Taras Hryhorovich Shevchenko, the great Ukrainian poet, artist and thinker, was born on March 9, 1814, in the village of Moryntsi in central Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire. His parents, H. Shevchenko and K. Shevchenko, were serfs on the land of V. Engelhardt.
Self-portrait with candle, 1861
His grandfather I. Shevchenko, who was a witness of the Haidamak movement, had a significant influence on Taras. Taras's father was literate, and he sent his son to be educated as an apprentice to a deacon. In 1823, Taras's mother died, and his father married for a second time. In 1825, his father also died. For some time little Taras, now an orphan, served as a houseboy and was in training as a servant. A talent for drawing showed itself in the boy quite early. When he was 14 years old, he became a domestic servant to P. Engelhardt.
In the spring of 1829, Taras travelled with P. Engelhardt to Vilnius, Lithuania. There he studied painting under an experienced craftsman. The Polish rebellion for national liberation from Russia began in November, 1830, and Engelhardt left for the Russian capital, St. Petersburg. Shevchenko stayed with the lord's servants in Vilnius and was witness to the revolutionary events. Shevchenko went to St. Petersburg at the beginning of 1831. In 1832, the lord "contracted" him to the master painter V. Shyryayev, with whom the lad experienced a hard school of professional training.
Self-portrait, 1845 Noted writers and artists bought Shevchenko out of serfdom. The 2,500 rubles required were raised through a lottery in which the prize was a portrait of the poet, Zhukovsky, painted by Karl Bryullov. The release from serfdom was signed on April 22, 1838. A committee of the Association for the Encouragement of Artists had examined drawings by Shevchenko and approved them. In 1838, Shevchenko was accepted into the Academy of Arts as an external student, practicing in the workshop of K. Bryullov.
In January, 1839, Shevchenko was accepted as a resident student at the Association for the Encouragement of Artists, and at the annual examinations at the Academy of Arts, Shevchenko was given the Silver Medal for a landscape. In 1840 he was again given the Silver Medal, this time for his first oil painting, The Beggar Boy Giving Bread to a Dog.
In the library of Yevhen Hrebinka, he became familiar with anthologies of Ukrainian folklore and the works of I. Kotlyarevsky, H. Kvitka-Osnovyanenko, and the romantic poets, as well as many Russian, East European and world writers.
Shevchenko began to write poetry even before he was freed from serfdom. In 1840, the world first saw the Kobzar, Shevchenko's first collection of poetry. Later Ivan Franko wrote that this book, "immediately revealed, as it were, a new world of poetry. It burst forth like a spring of clear, cold water, and sparkled with a clarity, breadth and elegance of artistic expression not previously known in Ukrainian writing." In 1841, the epic poem Haidamaky appeared as a separate volume. In September of that same year, Shevchenko got his third Silver Medal -- for his picture The Gypsy Fortune Teller. A significant work is the painting Kateryna, based on his poem.
Shevchenko also tried his hand at writing plays. In 1842, a fragment of the tragedy Nykyta Hayday appeared, and in 1843 he completed the drama Nazar Stodolya.
In this period, the full genius of Shevchenko was apparent, and the main characteristic of his poetry - a deep national sense - was evident. All his life, the poet was devoted to his nation. "Body and soul I am the son and brother of our unfortunate nation," he wrote.
Opposition to the social and national oppression of the Ukrainian people grew in Shevchenko. Tsarist Russian censorship deleted many lines from his works, and created problems for the printing of the writer's poetry. None of the critics of the Kobzar, however, was able to deny the great talent of Shevchenko.
In 1843, the poet left St. Petersburg, and at the end of May he was in Ukraine. In Kiev, he met M. Maksymovich, P. Kulish and others, and did many paintings.
That summer, the poet visited the sites of the former Zaporozhian Cossack Sich, and in September he went to Kyrylivka where, after a fourteen-year separation, he saw his brothers and sisters. In Ukraine Shevchenko did many pencil studies for a projected book of engravings to be called Picturesque Ukraine. At the end of February Shevchenko returned to St. Petersburg.
In Ukraine, the poet had seen the heavy social and national yoke borne by the working people and the inhuman conditions of life of the peasants. This evoked new themes in Shevchenko's poetry.