later, Pirosmani abandoned the trade. The only thing he was concerned with in his life was painting, but he never tried to make a living out of it. He spent at least two decades of his life homeless and broke.

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His Surroundings Were His Main Inspiration

The Farmer with the Bull by Niko Pirosmani, 1916. Source: Arthive


Uninterested in conventional ways of earning an income, Pirosmani made his humble living by painting signs for local bars and taverns. His painting skills made him a unique craftsman in Tbilisi since most of the city’s sign painters focused only on lettering. His works included images from peasant life, celebrations, and animals, both native to Georgia and exotic.


Pirosmani started each of his mornings by taking a long walk through Tbilisi bars and shops, looking for new clients. Despite the popularity of his services, he rarely earned anything substantial. His artistic pride and indifference to earthly matters forbade him from asking for money directly, so, in most cases, Pirosmani received his payment in the form of a meal and a jug of vodka.


Pirosmani’s painting style grew from the environment around him as well as from his way of life and poverty. Georgian nature, Orthodox Christian icons, and newspaper caricatures all influenced his artistic style. He rarely had a stable roof over his head and desperately needed money, so he had to paint fast. He used the cheapest materials he could find and somehow managed to highlight their best qualities.


Instead of canvas, he painted most of his works on black oilcloth. He mixed his white paint with darker pigments so it would not contrast the background too much. During Pirosmani’s exhibitions, other artists struggled to understand how he achieved such a unique play of light using black paint. They eventually realized that Niko had left parts of the oilcloth unpainted.


His Love Story Became Legendary

Actress Marguerite by Niko Pirosmani, 1909. Source: Arthive


Although Pirosmani’s personal life remains a mystery, one alleged story has been turned into a romantic legend. It all started with a 1909 portrait titled Actress Marguerite. Pirosmani painted the French actress Marguerite de Sevres, who visited Tbilisi during her theater’s tour of the Russian Empire.


According to the legend, Pirosmani fell in love with her immediately. One morning, Marguerite saw carriages full of flowers of all shapes and sizes in front of her hotel. As an actress used to all sorts of attention, she believed these were a gift from a group of her fans. But it was only Pirosmani, who traded his share of the milk stand and all of his remaining possessions for thousands of flowers.


His love was unrequited, and Marguerite soon returned to Paris, leaving the artist broke and homeless. Some said they saw her decades later visiting a posthumous exhibition of Pirosmani’s work in Paris, crying inside the museum. Although Pirosmani’s tragic love story was barely supported by documentary evidence, it served as the basis for several films, poems, and songs.


Niko Pirosmani Shaped Eastern European Avant-Garde

Giraffe by Niko Pirosmani, 1905. Source: Arthive


Just like Pablo Picasso called Henri Rousseau The King of Painters, the young generation of art radicals from Russia and Ukraine found their unlikely leader in Pirosmani. Back then, Georgia was hardly the center of the mainstream art scene, yet there were a few hidden gems. During one of his visits, Futurist poet Ilia Zdanevich met Niko and was so impressed by the quality of his work that he immediately commissioned several works for his collection.


After Zdanevich’s endorsement, several local newspapers published articles on Pirosmani. The artist was excited. Finally, after years of excluding him, the world began to accept him. In 1913, his paintings were exhibited in Moscow, and young artists of the Russian Empire started to buy his works and even collect money for the artist.


Among the most devoted fans of Pirosmani were the painters of Russian Futurism. While the original Italian version of the movement focused on the aesthetics of technology devoid of anything traditional, Russian and Ukrainian Futurists found the key to the new visual language in folk art and primitivist painting. For them, naive art with no formal training could access genuine emotion and feeling.


Niko Pirosmani’s Fame Came Posthumously

Tatar Fruiterer by Niko Pirosmani, c.1910-12. Source: Albertina museum, Vienna


Despite the short period of euphoria, Pirosmani soon faded back into obscurity. The same newspapers that praised him suddenly started publishing caricatures of his paintings. Crushed by this betrayal, Pirosmani dived deeper into his work, yet his opportunities suddenly became even more limited. After the beginning of World War I, the Russian Empire imposed an alcohol ban, which resulted in many bars and taverns closing their doors for good. Pirosmani, who still made his living from sign painting, could not survive for long. He died in 1918 from a combination of grave illness and starvation.


Soon after Pirosmani’s death, his works started attracting attention in Europe, with exhibitions opening in France, Germany, and Austria. Today, most of Pirosmani’s oeuvre is on display at the Art Museum of Georgia. His paintings are also featured on Georgian banknotes.


Critics often compared Pirosmani’s naive style to the one of Henri Rousseau, the French customs officer turned avant-garde painter. However, despite the shared lack of art education, Rousseau as a Parisian had the advantage of being exposed to art in all forms and styles from a young age. In that sense, Pirosmani was a true prodigy using his limited resources and imagination to his advantage.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.