About Taras Shevchenko
Taras Hryhorovich Shevchenko is to the Ukrainian people as Robbie Burns is to the Scottish – a peoples’ poet who symbolized the national hopes of his people for freedom of oppression and want.
Considered the Bard of Ukraine, Taras Shevchenko is revered by Ukrainians all over the world and generation after generation, through translations of his works, he continues to inspire, not only Ukrainians, but all who cherish democracy and freedom.
Taras Shevchenko was born in 1814 into serfdom in a small village near Kyiv. At the age of seven he was orphaned and found shelter with a church deacon who, although a drunkard, taught him to read and write.
“ I don’t describe that little cottage
Beside the pond, beyond the village,
A paradise right here on earth.
That’s where my mother gave me birth,
And singing, as her child she nursed,
She passed her pain to me. ’Twas there,
In that wee house, that heaven fair,
That I saw hell…There people slave
From morn till night…There to her grave
My gentle mother, young in years,
Was sent by want and toil and cares.
There father, weeping with his brood
(And we were tiny, tattered tots),
Could not withstand his evil lot
And died at work in servitude…”
– Translated by John Weir
To escape this strict and often cruel environment, Shevchenko ran away from this deacon and found himself in service to yet another deacon. This one loved to paint and allowed Shevchenko to mix his paints for him. But soon he ran away from this deacon and fell into servitude to yet another who also painted. It was here that Shevchenko was first inspired to paint and draw. Discouraged from painting by the deacon and losing hope of ever being apprenticed to a painter, Shevchenko returned to his native village where he was given the job of house servant to landowner Englehardt. Always in his spare time, and with stolen pencils, Shevchenko continued to draw.
In 1829 at the age of 14 Shevchenko was taken to St. Petersburg with Baron Englehardt and by 1832 was finally apprenticed to a painter who was contracted to decorate the interiors of buildings. There was little difference between his painter-master and the deacon-teacher of his boyhood, both working him from morn to night.
One night, the Ukrainian artist Ivan Soshenko, found Taras coping statues in the cemetery. Impressed with Shevchenko’s talent, he called on Russian intellectuals to raise 2500 rubles to buy Shevchenko’s freedom. Karl Bryullov, the most prominent Russian painter at the time, painted a portrait which was raffled off to raise the necessary funds. So, at the age of 24 Taras Shevchenko became a free man. With a sponsorship, Shevchenko enrolled in the Academy of Arts where he became a friend to Bryullov and one of his favourite students. In addition to art he also studied zoology, physics, history, the French language and was an avid reader of Homer and many other world and historical writers. He befriended relatives and friends of the Dekabrists (Decembrists), the young noblemen who conspired to overthrow the Tsar and abolish feudal order in Russia, but who failed and were severely punished.
Shevchenko associated with some of the finest thinkers of Russia who studied and discussed European philosophers and writers, but he did not forget his humble roots as a serf. He dedicated his life’s work to lamenting the sad lot of Ukraine and its people and to inspiring them to…
“O bury me, then rise and break
The chains in which ye lie,
And as ye spill the tyrant blood
Your freedom sanctify.
And in the family, grand and free,
The family that will be,
Do not fail to speak a kindly
And gentle word of me.”
from “My Testament” translated by Padaric Breslin
His first volume of poems, Kobzar, was widely circulated and acclaimed. His paintings showed both the beauty of the countryside and the difficult life of his fellow countrymen. His poems were being carried far and wide by roving minstrels, bringing him closer to the hearts of his people.
In 1843 Shevchenko visited Ukraine and in 1945, after his graduation from the Academy, he returned once again. This was a time when he wrote some of his greatest works. But in 1847 he was arrested by the Tsarist police and exiled beyond the Urals as a soldier of the Tsar’s army. The Tsar added a postscript to this exile: “Under strict surveillance, with prohibition to write or paint.” However, assisted by individuals in authority who befriended and respected Shevchenko, he continued to write and draw in secrecy.
In poor health upon his return from exile, in 1859 he visited his beloved Ukraine and his brothers and sisters who were still feudal serfs. But the authorities forced his return to St. Petersburg where he died in 1861, just one day after his 47th birthday. His body was claimed by the Ukrainian people and carried by wagon for burial on a hill overlooking the Dnieper River as Shevchenko had willed in his poem “My Testament”.
Shevchenko’s poems and verses, which he began to write even as a serf, laid the basis for the modern Ukrainian literary language. His poems contain some of the most beautiful description of nature to be found in Ukrainian literature, as well as a great love of humanity… ‘the hungry orphan; the tired mother nursing her babe; the village girl cast off by her officer-seducer and driven out from her home; the young Cossack far from home mourning for his homeland; the old man weeping over the glories that used to be and are no more…’.
Shevchenko’s works have been translated in many languages and thousands of books, studies, and essays have been written about his life and work. Many of his poetic lyrics became folk songs and widely popularized by the people. Many contemporary songs, operas and symphonies are built on his works or utilize his lyrics. His paintings and drawings are exhibited in a number of museums and galleries, both in Ukraine and abroad.
In 1951 the first monument to Taras Shevchenko in North America, a gift from the people of Ukraine to Canada, was erected by the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians at the Shevchenko Memorial Park near Oakville, Ontario. Since then other monuments to Shevchenko have been erected in Winnipeg, Manitoba and other parts of North America.
Also in 1951 the Shevchenko Male Chorus, the founding body of the Shevchenko Musical Ensemble, proudly took the name Shevchenko so that his memory would continue to inspire generations of Canadians yet to come.