Taras Shevchenko’s Biography

Taras Shevchenko was born on March 9 (O.S. February 25), 1814 in a family of serfs in the village of Moryntsi in Ukraine, then part of the tsarist Russian Empire. The Shevchenkos soon relocated to the village of Kyrylivka, where Taras grew up.
His father had to become a travelling merchant (chumak) and drove the landlord’s wheat to Odesa, Kyiv and other cities. When Taras grew up, his father took him along. Shevchenko mentioned one of these trips in his story “The Hireling” (“Naymychka”).
He lost his mother when he was 9 years old. His father, who was left alone with the young children, married a widow Oksana Tereshchenko, who already had three children
At the age of eleven, Taras became an orphan, he lived with his stepmother.
“Who had ever seen even from afar a stepmother and the so-called stepbrothers and stepsisters, that means one saw hell in the triumph of its disgusting.”
“Young gentlemen, if you but knew...”

Young gentlemen, if you but knew
Where people weep their whole life through
You'd not compose your rhapsodies
And God for nothing you'd not praise —
And mock our tears and twit the truth.
The tranquil cottage in the grove
You call a paradise, I know.
In such a cottage once I dwelt
And there my first hot tears were spilt,
My early tears! I know no vice,
No wrong or evil anywhere
That's not within that cottage fair ...
And yet they call it paradise!

I do not speak of that wee house
Beside the village, by the copse,
As though 'twere paradise on earth.
'Twas there my mother gave me birth
And, singing as her child she nursed,
She passed her pain to me ... 'Twas there,
In that wee house, that Eden fair,
That I saw hell ... There people slave
Without a let-up night and day,
Not even given time to pray.
In that same village to her grave
My gentle mother, young in years,
Was laid by toil and want and cares-
There father, weeping with his brood
(And we were tiny, tattered tots),
Could not withstand his bitter lot
And died at work in servitude! . . .
And we — we scattered where we could
Like little field mice. I to school —
To carry water for the class.
My brothers slaved on the estate
And then, conscripted, marched away!
And you, my sisters! Fortune has
Reserved for you the cruelest fate!
What is the purpose of your life?
Your youth in service slipped away,
Your locks in servitude turn grey,
In service, sisters, you will die!

Translated by John Weir

With Engelhardt
“Landlord Paul V. Engelhardt, who only had inherited the property side of his father, needed an agile and ragged boy, and a scholar-tramp went straight into the teak jacket and into the same trousers and finally to the house servant”
Shevchenko was turned into a court service boy of the new landlord at the Vilshana estates. In 1829 Engelhardt and his wife brought Shevchenko with them to Wilno (Vilnius), where he started to learn the Polish language and literature, he also secretly redrew some paintings. Here, in Wilno, Shevchenko was sent to study painting in the studio of Jan Rustem.

In 1831 the Engelhardts moved to St. Petersburg with all their servants.

Engelhardt noticed Shevchenko's artistic talent, and in Saint Petersburg he apprenticed him to the painter; V. Shiriaev for four years. Together, they participated in the painting of the Bolshoi Theatre as an apprentice draftsman.

In 1837 Shevchenko met and befriended the Ukrainian artist Ivan Soshenko. Here he met Karl Briullov, Vasily Zhukovsky, Vasyl Hryhorovych, Alexey Venetsianov, Apollon Mokritsky, — the people who would play the main role in his freedom.

“Summer nights in St. Petersburg, I almost always carried out in the street or anywhere on the islands, but more often on the academic waterfront. In summer I also loved to meet the sunrise on the Troitsky Bridge.”
from serfdom
Certificate of freedom for Taras Shevchenko
“Vasily Zhukovsky pre-checked rates from the landlord and asked Karl Briullov to make his portrait for the the imperial kin for the purpose to sell it as the lottery prize in the Tsar’s family. Briullov-the-Great, agreed to donate the portrait which was already painted. Vasily Zhukovsky with the help of an earl Michael Wielhorski arranged a lottery of 2500 rubles and that was the cost of freedom which bought Shevchenko in 1838, May 5 (O.S. April 22).”
“Now I can not believe myself, but really it was so. I'm from the dirty attic, I am the miserable ugly slob, and I flew on the wings to fairy halls of the Academy of Arts.”
Shevchenko was granted his freedom in the spring of 1838 and at once he was accepted as an external student into the Academy of Arts in the workshop of Karl Briullov. He used Karl’s great library and continued to study.
“Now I live and learn, and I don’t need to bow to anyone. I’m not afraid of anyone other than God. It’s a great fortune to be a free man. Do what you want, no one will stop you.”
Academic years

As his artistic talent developed, Shevchenko made significant progress in painting. He became a fine portrait painter and a master of watercolor paintings; for academic excellence he received three silver medals from the Academy: in 1840 for his painting “The Beggar Boy Giving Bread to a Dog,” in 1841 for his painting “A Gypsy Fortune Teller.” The first painting for which Taras won a silver medal in 1839, had not reached them.

