Zahari Zograf, the pioneer of modern Bulgarian art

A self-portrait of Zahari Zograf and a portrait of his brother's wife Hristiania
Photo: Архив
By the end of January 2011, the National Art Gallery is the venue of an exhibition dedicated to the 200th birth anniversary of a foremost figure in Bulgaria’s National Revival art, Zahari Zograf. He was born in the town of Samokov, close to Sofia. His father Hristo Dimitrov studied icon painting in Mount Athos and founded the celebrated Samokov School. He trained his two sons Dimitar and Zahari in painting. The father also traveled to Vienna and brought over to Samokov a major collection of prints. The prints mostly reproductions of works by renowned artists, provided a bridge to the European art of the time when Bulgaria was still under Turkish rule. In mid-1830s Zahari Zograf moved to Plovdiv where he took some lessons with two French artists.

“The point is that Zahari Zograf was an absolutely autonomous and grossly creative artist”, the exhibition’s curator Doroteia Sokolova explains. “He was the first painter of genius in Bulgarian art, and a veritable European artist. His works betray a very precise selection of materials and techniques. All this Zahari Zograf achieved on his own, without much opportunity for schooling. He was a most innovative artist and his works marked the beginning of Bulgaria’s modern art. The first portrait of an intellectual, of prominent clergyman and enlightener Neophyte Rilski, was pained by his talented hand, as well as the first Bulgarian self-portrait. Zahari Zograf also painted the first female portrait. His renditions of Virgin Mary are magnificent, as well as of the most beautiful women-saints St. Catherine and St. Barbara. He worked on landscapes, nudes and still lives thus making a radical transition from late medieval traditions to modern art. Throughout his creative career Zahari Zograf was led by the priority of the Bulgarian National Revival – reintegration with the European culture.”

The Holy Mother. St. George and St. Dimitrius on horseback

The impressive display devoted to his 200th birth anniversary includes his most famous self-portrait, the most expensive oil work in the gallery’s entire collection. Visitors are welcome to enjoy Zahari Zograf’s icons commissioned by many churches in Bulgaria, as well as his best frescos.

“His first fresco commission came from the St. Virgin Mary Church in Assenovgard, Southern Bulgaria”, Doroteia Sokolova goes on to say. “He then painted the frescos in St. Nicholas Church at Bachkovo Monastery, and this project made him famous. He worked there until 1840. At Bulgaria’s biggest monastery, Rila Monastery, Zahari Zograf produced a veritable masterpiece. In 1844-1845 the interiors of the monastery’s new large church were painted for the first time. The artist of genius worked on the most difficult part of them, the vaults, displaying unbelievable mastery. He used a fresco technique instead of oil.”

The circle of life. Warrior Saints (both from Preobrajenski Monastery)

Later in his life Zahari Zograf created frescos in the Troyan and Transfiguration monasteries. Toward the end of his life he went to work in Mount Athos. The great artist died at 43. Most of his legacy is kept at the National Art Gallery. It also keeps his family’s collection of prints, the richest in Bulgaria.

Translated by Daniela Konstantinova

Photos provided by Veneta Pavlova

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