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Lydia Nikanorova

  • In Istanbul, Nikanorova worked at copying the mosaics and frescoes of the Kariye Mosque, and met her future husband, Georges Artemoff, also an émigré artist from the former Russian Empire.
  • Given name:
  • Last name:
  • Alternative names:

    Lydia Nicanorova, Лидия Никанорова

  • Date of Birth:
  • Place of Birth:
    Brest (BY)
  • Date of Death:
  • Place of Death:
    Lencastre (FR)
  • Profession:
  • Introduction:

    In Istanbul, Nikanorova worked at copying the mosaics and frescoes of the Kariye Mosque, and met her future husband, Georges Artemoff, also an émigré artist from the former Russian Empire.

    Word Count: 30

  • Signature Image:
    Lydia Nikanorova and her husband Georges Artemoff in Clamart, France (Private Archive of Marie Artemoff-Testa).
  • Content:

    Lydia Nikanorova's first stop as an émigré was Istanbul, where she worked at copying the mosaics and frescoes of the Kariye Mosque/Chora Church. In Istanbul, she met her future husband, Georges Artemoff, also an émigré artist from the former Russian Empire.

    Born into a poor military family, Nikanorova lived in several different cities before moving to today’s St. Petersburg. There she studied mathematics while also taking painting lessons at the studio of Mstislav Dobuzhinsky and Alexandre Jacovleff. Later, she lived for a while in Yalta, and it was from there that she fled by ship to Istanbul in 1920. In Istanbul, she worked in a variety of low-paying jobs but, despite financial difficulties, did not give up painting. She was one of the few female members of the Union of Russian Painters in Constantinople and exhibited her works in at least two of its exhibitions, in June 1922 (Exhibition of Russian émigré artists at Taksim Military Barracks) and in June 1923. Russian critics in Istanbul were not impressed with the landscapes she showed in 1923 and believed that Nikanorova had yet to discover her artistic path and style. Nevertheless, some of the work she presented in 1922 –  namely, copies of frescoes and mosaics from the Kariye Mosque/Chora Church – were later purchased by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It is known that Nikanorova not only worked on copying the frescoes and mosaics in Kariye but also visited this Byzantine monument several times in the company of her friends, including Georges Artemoff, Sergei Bulgakov, and Nikolai Kluge. Judging by the following lines from Veniamin Kaverin (a writer who collected letters, memoirs and autobiographies for his fiction books) in his novel In Front of the Mirror, published in 1972 and for a long time considered the main Russian language source on Nikanorova’s life, travelling to Kariye alone was sometimes dangerous: “It was a long way, almost one hour to the city, along the Golden Horn, and then another hour by tramway. But it was better not to shorten the way, like last week, when, having lost her way, she asked a Turk of about sixteen years old to escort her to Kariye Mosque, and he led her with very bad intentions into the ruins of the Byzantine walls: 'Ruski, Ruski, haydi, canım. Come here’. It's a good thing she turned out to be stronger than him” (Kaverin 1972, 181). From the same novel, we learn that the artist usually paid a muezzin 20 piastres (kuruş) to work in Kariye, although there was one occasion when another muezzin demanded five times more (Kaverin 1972, 176). These situations demonstrate how the unsafeness of the city significantly hampered female émigré artists’ ability to work in Byzantine monuments, and explains why many of them preferred to give lessons to rich local children instead of working the way they were used to doing in the former Russian Empire. However, it has transpired that Kaverin, who was believed to have written his novel based on Nikanorova’s letters to her mathematician friend Pavel Bezsonov, in fact, most likely wrote it mainly based on her friend’s answers, since Nikanorova’s letters from Istanbul have not survived (Kulakova 2017, 489–490). So, there is a high probability that he was making up a lot of things for his heroine, and that the scene on the road to Kariye could also be a figment of his imagination. Asia V. Kulakova also maintains that, while in Istanbul, Nikanorova turned to Byzantine art mainly in order to understand and work on the technique, rather than out of a spiritual rethinking of art, as indicated in Kaverin’s novel (Kulakova 2017, 493). In addition, again according to Asia V. Kulakova, in order to reinforce the feeling of loneliness and uselessness abroad, Kaverin preferred not to mention that the French archaeologist and historian Gabriel Millet repeatedly invited Nikanorova to present a paper as part of the courses he taught on Byzantium at the Sorbonne (Kulakova 2017, 491).