Unlike other students of the Academy, his work shows common people: serf girl, children, gypsy woman and others, trying to attract public attention to the oppressed people.

“I started to paint watercolor portraits, first in a friendly way, and then for money, but I still don’t show them to Karl Pavlovich Briullov — I am afraid.”

While Shevchenko was learning in the Academy of Arts, he became acquainted with the history and culture of his Motherland, Greece, Rome. He continued to move in the circles of the progressive intelligentsia from Russia, he read Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol. In another hand, he read Ukrainian authors also — Kotliarevsky, Kvitka-Osnovyanenko, and others.

He also got acquainted with outstanding works of Western literature and studied the French language — all this raised the political and cultural level of the poet.

In 1840, his first poetry collection, Kobzar, consisting of eight Romantic poems, was published in Saint Petersburg: “My thoughts, my thoughts, it is bad for me because of you”, “Perebendya”, “Kateryna”, “Poplar tree”, “Thought (“Why I need Black Eyebrows”), “To Osnovyanenko”, “Ivan Pidkova” and “Taras' night”.
“Author of the book “Kobzar” brought to the literature unique colors and tones, a whole world of images and ideas, that were inherent in the way of life and artistic thinking of his nation. Shevchenko’s poetry had absorbed the life-giving purity of ukrainian folklore, power, riches and expressiveness of the Ukrainian language.”
Leonid Novychenko
In my beloved
“When I was in Ukraine … I’d drawn many sketches from nature. And now I decided to publish them with a name “Picturesque Ukraine”. Publication will contain the next things: 1 — landscapes, 2 — folk life, 3 — history.”

In May of 1843 Taras Shevchenko with Yevhen Hrebinka went to Ukraine. He visited villages, towns and had drawn a number of sketches.

At the beginning of June he visited Kyiv and the Kyiv region. He’d met with students and intellectuals and learnt historical and cultural places. He had written national songs and legends, drawn landscapes and old buildings.

At the end of summer Taras journeyed to the South of Ukraine. In October, he stayed in Yahotyn at the house of the estate of Prince Nicholas Repnin.

At the end of 1844 Shevchenko went back to St. Petersburg where he continued his studies at the Academy of Arts.

After completing his studies at the Academy of Arts in 1845 Shevchenko received permission to travel to Ukraine. He went there at the end of March. In December the great poet wrote his famous poem “Testament (Zapovit)”. In this poem he passionately encouraged the nation for an armed insurrection.
“Oh bury me, then rise ye up And break your heavy chains And water with the tyrants' blood The freedom you have gained.” (Translated by John Weir)

In May 1846 Taras Shevchenko met Mykola Kostomarov, a famous historian and one of the founders of The Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius. Since December, Shevchenko started to attend meetings of this Brotherhood where he read his revolutionary poems to the members.

The members of this Brotherhood were students and teachers of the universities of Kyiv and Kharkiv. The main position in this Brotherhood were held (except Kostomarov and Shevchenko) by Georgi Andruzky, Vasyl Bilozersky, Mykola Gulak, Panteleimon Kulish.

On April 5, 1847 Shevchenko was arrested on a tip-off at the entrance to Kiev. The next day he was sent to St. Petersburg.

“I was directed to The University of Kyiv and on the same day I was arrested.”
In exile
“I couldn’t have imagined a worse penalty, even if I had been a monster or a bloodsucker than sending me to the Separate Orenburg Corps as a soldier. August, who was a pagan, when he sent Naso to the wild Getae, didn’t forbid him from writing and drawing. And Nicholas I, who was christian, forbade me to do both. They are torturers. But one of them is a Christian torturer!”

On May 30, 1847 tsar’s verdict about the exile of Shevchenko to the Separate Orenburg Corps as a soldier “with a strict supervision and a prohibition to write and draw” was announced to him. He had been serving in the fortress of Orsk.

Despite the strict supervision, Shevchenko had drawn a self-portrait and many poems, that he hid in the top of his boot.

A little ‘Boot-Top Book’ with Taras Shevchenko's poems from the exile.
“On a smooth horizontal line above the shaft, you can hardly see the long barracks roofed with cane. That's the whole Raim. Almost the entire garrison came out to meet us. They had pale, cheerless faces, like prisoners. I became scared.”

