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French Artist’s ‘Failure’ Inspired a Russian Spiritual Masterpiece

Critics thought it was strange, but Mikhail Nesterov, the famed Russian artist, thought it was the best thing he had seen in all of Europe

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The NYU Russian art historian who took all who wanted (10 people) on a tour she called "Russian Art in the Metropolitan Museum" first stopped by a French painting: "Joan D'Arc" by Jules Bastien-Lepage.

"My friends, can you guess why we stopped here?" she asked quizzically.

"Look at it! Isn't there just something familiar about it?" She insisted, her dark eyes glorying with her secret.

The French artist Jean Lepage painted "Joan D'Arc" in 1880s.

By then, Joan of Arc was old, old news in a world which was getting increasingly intoxicated with newer and newer ways to be 'modern'. But Lepage came from Joan's birth town and he had something to say.

His painting was exhibited in Paris in 1889, and more or less, flopped.  European critics were primarily skeptical. They liked the figure of Joan - it was adorable, it was tangible; a peasant with inspired eyes always is.

But what was it with the saints in the background?What a roaring contradiction in a realist painting from a realist artist.

Impressionism (nature) and iconography (holy figures), and realism (Joan) all in one?

Though canst serve more than one lord, was the verdict of the critics, as they moved on to the next painting.

But one person, a Russian, was spellbound.

Mikhail Nesterov, artist of nostalgia and monks, was in Paris at the time.

When he saw the painting at the same exhibit, he decided that it was the one most priceless thing he had seen in all of Europe; the one thing that justified the time he spent in the exhibition, in Paris, in Europe in its entirety.

He said:

"I kept trying to comprehend how Bastien-Lepage could have risen to such a height, a height unattainable to the outward vision of the French.

Bastien-Lepage, here, was a Slav, Russian, with our secret, sacred search for the depths of human drama...

The entire effect, all the power of Joan D'Arc was in her extreme simplicity, naturalness, and in that unique, never to be repeated, expression of the eyes of the shepherdess from Domrémy; those eyes were the special secret of the artist:

they looked and they saw, not outer objects,but that cherished ideal, the goal, her mission, the calling that this wondrous girl had to fulfill."

He came home and eventually drew what came to be known as his masterpiece: A painting of the beloved Russian Saint, Sergius of Radonezh. 

The painting catches the saint still a vulnerable, tortured boy at his first encounter with the divine world.  

It's the same dynamic looking, and seeing--for the first time--something different, something extraordinary, something...from above. 

The Vision of the Young Bartholomew
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