The 19th century was the most complex and transient time in Bulgarian history and its artistic heritage. Over a span of some one hundred years, art traversed the path from medieval figurativeness to becoming affiliated with contemporary European visual culture. The first stage of this multi-layered process was characterised by the emergence and development of the secular easel portrait, which was the main genre in Bulgarian art during the epoch of the National Revival.
The earliest examples in this collection are: ‘Portrait of Neophyte of Rila’ (1848)—the first secular portrait in our country—‘Self-portrait’ and ‘Portrait of Hristiyania Zografska’ with which Zahari Zograf (1810–1853) laid the beginnings, and determined the character, of the National Revival secular portrait. Zahari Zograf’s rich archive of his free, preparatory sketches, as well as a large number of etchings by Western European artists, are also kept in the graphic collection of the gallery. They are evidence of the artist’s purposeful interest in, and his endeavour to acquire knowledge of, art beyond the traditional Balkan range.
The works of the masters of the next generation, who established themselves in the 1860s and 1870s, form a significant section of the National Revival collection. Among them were alumni of the academies in Russia, Germany, and Italy. Nikolay Pavlovich (1835–1894), who had graduated in Munich, painted, along with portraits, the first historical compositions in Bulgarian art. Most of them, as well as the artist’s archive of free and preparatory drawings, studies, oil and watercolour sketches, are in the National Gallery.
After the Liberation (1878), in the 1880s and 1890s, a new generation of artists radically changed the image of Bulgarian art. The aspiration to surmount cultural backwardness through assimilating the forms of the European tradition led them away from National Revival practice. The main disciplines in painting during that period were genre composition and the portrayal of the new urban personality. Landscape and still life, albeit more modestly, also formed part of the oeuvre of this generation.
The changes had an impact, and not only on painting. In the 1890s, Boris Schatz (1867–1932), Zheko Spiridonov (1867–1945), and Marin Vasilev (1967–1931) laid the foundations of sculpture in Bulgarian art.