On any list of unlikely museums located in unlikely places, the Nicholas Roerich Museum would likely be at the top. Hidden in plain sight on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the Museum is housed in what at first glance appears to be a residential townhouse, indistinguishable from all the other townhouses on the same block save for a small bronze plaque next to the door.
Inside, there’s no particular rhyme or reason to the display of several hundred Roerich paintings, along with sculptures, furniture and artifacts produced or collected by the Russian artist and explorer (1874–1947) who made New York City his home in the early 1920s. Imagine a beautifully intact and brilliantly maintained Manhattan mansion—sun-soaked parlors with parquet floors, arched window alcoves with stained glass, cathedral ceilings, banistered stairways, ornate fireplaces—and imagine every square inch of white wall space hung with canvases of all sizes, from the miniature to the magnificent. You wander from room to room, overwhelmed by the unwavering beauty and brilliance, never knowing exactly what you’ll discover just around the next corner or up the next flight. It’s the perfect metaphor, really, for Roerich’s travels and passions—it’s the journey, not the destination, although the destination at the Roerich Museum never ceases to amaze.
On a first floor landing, above a mantle or beside a bookcase is a never-ending montage that evokes Roerich’s interest in eastern philosophies and alternate belief systems: mountains, monasteries and stupas populated with pilgrims, Krishna and Elijah, all executed in a style that echoes Georgia O’Keeffe—if Georgia O’Keeffe had wandered Tibet, Nepal and India instead of the American southwest and had been inspired by the ragged Himalaya instead of austere desert landscapes.
It’s a bright, quiet and almost spiritual space that, in the words of one visitor, “has a wonderful, positive energy.” That energy is embodied not only in the breadth and depth of his artwork but in a small metal sculpture of three circles surrounded by another that represents the Roerich Pact—aka the Pax Cultura (Cultural Peace)—an agreement spearheaded by Roerich and signed by 21 countries in 1935 urging respect for cultural treasures and institutions during conflict and war. The sculpture is the last thing you see as you exit the Museum and you’re left to wonder how an artist of Roerich’s talents—and vision—could remain so relatively unknown.
Nicholas Roerich Museum
319 West 107th Street
New York, NY 10025
Museum hours: Tuesday–Friday, 12–5 p.m., Saturday–Sunday, 2–5 p.m. Closed Mondays and holidays