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Contemplation at the Nicholas Roerich Museum
A visit to the Nicholas Roerich Museum, hidden away in Morningside Heights within steps of Riverside Park, is an opportunity to focus. So many famed New York museums pride themselves on the breadth and scope of their collections. It’s often possible to walk from one era of art history to another, or take an escalator between Impressionism and Classical Sculpture. While such extensive exhibitions often play a part in a museum’s prestige, there is much to be gained in the quiet and introspection of immersion in a single artist’s oeuvre.
I visited on a quiet Tuesday afternoon. The Museum’s stretch of West 107th Street is especially lovely, lined with trees and free of traffic, and the building itself blends in with all the other charming brownstones that line the block, except for an understated sign at the front door. Given the museum’s low profile and abbreviated hours (12-5pm Tuesday through Friday, 2-5pm Saturday & Sunday), I had the entire place to myself: an exceedingly rare experience in a New York museum.
Nicholas Roerich, a Russian artist working at the turn of the 20th century, saw the rise of the avant-garde in St. Petersburg, America’s Great Depression, and widespread religious experience in India and Tibet. His status in the Russian aristocracy, and proximity to many great artists, musicians, and thinkers of the day, allowed him the chance to travel widely as a young man and later with his family, painting and drawing along the way. His most entrancing subject, by far, was nature. He captured the essence of landscapes, particularly mountains, with exceptional drama and gravity. His fascination with religion, particularly temples, ashrams, and shrines, give the Museum’s walls an air of solemnity.
The Museum’s sole focus is its permanent exhibition of more than 150 Roerich paintings, drawings, and sketches. Roerich’s work lends itself to the Museum’s layout, which, as is the case with most house museums, resembles the home of an expert collector or muse of the artist. The space is expertly utilized: the walls are painted unobtrusive shades of white and cream to heighten Roerich’s vibrant and liberal use of color, as well as shadow, and his reverence for the natural world.
The Roerich Museum is also devoted to serving its community with cultural events. All concerts are free and open to the public in a beautiful salon, offering young and talented musicians the opportunity to perform and interact with an audience. Poetry readings are also scheduled throughout the year, and occasionally music and literature will combine for hybrid events.
During my time at the Museum, I felt transported, even for an hour or two. Back to a time when art maintained a singular role in society, when people gathered to consider and discuss the links between painting and music and poetry and daily life. I stepped out to the street and things seemed different. Still quiet and cloudy, but heightened somehow – the colors were crisper, the air calmer.
All images courtesy of the Nicholas Roerich Museum.