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In an Upper West Side Townhouse, a Hidden Tribute to a Famed Russian Artist

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Artist, professor, and philosopher Nicholas Roerich may have been born in Russia, but he’s best known for the years he spent living and working in India, and for the moody, atmospheric paintings of the Himalayas he worked on there. While Roerich's work is well-represented in museums in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the best place to see his art in the United States isn’t in a museum; it’s in a three-story Upper West Side townhouse that looks like any other private residence on the tony block.

A small sign on the front door, just off of Riverside Park, marks the museum's presence. A group of Roerich's friends bought the house in 1949, two years after his death, for $40,000. They and their successors have spent the years since filling the former family home with as many of Roerich's pieces as they can buy or get--currently, the collection stands at about 200 paintings, plus some pieces by Roerich's son Stanislaus, who also became an artist.

The museum is free to enter, and there's a small first-floor gift shop with (mostly Russian-language) books, postcards, prints, and a dour Russian man who sits behind a desk and ignores you very loudly. The museum's collection was acquired piecemeal, with its most recent acquisition—sketches for a frieze that Roerich did on an insurance company building in Moscow—made in summer 2015.

Although the hang-it-as-you-go model to acquiring and displaying art inside a house not designed for being a gallery could come off discordant, it works; Roerich's art is thematically consistent enough to make the whole thing look intentional. The most striking room is the large one just above the front lobby, where paintings are clumped around a grand piano. The paintings—including several tall ones depicting Hindu deities and a bright study in blue—are so dynamic that one man nearly walked into the piano, not seeing it.

Roerich isn't only famous for his art, though. Possibly the single piece of art he’s is best known for is a white circle with three red circles in a sort of triangle shape--think State Farm crossed with the Girl Scouts. This emblem, the pax cultura, was Roerich's attempt at making a sort of Red Cross for artists passionate about peace-related activism. The pinnacle of this work was the Roerich Pact, properly known as the Treaty on the Protection of Artistic and Scientific Institutions and Historic Monuments. The pact was the result of partnership between Roerich and Paris University professor G.G. Shklyaver, which stated that artistic and cultural contributions should be valued and protected by countries at all costs, even in times of war. Some 21 countries signed the treaty, but it was not ratified as international law. Some believe that Roerich's work was a direct inspiration for the UN's International Day of Peace, which is held every September 21, but the United Nations page for the annual event makes no mention of him.

Gvido Trepša is the current executive director of the Roerich Museum, a post he has held for 17 years. He first learned about Roerich's philosophies when he was growing up in Latvia, but didn't get interested in the artist's work until much later. The first three institutions dedicated to Roerich's ideas and work were in New York City, Paris, and Riga, so when Trepša emigrated to the United States, it seemed only logical he'd go to work at the Roerich Museum. Though there aren't many visitors, the ones who come are true devotees. "Nowadays, he's not well known and you can't find him in traditional places, but he has own niche," Trepša says. "People who love him truly love him and come from all over the world to see our museum. We have a really knowledgeable public."

And the Roerich-loving public comes from all kinds of places: some study painting, or yoga, or Russian history. In the United States, Roerich may be better known for work that he inspired than work he created. H.P. Lovecraft's novel At the Mountains of Madness references Roerich by name, and the writer said that many of the descriptions of Antarctica, where the story's action takes place, was inspired by Roerich's paintings. Igor Stravinsky collaborated with Roerich on costumes and sets for The Rite of Spring, although Stravinsky's name is the one more commonly associated with the groundbreaking ballet.