Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) was a Ukrainian author and painter. The Kobzar is considered his most important work, which he worked on throughout his life. His paintings earned him many awards and a professional title from the Imperial Academy of Arts. Shevchenko has a special place in Ukrainian history because his work is considered to be the foundation for modern written Ukrainian and Ukrainian literature.
Born into serfdom, Shevchenko experienced poverty from an early age. By eleven, he had lost both his parents, but before passing away his father had managed to get him an apprenticeship with a deacon who taught the young boy how to read and write. After the death of his parents, Shevchenko was an itinerant worker until, at the age of fourteen, he was hired as a servant in the house of Pavel Engelhardt.
At an early age the boy showed a propensity for art and was clearly talented. At fifteen, he travelled with Engelhardt to St. Petersburg and was given a series of apprenticeships. Eventually, he came to the attention of prominent St. Petersburgintellectuals, including the poet Vasily Zhukovsky and the painter Karl Bryullov. Together, the two men bought Shevchenko out of serfdom for 2,500 rubles by auctioning off one of Bryullov’s portraits of Zhukovsky. In 1838, Shevchenko was accepted into the Imperial Academy of Arts as a student in Bryullov’s workshop.
The first half of the 1840s is considered a propitious period for the artist. Having written poetry for a long time, Shevchenko published his first book The Kobzar, in 1840. The collection earned him critical and popular acclaim, and in the Ukraine his status as a cultural figure was on the rise. During this time Shevchenko traveled between Kiev and St. Petersburg, painted, and published poetry.
In Kiev, he became a member of the Kyrylo-Methodius Society, which would eventually be the target of state investigation. In 1847, the poet was arrested and convicted of subversion on account of his poetry, and sentenced to serve in a military detachment at the edge of the Ural Mountains. Czar Nicholas I specified in his instructions that Shevchenko was prohibited from writing or painting.
First stationed at Orenburg and later at Orsk, Shevchenko violated the czar’s orders by constantly writing poems and drawing. This insubordination led to greater restrictions on his freedom and culminated in his detention at the remote town of Novopetrovsk. (In honor of the poet, Novopetrovsk was renamed Shevchenko in 1963). He was not forgotten by his friends, however, and in 1857, due to their tenacious appeals, Shevchenko was finally allowed to return from exile.
His health was permanently affected by the ordeal, but his creative output remained strong. In 1860, the Imperial Academy of Arts bestowed the artist with a professional academic title. Shortly after this honor, Shevchenko’s health significantly declined and he died six month later, in March 10, 1861—seven days before the official abolition of serfdom.