Niko Pirosmani (1862–1918)

Niko Pirosmani is born in the Georgian village of Mirzaani in the region of Kakheti to a peasant family. In 1870, he moves to Tbilisi with his two sisters where he works as a servant to wealthy families and learns to read and write Russian and Georgian.

He teaches himself to paint and opens a painting workshop in 1882, where he makes signboards for taverns and shops. In 1890, he works as a railroad conductor, and in 1893, he opens a dairy in Tbilisi, which he leaves again in 1901. He continues to create signboards for shopkeepers in Tbilisi, creating paintings and portraits on demand as well. He paints historical figures such as the national poet Shota Rustaveli, the legendary Queen Tamar, or the 17th century politician and military commander Giorgi Saakadze, as well as ordinary Georgian people such as merchants, shopkeepers, and workmen in their everyday lives. Pirosmani develops a distinct style, characterized by a reduction to the essentials and the central placement of figures. In 1912, he is discovered by the Russian poet Mikhail Le-Dentu and the two avant-garde artists Kirill and Ilia Zdanevich. In 1913, Zdanevich publishes a text about Pirosmani in the newspaper Zakavkazskaia Rech, and starts to promote his art in Tbilisi and Moscow. He also collects Pirosmani’s works, owning up to 50 paintings by the artist, which he eventually loses to the Soviet State. Today, roughly 200 of Pirosmani’s paintings are accounted for.

The Society of Georgian Painters, founded in 1916 by Dito Shevardnadze, invites Pirosmani to join its meetings, but his relations with the society and the other artists remain uneasy. One of the members goes so far as to publish a caricature of him, to Pirosmani’s great offense. Greatly impoverished, Pirosmani dies in 1918. Today, he is considered the most famous artist of Georgia and his portrait decorates the Georgian 1-Lari bill.