    With the aforementioned artist Georges Artemoff, who was also a member of the Union of Russian Painters in Constantinople, Nikanorova had what was at first a friendly relationship that over time turned romantic. As a memento of this relationship, there is a photograph taken in Istanbul in 1922/23, where Nikanorova, in an elegant dress, is posing for Artemoff. In later years, Georges Artemoff would produce many more portraits of Lydia Nikanorova, after the couple's move to France, where they married and made art in Paris and Corsica, and also travelled together from time to time. This continued until 1938, when Lydia Nikanorova died of cancer at the age of forty-three.

    Word Count: 759

  • Media:
    Lydia Nikanorova and her husband Georges Artemoff in Clamart, France (Private Archive of Marie Artemoff-Testa).
    Georges Artemoff painting Lydia Nikanorova’s portrait in Istanbul (Private Archive of Marie Artemoff-Testa).
    Émigré artists at Caveau Caucasien in Paris. From left to right: Sandro Minervine, Serge Pimenoff, Lydia Nikanorova, Georges Artemoff (Private Archive of Marie Artemoff-Testa).
    Self-portrait by Lydia Nikanorova (Private Archive of Marie Artemoff-Testa).
    Small house in Clamart, France, by Lydia Nikanorova (Private Archive of Marie Artemoff-Testa).
  • Bibliography (selected):

    Anonymous. “Vystavka Soyuza Russkih Hudojnikov.” Presse du Soir, 19 June 1922, n.p.

    Artemoff-Testa, Marie. “Bonifacio ‘Les Belles Années’. Lydia Andreïevna Nikanorova: Une femme d’exception, un destin tragique.” (Unpublished text, sent to Ekaterina Aygün by Marie Artemoff-Testa, n.d.).

    Kaverin, Veniamin. Pered Zerkalom. Sovetskiy pisatel’, 1972.

    Kulakova, Asia V. “The Image of Byzantium in the Novel In Front of the Mirror by Veniamin Kaverin.” Slověne, vol. 6, no. 1, 2017, pp. 485–497.

    Lesca, Pierre. “Georges Artemoff, un peintre et sculpteur russe à Toulouse.” L’AUTA, June 2011, pp. 233–236. Gallica, Accessed 26 February 2021.

    Ted’. “K Vystavke Hudojnikov.” Presse du Soir, 29 June 1923, n.p.

    Word Count: 107

  • Archives and Sources:

    Private Archive of Marie Artemoff-Testa, France.

    Slavonic Library (Slovanská knihovna) in Prague.

    Word Count: 12

  • Acknowledgements:

    My deepest thanks go to Marie Artemoff-Testa for her valuable comments and help.

    Word Count: 13

  • Author:
    Ekaterina Aygün
  • Exile:

    Istanbul, Ottoman Empire/Turkey (1920–1923); France (1924–1938).

  • Known addresses in Metromod cities:

    Khedive's Palace/Hıdiv Kasrı, Çubuklu, Beykoz, Istanbul (place of work, as a translator, 1921); Kariye Mosque, Fatih, Istanbul ("place of work"); Küçük Yazıcı 4 (now presumably Tarlabaşı Blv. 79), Hüseyinağa, Beyoğlu, Istanbul (studio).

  • Metropolis:
  • Ekaterina Aygün. "Lydia Nikanorova." METROMOD Archive, 2021,, last modified: 16-09-2021.
  • Georges Artemoff

    It is difficult to say to what extent Istanbul was a fateful impact on Artemoff in terms of his artwork, but there he met his future wife, artist Lydia Nikanorova.

    Word Count: 30

    Nikolai Kluge
    PainterPhotographerArt restorerArchaeologistCopyist

    As a non-regular employee at the Russian Archaeological Institute of Constantinople before the Russian Revolution, Nikolai Kluge was perhaps the émigré artist most familiar with Istanbul.

    Word Count: 26

    Russkiy v Konstantinopole/Le Russe à Constantinople

    The guide-book was created for Russian-speaking refugees who had to leave their country and settle in Constantinople.

    Word Count: 17

    Exhibition of Russian émigré artists at Taksim Military Barracks

    The exhibition of Russian-speaking émigré artists at Taksim Military Barracks was the first major exhibition organised by the Union of Russian Painters in Constantinople.

    Word Count: 24

    Union of Russian Painters in Constantinople

    The Union existed for less than two years but in that short space of time a tremendous amount of work was done by its members, refugees from the Russian Empire.

    Word Count: 30