The interior of the Church of St. Nicholas Mokry in Yaroslavl

Nikolai Tyrsa – painter and master of illustration

Two pots of flowers
Two pots of flowers

Nikolai Andreevich Tyrsa was a Soviet graphic artist and painter of the first half of the 20th century, a representative of the Leningrad landscape school and an outstanding illustrator. The paintings of Nikolai Tyrsa are diverse in genre: among them there are many portraits, still lifes, landscapes, nudity, illustrations for children and classical literature. The work of this master also includes posters and object design in the field of glassware.

The interior of the Church of St. Nicholas Mokry in Yaroslavl
The interior of the Church of St. Nicholas Mokry in Yaroslavl

Biography of Nikolai Tyrsa

Nikolay Tyrsa was born on May 9, 1887 in the village of Aralikh, currently located in Turkey. The artist himself joked that he was born on Mount Ararat, where his father, a Cossack officer, was led by military service. Nikolai began to study art in 1895 in St. Petersburg. He attended the architectural department of the Academy of Arts, which he never graduated from. Additionally, he studied at the private school of Elizaveta Zvantseva, where Lev Bakst taught. This master had a significant influence on Tyrsu, who subsequently continued the traditions of the World of Art.

Still life. Poppies. Canvas, oil. 40x34. 1932.
Still life. Poppies. Canvas, oil. 40×34. 1932.

Nikolay Tyrsa began to exhibit since 1915 together with the world of art – he presented nude graphics to the audience. Also in his younger years, the artist studied Old Russian frescoes in monasteries and helped to restore them, then he participated in the painting of mansions and churches. In particular, together with Nicholas Roerich he painted the Church of the Savior in Talashkino. In 1916, Tyrsa was drafted to the front, where he served in an automobile battalion. He took the revolutionary events with enthusiasm and became one of the founders of VKHUTEMAS. But by 1920, the author had retired from active social and political life, being mainly engaged in teaching and illustration.


The artist became interested in book graphics since 1921. He designed many children’s books – Kaverin, Bianki, Tikhonov, Zhitkov and other writers. The author of “Republic SHKID” Leonid Panteleev admired how accurately Nikolai Tyrsa conveyed the characters’ images. In places, the resemblance to the author’s intention was photographic, although the artist could not see the fictional characters in any way. In his later years, he illustrated classical literature: the works of Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov and Leo Tolstoy.

The works of this author were not limited to just illustrations.

He created many graphic portraits, and from the 1930s he became interested in oil painting – he painted landscapes, still lifes, often depicted nude models. Tyrsa is one of the brightest representatives of the Leningrad landscape school, whose followers painted chamber and contemplative city landscapes. The work of this group traces the influence of the French impressionists and, in part, Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard.

Since 1940, Nikolai Tyrsa, together with Vera Mukhina, have been designing glass vases, decanters and glasses. In 1941, his first personal exhibition was opened in the Russian Museum, but it worked only for a week due to the outbreak of the war. The artist could not survive the blockade winter: although at the end of January he was evacuated to Vologda, on February 10, 1942 he died.


Nikolay Tyrsa was married to Elena Leifert, the family had two daughters. The youngest of them, Anna, became an art critic and worked in a museum. The works of her father are now kept in the Tretyakov Gallery, the Russian Museum, the Pushkin Museum im. AS Pushkin and in regional meetings.

The most famous paintings by Nikolai Tyrsa

Nikolay Tyrsa’s paintings are distinguished by softness of tone, blurring of contours and tenderness of colors, although the coloring is often bright. The works of this artist are appreciated for harmonious color combinations, lyricism and observation. Until the 1930s, he preferred graphics and watercolors, and after – oil painting. Here are some of the famous works of the author:

  1. “Portrait of Anna Akhmatova” (1928). The artist created several images of the poetess using the technique of black watercolor, also called “lamp soot”. It is known that among her numerous portraits, Akhmatova highly appreciated the works of Tyrsa.
  2. Still Life with Cornflowers (1930s). A typical picture for this author: with contrasting and rather bright colors, but with a general mood of softness and tenderness.
  3. “Moika”, (1931). This lyrical St. Petersburg landscape is now kept in the Tretyakov Gallery. A worthy example of the Leningrad school of landscape painting.
  4. “Across the River” (1940s). Illustration for Mikhail Lermontov’s novel “A Hero of Our Time” with Pechorin on a horse.
Nikolay Tyrsa Illustration for The Snow Book by V. Bianchi
Illustration for The Snow Book by V. Bianchi
Nikolay Tyrsa Advertising poster
Advertising poster
Nikolay Tyrsa Church of the Holy Spirit in Talashkino, the image of the Savior (Nicholas Roerich and Nicholas Tyrsa)
Church of the Holy Spirit in Talashkino, the image of the Savior (Nicholas Roerich and Nicholas Tyrsa)
Nikolay Tyrsa Female portrait. Canvas, oil. 54x42. 1935.
Female portrait. Canvas, oil. 54×42. 1935.
Nikolay Tyrsa Flowers in a glass. Canvas, oil. 46x37. 1934.
Flowers in a glass. Canvas, oil. 46×37. 1934.
Nikolay Tyrsa Flowers on a striped background
Flowers on a striped background