Some prolific Ukrainian artists are steadily disappearing into the mists of history. For Petro Nilus (1869–1943) this has been compounded by his use of multiple names: you’ll see his paintings attributed to Pyotr Nilus, Piotr Nilouss, and even Peter Alexandrovitch Nilouss, who are in fact all the same person. Like so many Ukrainian artists, he’s also almost universally described as being Russian, despite his origins and strong associations with Odesa.
Nilus was born near Balta in the south-west of Ukraine, towards the border with Moldova. As a child, he moved to Odesa, where he attended classes taught by Kyriak Kostandi in the Odesa Art School. He then went on to study at the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg, but appears to have been active in Odesa for much of his career before 1920.
His painting of two women in Autumn from 1893 may well have been painted on the Black Sea coast.
Over the Sea from 1905 shows a couple in more modern dress enjoying the view over a bay in calmer weather.
A Street, thought to be from the early years of the twentieth century, shows crowds of pedestrians in their winter coats, in an avenue of a large city, with an open carriage at the far right.
Three Women in the Park (c 1910) is one of his nocturnes, exploring the unusual light with a bright moon behind a mysterious circular cloud formation. The women are also wearing historic rather than contemporary dress.
On the Bridge (c 1910) is clearly set in summer, with a well-dressed couple standing on a small and rather rickety wooden jetty leading to a building at the right. This could again be on the Black Sea coast.
From 1910, his style changed from Impressionist with a reduction in detail and the use of higher chroma.
On the Beach (c 1910) is richer in colour, and this time shows a small bay with a rocky beach, in summer. There may be clues to the presence of the artist in the straw boater and walking stick on the boat at the right.
In 1920, during the Russian Civil War, he emigrated to Paris, where he worked until he died there during the Second World War, in 1943.
Nilus is believed to have painted this Sunny Day in the Bois de Boulogne in the nineteen-twenties. Here his brushstrokes are visible and carefully organised to texture the foliage. This large public park in the city of Paris has retained substantial woodland, and is more than twice the size of New York’s Central Park.
In the nineteen-thirties, Nilus, now exclusively signing his paintings with the Romanised name Nilouss, turned to series of still lifes.
He painted Vegetables and Pitcher in his White Series in about 1932. Its white tablecloth appears hilly and furrowed at the right, and the reflection of tomatoes on the knife in the centre makes it appear covered in blood after a murder.
Sliced Tomatoes and Green Tablecloth, also from his White Series but undated, is in similar style.
Today his paintings are quite frequently encountered for sale in auction houses, although you’ll have to look him up under each of his names.
Andrey Kurkov and others (2022) Treasures of Ukraine, A Nation’s Cultural Heritage, Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978 0 500 02603 8.
Konstantin Akinsha and others (2022) In the Eye of the Storm, Modernism in Ukraine 1900-1930s, Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978 0 500 29715 5.