Nikolay Samokish was born in Nizhyn, Chernihiv Governorate, Ukraine. In 1879—1885, he studied at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts (under B. Villevalde), in 1886—1889 he studied in private studios in Paris. In 1885, he received a Large Golden Medal and the title of the 1st degree class artist. Academician of the Academy of Arts since 1890, in 1912—1917 he taught at the Academy of Arts, supervised the class of battle painting. Since 1913 the artist has been the professor-director of the Higher Art School at the Academy of Arts, full member of the Academy of Arts. In 1936—1941 he worked at the Kharkiv Art Institute. The honoured Artist of the RSFSR, in 1941, he was awarded the USSR State Prize. The author of a number of works on the history of the Zaporizhian Cossacks, together with S. Vasilkovsky he worked on illustrations for albums on the history of Ukraine. He lived and worked in St. Petersburg, Kharkiv, Simferopol.
Nikolay Samokish was born on 13 (25) November 1860 in Nizhyn. He graduated from the Nizhyn classical gymnasium. The first attempt to enter the Imperial Academy of Arts failed, but he was accepted as a volunteer to the battle painting workshop of Professor B. P. Villevalde (1878). After a year of classes, he was accepted as a student. He studied at the Imperial Academy of Arts (1879—1885) under B. P. Villevalde, his other famous teachers were P. P. Chistyakov and V. I. Jacobi.
He began to achieve success quickly. Already in 1881 he received his Small Golden Medal for the Return of Troops to Their Homeland painting. In 1882, he published his first album of etchings made under the direction of L. E. Dmitriev-Kavkazsky. The next year, in 1883, he received the S. G. Stroganov prize for the Landowners at the Fair painting. In 1884 he was awarded the second Small Golden Medal for the Episode from the Battle of Maly Yaroslavets painting, while The Walk painting was acquired by P. M. Tretyakov for his gallery. In 1885, for his diploma work titled “The Russian Cavalry Returns After an Attack on the Enemy Near Austerlitz in 1805 he received a Large Golden Medal and the title of 1st degree class artist. From 1885 to 1888, he perfected himself in Paris under the guidance of the famous battle-painter Édouard Detaille. In 1890, he was awarded the title of Academician for his The Tabun of the Oryol Trotter Queens (the Novotomnikovsky stud, Tambov Governorate).
In 1888, he traveled to the Caucasus to collect materials for paintings ordered by the Tiflis Military History Museum. He created three canvases: The Battle of Avliar, The Battle of the Iori River, Defense of the Naur Village, which brought him fame as a battle painter.
P. F. Iseev, conference secretary of the Academy of Arts, showed Samokish’s drawings to Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, the former president of the Academy. He presented the drawings to the heir, Nikolai Alexandrovich. The young artist was recommended for sketching manoeuvres at the military department. He started his work in 1890. “Thus I stepped on my path of illustrated work; I did not even suspect how I would get involved in this activity and devote most of my time to this work, occasionally painting for exhibitions,” he later wrote in his diary.
In 1889, he married Elena Petrovna Sudkovskaya, née Besnard. In marriage, she adopted the double surname Samokish-Sudkovskaya. Elena Petrovna Samokish-Sudkovskaya (1863—1924) was a famous book illustrator, a student of V. P. Vereshchagin. She illustrated a lot of A. S. Pushkin's literary works. Her illustrations for Ershov’s fairy tale The Little Humpbacked Horse are very famous. In 1896, she received the Highest award and Medal on a Blue Ribbon for her drawings for the Coronation Collection. The couple worked together at times, as they both participated in the preparation of an illustrated edition of Gogol’s Dead Souls (A. F. Marx printing house, 1901). The walls of one of the halls of the Viciebsk railway station (the original name was Tsarskoselsky), erected in 1901—1904, are decorated with panels by N. S. Samokish and E. P. Samokish-Sudkovskaya dedicated to the history of the Tsarskoselskaya railway. Elena Petrovna died in exile in Paris. Together with S. Vasilkovsky, N. S. Samokish worked on illustrations for albums on the history of Ukraine (1898—1900). He drew thousands of book and magazine illustrations. Among them are illustrations to the works of A. Pushkin (Poltava), Leo Tolstoy (Kholstomer), N. V. Gogol, Marko Vovchok, L. A. Mei, I. S. Nechuy-Levytskyi , M. Horban and others.
