Taras Shevchenko

Portrait of Taras Shevchenko

Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko was a Ukrainian poet, writer, artist, and political figure. He was born on 9th March 1814 in Morintsy, Ukraine and died on 10th March 1861 in St Petersburg, Russia aged 47.

Major Works

“Cossack Banquet” (1838)
“The Model in the Pose of St Sebastian” (1839)
“Kobzar” (The Bard) (1840)
“Haidamaky” (1841)
“Gypsy Fortune Teller” (1841)
Mykyta Haidai” (1842)

Biography Timeline

Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko was born on 9th March 1814 in Morintsi, Ukraine (then Russian empire). His father was the serf Hryhoriy Ivanovych Shevchenko who worked land owned by Vasily Engelhardt, a nephew of Grigory Potemkin. His mother was Kateryna Boiko and both his parents were born as part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He was the third child of five.

1816: The family move to Kyrylivka (modern Shevchenkove) another village owned by Engelhardt where his father was born.

1822: He is sent to a local school to learn to read and write. His teacher is the very strict local Precentor of the church who regularly indulged in corporal punishment.

1823: On 1st September his mother dies and his father remarries, to Oksana Tereshchenko. His father becomes a travelling salesman and he and his brother travel with him on two occasions.

1825: His father dies on 2nd April and the stepmother treats the children cruelly. Finally, she is thrown out by their grandfather Ivan and they live with him and Taras is set to work with the pigs and horses.

1826: He leaves home aged twelve to work as a servant for a man named Bohorsky who is the new Precentor but he turns out to be a violent drunkard. Bohorsky then takes the boy’s stepmother as his mistress which makes matters worse.

1827: In February he manages to escape from the village and works in Lysianka and Tarasivka. He hopes to become an artist but is frustrated when he has to return home. He falls in love with Oksana Kovalenko who is the inspiration for his later poem “Mariana, the Nun”.

1828: Engelhardt senior dies and his son takes over. Taras becomes his kitchen and general servant. 

1829: He travels to Warsaw with his new master where his regiment is based. On 18th December he is caught painting a portrait of the Cossack general Matvei Platov and is whipped, however, when they reach Warsaw he is apprenticed to a painter-decorator, who recognises his talent and recommends lessons with the artist Franciszek Ksawery Lampi. 

1830: When the November Uprising takes place Engelhardt and his regiment plus servants are forced to leave Warsaw under armed guard. They return to St Petersburg and he becomes a page boy.

1831: He is allowed to take up artistic tuition once more with Vasiliy Shiriayev, but he also treats him cruelly. He helps with painting the Bolshoi theatre in Moscow. He visits the Summer Gardens in St Petersburg where he sketches the statues and meets the Ukrainian artist Ivan Soshenko a student at the Imperial Academy of Arts. Soshenko gives him lessons in watercolour and drawing at the weekend and shows him around the Hermitage Art Gallery and introduces him to his friends. He is also allowed to paint portraits of Engelhardt’s many mistresses.

1832: He is introduced to the most famous artist of the day Karl Bryullov who praises his work and asks Engelhardt to grant his freedom so that he can teach him further but this is refused much to the artist’s annoyance.

1838: Engelhardt is finally persuaded to release him on payment of 2500 Rubles. Bryullov paints a portrait of the Russian poet Vasily Zhukovsky as a lottery prize for the Tsar’s family to raise money. On 5th May all the paperwork is completed to grant him his freedom and he becomes a student at the Imperial academy of Arts under Bryullov. He completes the pencil drawing “Cossack Banquet” in December and on the strength of this the Imperial Society for the Encouragement of the arts grant him a monthly allowance.

1839: In April he is awarded a silver medal by the Council of the Academy. He paints “The Model in the Pose of St Sebastian” and receives another silver medal for “The Beggar Boy Giving Bread to a Dog”. In November he is ill with typhus. The sculptor Ivan Martos reads his poetry and offers to publish them.

1840: His first collection of poems “Kobzar” (The Bard) is published which covers Ukrainian folklore and history and sells out. The authorities are now aware and submit his next work “Lastivka” to the St Petersburg censorship committee. The book includes “Prychynna”“The Wind is Raging” and “Water Flows into the Blue Sea”.

1841: He writes the long poem “The Haidamaks” and the poems “Maryana the Nun” and “Drowned”. He paints “Gypsy Fortune Teller” for which he receives his third silver medal in September.

1842: He publishes part of his tragedy “Mykyta Haidai”. 

1843: To earn money he produces book illustrations, such as Nikolai Nadezhdin’s story “The Power of Will”. In May he visits Ukraine where he meets many artists and intellectuals including the Vasyl Bilozersky who will become active in the Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius. He visits several historic sites and plans the book “Picturesque Ukraine” which he hopes will make money to buy his family’s freedom but sadly not many etchings are published and he doesn’t make enough. He also writes the drama “Nazar Stodolia” and the poem “The Dug Grave”.

1844: Only six etchings for “Picturesque Ukraine” are published. He writes the poem “Dream” which concerns the oppression of the Ukrainians by the Russian upper classes but many copies are seized by the authorities.

1845: He illustrates Nikolai Polevoy’s “Russian Generals”. On 22nd March the Council of the Academy of Arts grants him the title of a non-classed artist. He again travels to Ukraine where he meets the historian Mykola Kostomarov and other members of the Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius which is dedicated to the political liberalisation of the empire.

1847: In April the Brotherhood is suppressed and he is arrested and punished by exile and military service for writing “The Dream”“The Caucasus” and “The Epistle”. He is imprisoned in St Petersburg and then sent to the Russian military garrison in Orenburg near the Ural Mountains where he is forbidden to write or paint.

1848: He is sent on the first Russian naval expedition of the Aral Sea. He is treated well by the members of the crew on the ship “Konstantin” and allowed to sketch the local scenes. After the eighteen-month voyage is over however he is sent to the remote fortress of Novopetrovsk in the Mangyshlak Peninsula where he spends the next seven years.

1857: He is released after an amnesty from the new Tsar and returns to Nizhniy Novgorod as he is not permitted into St Petersburg.

1858: He eventually returns to St Petersburg. During the winter he meets the American Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge and the two become good friends.

1859: In May he is permitted to return to Ukraine where he intends to buy a plot of land. However, in July he is arrested on a charge of blasphemy but is then released and he goes back to St Petersburg.

Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko died on 10th March 1861 in St Petersburg, Russia. His funeral was attended by famous people such as Dostoevsky, Turgenev and many others. He was buried at the Smolensk Cemetery in St Petersburg just days before the official emancipation of the serfs in Russia. His friends arrange for his remains to be taken to Ukraine to be reburied on 8th May on Monks’s Hill (modern Taras Hill) near Kaniv and the Dnipro river.

Further Information

Examples of paintings by Shevchenko.

Examples of poetry by Shevchenko.