Niko Pirosmanashvili (this is the full form of the artist’s surname. He is generally known, however, as Pirosmani.) was born in 1862 (perhaps on May 5) into a poor peasant family. Accordingly, his earliest and strongest childhood impressions were those of the Georgian countryside. Yet he spent nearly all of his life in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), a large city where he arrived as a small orphaned boy. He developed a passion for drawing at an early age, but his progress towards his chosen field proved long and laborious.
His whole life was a chain of intermittent ascents and descents, of illusions and disenchantments, of contradictory, even preposterous actions – all indicating an impetuous character and an ungoverned temperament, which made him a homeless pauper and eventually led him to a solitary death (his grave has never been discovered). Yet one can read a diferent story into his life: that of a man with a prodigious talent whose only instinct was to obey his call, casting off all temptation and surmounting every obstacle to achieve self-expression; a man who reached his goal of full creative freedom and who finally dissolved his very self to serve that goal and thus achieved truly phenomenal self-expression. Pirosmani tried his hand at a number of occupations: he tried to set up an establishment to paint shop signs, worked as a railway guide, engaged (indeed, quite successfully) in trade until the urge to paint became irrepressible. He then dropped everything to be an artist; not an amateur who paints in his leisure hours but a professional who lives by his brush. This turning point came only in the artist’s late thirties, coinciding with the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In a few years he made a name for himself in the part of Tiflis which is centered round the railway station and which henceforth became his one and only retreat. Pirosmani was not a painter in the way we understand that term; not somebody who shuts himself up in his studio to follow his vocation. He had a large clientèle made up of the owners of small shops and pubs, and painted signs for these establishments, for bear-houses and, most often, for the dukhans (popular small Caucasian restaurants). For the same clientèle he provided large paintings and murals, and also painted window panes. Occasionally he performed simpler tasks, such as whitewashing a wall, renovating a number on a house façade or giving a wheel-barrow a new coat of paint. A painting career of this kind was not at all extraordinary in Tiflis. At that time the city had a regular amkar (guild) that engaged precisely in this work. Pirosmani, however, did not fit properly into this age-old system.

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