Among his most famous works are illustrations and decoration of literary sketches for N. I. Kutepov’s The Grand Ducal, Tsarist and Imperial Hunting in Russia, 4 volumes (1896—1911). Léon Bakst, A. K. Beggrov, A. N. Benois, A. M. Vasnetsov, V. M. Vasnetsov, E. E. Lanceray, K. V. Lebedev, A. P. Ryabushkin, Ilya Repin, V. I. Surikov, F. A. Roubaud, L. O. Pasternak, K. A. Savitsky, V. A. Serov, A. S. Stepanov participated in illustrating the book. Lithographs from the works by J. Dow, V. G. Schwartz, F. G. Solntsev, A. D. Litovchenko were also used. But the design of the entire publication was entrusted to N. S. Samokish. In particular, he personally made 173 illustrations for 4 volumes of The Hunting. This edition brought the artist fame as an animal painter.
Many different illustrations were published in the magazines Niva and Solntse Rossii. On the instructions of Niva in May 1904, he went to the front of the Russian-Japanese war and worked there as an artist until the end of 1904. The result of his trip to the war was Samokish’s album “War 1904—1905. From the artist’s diary”. In addition to the album of drawings based on front-line impressions, he created some paintings. The most famous of them is Liaoyang. 18 August 1904. The canvas, dedicated to one of the most brutal battles between the Russian and Japanese armies, was placed in the military gallery of the Winter Palace in 1910.
In 1912, Russia celebrated the 100th anniversary of the French invasion of Russia in 1812. For this jubilee N. S. Samokish created a series of drawings for the Niva magazine — a number of successive episodes, the main battles and campaigns of the Russian army: from Crossing the Neman on 12 June 1812 to Napoleon Leaves His Army in Smorgon on 3 November 1812. The works The Attack on the Shevardino Redoubt and The Feat of General Raevsky’s Soldiers in the Battle of Saltanovka, painted for the anniversary, gained their fame.
In 1915, N. S. Samokish formed an “art squad” of five students of the battle painting class of the Academy of Arts (R. R. Frentz, P. I. Kotov, P. V. Miturich, P. D. Pokarzhevsky, K. D. Trofimenko) and went to the front of the First World War. This is a unique case in the history of art: artistic practice at the frontline. About 400 works were made. Samokish’s drawings were (partially) published in The Great War in Images and Pictures (1915) and To Russian Heroes of Serbia and Montenegro (1915) publications by D. Makovsky. According to some historians, it was Samokish’s book that contributed to propagation of the name “the Great War” (in relation to the First World War), which later, combined with the “Patriotic War” (used for the war with Napoleon in 1812), gave the name to the “Great Patriotic War”, as Russians call the World War II.
Horses occupy a special place in the art of Samokish. His horses are world famous. He was awarded for his images of horses (he was elected an academician for his Tabun of the Trotter Queens, was awarded a medal of the World Exhibition for his Four Horses turning, etc.), but not only. They scolded him for his love of drawing horses, they wrote that he was a “hack” and “repeated” in his “battle and horse” drawings.
Here follows what N. S. Samokish himself wrote on 24 April 1929 to his future student, Red Army soldier, veteran of the Separate Cavalry Division Mark Domashchenko: “Your love for the horse and the cavalry finds its lively response in my soul because I love them both as an artist and as a former cavalryman (in the Japanese War). I work in this direction to this day, I consider horses to be noble and beautiful creatures and try to portray them not only from the outside, but also to convey its psyche, its impulse, which is the most beautiful of a horse; even a galloping nag is beautiful and picturesque.”
He taught all his life since 1894, when he was invited to the Drawing School, where he taught drawing and painting for 23 years. Russian illustrators still use the N. S. Samokish’s textbook “Pen Drawing” to study. He was a member of the Imperial Academy of Arts (1913), where he taught from 1912, professor, head of the battle painting class in 1913—1918.