In May of 1848 Taras was taken on an expedition of the Rear Admiral Alexey Butakov. The expedition’s goals were for the investigation and scientific description of The Aral Sea. In this expedition Shevchenko painted many landscapes and continued to work on literary works.

In November of 1849 after a difficult crossing of the desert steppes, Shevchenko arrived in Orenburg.

“Soldiers are the most poor, miserable class in our orthodox motherland. All of the good things, that soldiers had, were taken away: family, motherland, freedom — everything.”
Because Shevchenko violated the royal decree prohibiting him to write and draw, Shevchenko was arrested and convoyed to the fortress of Orsk. On October 17, 1850 Shevchenko came to the Novopetrovskoye stronghold. There he spent 7 long years until his friends forced the Government to release him.

During his exile he’d taken part in a expedition to the Karatau Mountains, where he painted close to 100 pictures despite the prohibition. In 1852 Taras Shevchenko began to write prose in Russian. Later his living circumstances improved greatly because of his friendship with the new commandant of the stronghold.

In 1855 he began to correspond with the artist and Vice-President of the Academy of Arts — Fyodor Tolstoy — about a petition regarding rescue.

from the exile
On August 2, 1857 Taras Shevchenko left Novopetrovskoye stronghold on a fishing boat and went to Astrakhan. Then he went to Nizhny Novgorod on a steamer. Shevchenko was under a secret police surveillance. In 1858 he went to Moscow and later to St. Petersburg.
“Now I’m in Nizhny Novgorod free but “On a dog chain’s freedom”.
Shevchenko’s last travel to Ukraine was in the summer of 1859. On the 15th of July, Taras was arrested for the third time. After the investigation was completed, he received permission to return to St. Petersburg, Russia.
“He wanted to visit his beloved Ukraine where he finally travelled in the summer of 1859 to search for a piece of land overlooking the Dnipro river for his final years”
Panas Myrny
“After a decade long exile, Shevchenko finally returned to St. Petersburg, in a frail body, but alert mind… Even in those terrible years, his muse didn’t subside…”
Ivan Franko
The new edition of “Kobzar”, January 1860.
“Bukvar' Iuzhnorusskii”
In January 1860, the new edition of “Kobzar” with new poetry was published. On the 2nd of September 1860, the Imperial Academy of Arts recognized Shevchenko’s mastery by designating him as an academician-engraver. In 1861, Shevchenko’s last book was published. “Bukvar' Iuzhnorusskii” (A South Russian [ie, Ukrainian] Primer). Shevchenko prepared it in 1860 for Ukrainian Sunday schools. Shevchenko personally subsidized this book.
Final days
“When Chernenko entered svitlytsya (the bright room), instead of his usual greeting asked him: “So?.. Is? Is there freedom? Is there a manifesto? — and he got an answer by looking at Chernenko’s eyes… After a deep breathe, he said: — So, No?.. No?.. When it will be?!” Taras added a strong unprintable phrase, covering his face with his hands, he dropped to the bed and cried.”
Olexandr Koniskiy

Taras Shevchenko spent the last years of his life working on new poetry, paintings, and engravings, as well as editing his older works. But after his difficult years in exile his final illness proved too much.

Shevchenko died in Saint Petersburg on March 10 (O.S. February 26), 1861. He was first buried at the Smolensk Cemetery in Saint Petersburg. However, fulfilling Shevchenko's wish, expressed in his poem “Testament” (“Zapovit”), his remains were transferred to Ukraine.

Shevchenko's remains were buried on May 10 on Chernecha Hill (Monk's Hill; now Taras Hill) by the Dnipro River near Kaniv.

“On the fortieth day following the poet’s death and before sending the coffin to Ukraine, fellow countrymen gathered again at the grave to say goodbye. They covered the coffin with a red nankin that quickly darkened during rainy wet snow, as if symbolizing that life’s fate of our national bard was less than acceptable.”
Mykhailo Chaly

The invaluable contribution of Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko into world culture, is appreciated not only in Ukraine, but also abroad. Twelve hundred monuments stand all over the world. Towns and villages, universities and schools are named after him. Many movies have been filmed and plays staged in his honor.

Shevchenko is an inherent part of Ukrainian history and culture. He will continue to be, for ages to come for the Ukrainian Nation.

Project’s Authors

Valentine Reshetniak
Idea’s Author and Art Director
Evgeny Vasiliev
Technical Manager
Ann Vasilieva
Informational Design
Dmitry Grand
Technical Realization
Media support
Bill Green
English Editing

We are grateful to you for visiting our interactive biography of Taras Shevchenko.

Our purpose is to create an exceptionally interesting and useful presentation of a world renowned poet’s life.

This is an ongoing project and we will continue our efforts on the road to perfection while amplifying it with a variety of new colors.

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