The portrait of Dr. Peter Beron, and the drawings that paved the way to its painting, have a remarkable story to tell among the rich gallery of secular portraits produced by Nikolai Pavlovitch. These drawings (also property of the National Gallery) were made from life in 1859, and helped preserve for future generations the likeness of a person of multiple talents and rare encyclopedic mind, a generous contributor to the education in his homeland: Dr. Peter Beron (1799 – 1871), the man who built a bridge between Bulgarian Revival and European scholarly thought, and who published his most popular work, a schoolbook called Riben Bukvar (“Fish Primer”, a book of various instructions) as early as 1824.
The scholar, already prominent, and the future artist first met most probably in 1854, in Vienna, where Pavlovitch studied at the Art Academy. He continued his education in Vienna for another year, on Dr. Peter Beron’s financial support, then enlisted in the Munich Art Academy. In the autumn of 1858, the two of them travelled to Craiova, Romania, where Pavlovitch produced illustrations, in color, for Dr. Beron’s scholarly books and more notably, for his Cosmo-Biographical Atlas and Cosmo-Biological Atlas. The correspondence between the two men that has survived for us to see, shows that Pavlovitch was sending to Beron certain amounts of money from the sales of his lithographic cycles on historical topics. Thus he paid back a portion of the support he received as a student, to continue his education. The closeness between the two of them and the respect they felt for each other is evident in the way they addressed each other in their letters: „Most virtuous sir, Dr. Peter Beron…Your humble and always listening N. Pavlovlitch“; „Yours as a brother, P. Beron“.
This is what the artist shares in a letter of February 13, 1886, to Dr. Beron’s nephew: “To G. S. R. Beron, During the this past year, 1885, I moved to live in Sofia, due to which reason I transported from Svishtov certain papers and books in my possession. Among these I found, quite fortuitously, the sketch of our late old man, Dr. Beron’s portrait, which, as I once mentioned to you, I made hastily and surreptitiously in Craiova while the late was talking to me and examining an astronomic drawing I had made by his explanations. And thus, we, or rather our Bulgarian world, will have perpetually the likeness of this remarkable man. Regards, N. Pavlovitch“
The artist actually produced two paintings – the smaller one is now in possession of the National Gallery, and the larger one, 147 х 117 cm, was obtained by the Ministry of Education, but was destroyed during the bombings of Sofia, in 1944.
Dr. Peter Beron was portrayed from one side – probably this was the only way the artist could make a quick pencil sketch without being detected, as the scholar would not allow to be photographed or portrayed. In contrast to the other portraits by Pavlovitch, where his models are represented in neutral setting, the model here is shown in his natural environment, and the composition evolves around a number of emblematic objects from the scholar’s study: his work table, with books and papers, some measuring devices; a tall bookcase laden with books, and a small telescope on it; charts on the wall; a closed cupboard with glassware as in a laboratory. There are scrolls on the floor, and a wooden model of the Solar System planets. One could imagine that this was the “figure” Dr. Beron asked Pavlovitch to produce back in 1854 together with two tableaux for books.
Nikolai Pavlovitch left a rich artistic heritage – portraits, graphics and paintings on historic topics, church art. In 1867, he published his program paper titled “An Establishment for Painting: How to Organize in Bulgaria”, led by his belief that specialized art education was needed in Bulgaria following the example of other European countries. The Higher Institute of Fine Arts (today’s National Academy of Arts) bore his name from 1951 to 1995. The collection of the National Gallery owns works by the artist that were purchased in 1911, 1920, 1921 and 1939.