The Upper West Side—the antithesis of counter-culture, as far as neighborhoods go—may be an unlikely place to find a museum dedicated to the life and work of an obscure Russian painter and occultist. But that’s where the Nicholas Roerich Museum is situated. Now you know! Go ye and discover!

Housed in a elegant early twentieth-century brownstone, the museum fills three floors with a substantial selection of Roerich’s paintings. (It boasts around two hundred total.) There are also selections form his personal collection of sacred statuary and relics gathered during his travels through the Himalayas.


In Roerich’s tempera painted world you will find depictions of the mythic underground city of Agartha, legends from sanskrit, demons, heroes, and rituals held among fantastical, angular mountains. They are steeped in Tibetan mysticism and European Romanticism, suggesting that these works might be allegories of the artist’s own spiritual cosmology. (Roerich’s art and writings are influenced by Theosophy and the Bhagavad Gita in equal measure.)


Above any other formal qualities that these paintings have, the vibrance of Roerich’s palette is startling. Favoring a saturated palette of fiery orange, crimson, and lapis blue, Roerich’s real magic is his application of jewel-like colors that leap from the wall.

A standout work is Roerich’s “Burning of Darkness,” from 1924, where a procession of white robed figures are on a nocturnal march through some jagged rocks, led by a single man who holds a glowing box. The work is cryptic in its imagery but doubly mysterious because of its almost monochromatic orchestration of blue. This play of color makes “Burning of Darkness” look like a color-field painting by Yves Klein from a distance.

"Burning in Darkness" (1924), tempera on canvas.

“Burning in Darkness” (1924), tempera on canvas.

Apart from showcasing these masterful paintings, the museum’s light-filled rooms often host intimate classical music performances, held for free, by local talents. It was Roerich’s belief that art and cultural experience were intertwined with the development of world peace and the evolution of society. Thus, the museum actively endeavors to keep these beliefs in practice through events and by offering affordable copies of Roerich’s books. (Alessandro Keegan)

In other good news, the Nicholas Roerich Museum is always free. It is located at 319 West 107th Street, open Saturday–Sunday2–5 p.m.Tuesday–Friday, noon–5 p.m., and closed on Mondays.