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Shevchenko, Taras [Љevиenko] b 9 March 1814 in Moryntsi, Zvenyhorod county, Kyiv gubernia, d 10 March 1861 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (Photo: Taras Shevchenko.) Ukraine’s national bard and famous artist. Born a serf, Shevchenko was orphaned when he was twelve and grew up in poverty and misery. He was taught to read by a village precentor and was often beaten for ‘wasting time’ on drawing. At the age of 14 he became a houseboy of his owner, P. Engelhardt, and served him in Vilnius (1828–31) and then Saint Petersburg. Engelhardt noticed Shevchenko's artistic talent, and in Saint Petersburg he apprenticed him to the painter V. Shiriaev for four years. Shevchenko spent his free time sketching the statues in the capital’s imperial summer gardens. There he met the Ukrainian artist Ivan Soshenko, who introduced him to other compatriots, such as Yevhen Hrebinka and Vasyl Hryhorovych, and to the Russian painter A. Venetsianov. Through these men Shevchenko also met the famous painter and professor Karl Briullov, who donated his portrait of the Russian poet Vasilii Zhukovsky as the prize in a lottery whose proceeds were used to buy Shevchenko's freedom on 5 May 1838.
Soon after, Shevchenko enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg and studied there under Briullov’s supervision. In 1840 his first poetry collection, Kobzar, consisting of eight Romantic poems, was published in Saint Petersburg. It was followed by his epic poem Haidamaky (The Haidamakas, 1841) and the ballad Hamaliia (1844). While living in Saint Petersburg, Shevchenko made three trips to Ukraine, in 1843, 1845, and 1846, which had a profound impact on him. There he visited his still enserfed siblings and other relatives, met with prominent Ukrainian writers and intellectuals (eg, Hrebinka, Panteleimon Kulish, and Mykhailo Maksymovych), and was befriended by the princely Repnin family (especially Varvara Repnina). Distressed by the tsarist oppression and destruction of Ukraine, Shevchenko decided to capture some of his homeland’s historical ruins and cultural monuments in an album of etchings, which he called Zhivopisnaia Ukraina (Picturesque Ukraine, 1844).
After graduating from the academy of arts in 1845, Shevchenko became a member of the Kyiv Archeographic Commission and traveled widely through Russian-ruled Ukraine in 1845 to sketch historical and architectural monuments and collect folkloric and other ethnographic materials. In 1844 and 1845, mostly while he was in Ukraine, he wrote some of his most satirical and politically subversive narrative poems, including ‘Son’ (A Dream), ‘Sova’ (the Owl), ‘Kholodnyi Iar,’ ‘Ieretyk’/ ‘Ivan Hus’ (The Heretic/Jan Hus),‘Slipyi’ (The Blind Man), ‘Velykyi l'okh’ (The Great Vault), and ‘Kavkaz’ (The Caucasus). He transcribed them and his other poems of 1843–45 into an album he titled ‘Try lita’ (Three Years).
While in Kyiv in 1846, Shevchenko joined the secret Cyril and Methodius Brotherhood. Like the other members of the brotherhood, he was arrested, on 5 April 1847. The authorities’ confiscation and discovery of his anti-tsarist satirical poems in the ‘Try lita’ album brought Shevchenko a particularly severe punishment—military service as a private in the Orenburg Special Corps in a remote region by the Caspian Sea. Tsar Nicholas I himself ordered that Shevchenko be forbidden to write, draw, and paint while in military exile. While serving at the Orenburg and Orsk fortresses, however, Shevchenko managed to continue doing so. He hid his secretly written poems in several handmade ‘bootleg booklets’ (1847, 1848, 1849, 1850). Many of the drawings and paintings he made while in exile depict the life of the indigenous Kazakhs. Owing to Shevchenko’s skill as a painter, he was included in a military expedition to survey and describe the Aral Sea (1848–9).