Among his students were famous artists: M. I. Avilov, P. I. Kotov, P. V. Miturich, G. K. Savitsky, K. Trokhimenko, L. Chernov.
He taught at the Academy of Arts until 1918, when the Council of People’s Commissars of the RSFSR abolished the old Academy and created Free State Art Studios on its basis. Before his departure, he taught these courses as well.
In the 1920—1930s he worked in the Crimea.
In 1918—1921 he lived in Yevpatoria (where he created more than 30 paintings), since 1922 — in Simferopol. He created his own art studio in Simferopol (Samokish studio), which became the main regional centre for art education. He gathered and supported talented youth. Among his Simferopol students, there were People’s Artist of Ukraine Yakiv Oleksandrovych Basov (studied with Samokish from 1922 to 1931), Amet Ustaev, Maria Vikentiivna Novykova, Mark Domashchenko and many others. The Resolution of the Council of People's Commissars of the Crimea No. 192 of 28 June 1937 “On the reorganization of the Academician N. S. Samokish studio into the Honored Art Worker Academician N. S. Samokish State Secondary Art School” organized the Crimean Art School on the basis of the Samokish studio. In 1960, one of the streets of Simferopol was also named after Samokish. A memorial plaque was installed on the house No. 32 on this street, which reads: “In this house, in 1922—1944, lived the academician of battle painting N. S. Samokish.”
In 1936—1941 he worked at the Kharkiv Art Institute. Samokish is connected with the history of Kharkiv art education “from its very beginning” — from the first building. In 1904, Kharkiv began to “resolve the issue” of building the City School of Drawing and Painting. S. V. Vasilkovsky and N. S. Samokish put forward a condition that the façades of the building must be created using Ukrainian architectural motives. The City Duma was against it. Finally, the resistance of the Duma was overcome, the façade after the project by K. N. Zhukov won the competition — he presented a Ukrainian Modern project. The building was completed in 1912—1913. In November 1912, the Ukrainian autonomous artistic and architectural department was formed under the chairmanship of S.V. Vasilkovsky at the Kharkiv literary and artistic group. And N. S. Samokish, of course, was a member of this department from the very beginning. The main task of the department was considered to be the continuation and development of Ukrainian and South Russian artistic traditions. The group worked until 1919. Ilya Repin was an honorary member of the group. In Kharkiv, on Mironosytska street, there has been preserved a house from those tomes (1911—1912), its entrance was painted by S. V. Vasilkovsky and N. S. Samokish.
Therefore, he’s come full circle: in 1936—1941, Samokish was again in Kharkiv, professor at the Art Institute. Now in Kharkiv, there is a Samokish provulok (between Danilevskoho and Kultury streets, next to the Naukova metro station).
The artist was a member of the AKhRR (Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia) since 1923. The Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia was established in 1922. From the moment of its creation, one of the closest students of Samokish, a participant in the frontline trip in 1914, P. I. Kotov, was its member. The Declaration of the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia declared the artist’s civic duty to “documentarily capture the greatest moment in history in its revolutionary impulse”.
The Soviet government respected the artist’s achievements and marked them with honorary titles, prizes, and orders. During the Soviet period, the artist created canvases about the Red Army and the liberation struggle of the Ukrainian and Russian peoples: In Intelligence (1923), Machine-gun tachanka (1930), Fight Maxim Krivonos With Jeremiah Vishnevetsky (1934), The Red Army Crossing the Sivash Lagoon (1935), N. A. Shchors in the battle near Chernihiv (1938) and others.
The repressions of the 1930s did not affect the artist personally. And yet, some sources report that at the end of his life, N. S. Samokish was on the verge of arrest. During the German occupation of Crimea (1941—1944), he remained in Simferopol. “He sold his paintings in order not to die of hunger. The main buyers were German and Romanian officers, which was the reason for the accusation of treason. Death saved him from imprisonment”. The artist died in Simferopol on 18 January 1944.