No. 11/2002 - November 2002
Editor: Fran Bock

This article is part of a continuing series of essays on distinguished Jews of Belarus.

We thank Vitaly Charny for his contributions to this series and for his permission to publish this article here.

For more information about the author, please go to the conclusion of this article.

Reprinting or copying of this article is not allowed
without prior permission from the copyrightholders


Konstantin Shapiro (1840-1900)

Court Photographer of Russian Art

by Vitaly Charny

Konstantin (Osher) Aleksandrovich Shapiro was born in Grodno, Russia (now Hrodna, Belarus) in 1840, to a Jewish Orthodox family. As a teenager his family disapproved of his attraction to the ideas of haskalah (enlightening) and his interest in writing poetry. Shapiro left his hometown for Vienna, where he studied under a leader of maskilim (Jewish free thinkers) - Smolenskin.

Old postcard with street view in Grodno

At the same time he learned about photography and later moved to the Russian capital, St.Peterburg. Even though Jews were generally forbidden to live there, he was allowed to stay because his craft was not widely known at that time.

He was very poor from the beginning and struggled to make a living. He got ill but survived and fell in love with a Russian Christian girl who looked after him. He converted to Russian Orthodoxy so they could get married. Gradually he became a popular photographer. His love of literature and art made him close to leading Russian writers, artists and musicians. In 1880 his work appeared in the St.Peterburg Portrait Gallery of Russian Writers, Scientists and Actors. Critics wrote about too much retouching, which was true but also was common practice at the time. Depicted celebrities, however, made positive comments. Shapiro was officially listed in the business directory as Academy of the Fine Arts Photographer.

On the portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (see below) the address of his photo studio is written as Nevsky Prospect - the most fashionable avenue in St.Petersburg. The photographer's name is spelled in French: Constantin Chapirau.

Soon Shapiro became an "Emperor Court Photographer". He took photos of the Tsar's family and the even less approachable Count Leo Tolstoy, the great writer. In 1884 Shapiro published an album with 30 works of artistic photography. The edition was highly praised by Russia's great art critic V.Stasov, who was considered the godfather of Russian culture in the second half of the19th century. Soon Shapiro received a gold medal for an exhibition of his work in Vienna, Austria. Konstantin Shapiro was one of the first Russians to use his works as illustration for works of fiction - for example "Madman's Diary" by N.V.Gogol. He also began to take sets of pictures from theater performances to show actors in different moments of the performance.

Despite his conversion and life in the capital, Shapiro wrote and published a lot of Hebrew poetry. After the wave of pogroms in the 1880s he wrote Hebrew and Russian poems and articles related to the tragic fate of Jewish people in Russia. His Hebrew poetry was characterized by a clear, traditional style and tells of his great poetic gifts. Through the years Shapiro became more and more captivated with memories of the patriarchal Jewish life in shtetles, and the traditions he had rejected in his childhood. His book of selected poetry, Schirim nibcharim, was published in 1911, after his death. During the Dreyfuss Affair, Shapiro wrote the epic poem Sodom, in which he describes allegorically the story that was catalytic for the Jewish minds of Russia. During the last years of his life Shapiro accepted ideas of Zionism and decided to move to Eretz Israel, but wasn't able to get there before his sudden death in 1900.

In the 15th volume of the Jewish Encyclopedia, St. Petersburg, 1913, the article about him begins: "SHAPIRO, Konstantin (Osher) Aleksandrovich, poet." In that entry his photography was regarded as a decent way to make a living but not as a main achievement of his life. A century after his death in a Short Jewish Encyclopedia, of 1996 (in Russian), he is not mentioned among poets but is first in a line of great Russian-Jewish masters in the art of photography.

The first time that Shapiro's work appeared on Russian stamps was in 1939 when four stamps were issued to honor Mikhail E. Saltykov (Shchedrin) 1826-1889.

Two of the pictures (see above) were engravings of photo-portraits taken by Shapiro in 1870. Saltykov was one of the most influential Russian authors of his time. His place among classics of Russian literature is owed to his witty satires of Russian society. Interestingly enough, most of his writings are well up to date. They still show that the ugliness of Russian society just changed its dress and vocabulary but generally stayed the same. It is rarely mentioned that Saltykov, who came from Russian aristocratic family and served as vice-Governor, was a prominent journalist writing against anti-Semitism. During pogroms and anti-Jewish May laws of 1882 Saltykov wrote in Otechestvennye Zapiski, a magazine he published, a sharp and angry article saying,

"History never wrote on its pages something more tough, more alien to humanity, more tormenting than Jewish question... There is no story more burning heart, than the story of eternal torturing of people by people... There is nothing more inhumane and mad than the tradition that comes from dark gorges of the far past and with harshness reaching idiotic self-satisfaction and passing the brand of embarrassment, alienation and hatred from century to century... Whatever a Jew will do, he always will be stigmatized. Would he convert to Christianity - he is vykrest ("cross out" - a convert); would he remain a Jew - he is stinking dog. Could you imagine the tormenting be more immoral, madder? It is enough for the most courageous man to shake in horror and send hopeless curses to his fate when imagining himself as a Jew in a nightmare."

This and other similar publications by Saltykov inflicted on him the exasperation of the anti-Semitic press. The article wasn't even included in an 8-volume edition of his complete works published after his death. I found the citations in Russian Jewish Encyclopedia of 1913.

In 1954 a stamp (sc#1746) was issued to commemorate the 100th Birth Anniversary of Maximilian Garshin, a brilliant Russian author who died young (see below).

A well-educated young man, Garshin served as a volunteer through the Balkan War of the 1870s, became an officer, and was wounded in Bulgaria during the country's liberation from the Ottoman Empire. Garshin wrote novels and short stories that made him popular among the younger generation, who called him the "Russian Hamlet". The picture was taken not long before his death when Garshin was in deep depression and couldn't overcome his insanity that had already kept him in a mental asylum for 2 years.

In 1951 the USSR postal authorities issued a stamp (sc #1554) in honor of the 175th Anniversary of Bolshoy Theater, the pride and glory of Russian music.

There are five portraits of great composers on the stamp (see above), above a picture of the theater building. They are Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Borodin. Shapiro did the portrait of Borodin (on the bottom right), who is celebrated for his music to the opera "Prince Igor". "Polovtsian Dances" from the opera is one of the eminent pieces of classical music, and its theme was used for the well-known American song "Stranger in Paradise". Besides composing music, Borodin was also a physician and a great scientist in the field of organic chemistry. Shapiro, who himself divided his time between poetry and photography, especially respected him.

In 1960 Russia celebrated the 100th Birth Anniversary of Anton P. Chekhov, one of the best-known Russian authors of the 19th century. His short stories and works for theater became almost instant classics. Shapiro made the portrait of Chekhov (see below) when he was still young, in the beginning of his fame. The stamp's (sc #2297) background is the house in Moscow where Chekhov lived at that time. Now it is a museum.

About the Author


Vitaly Charny was born and brought up in Minsk, and came to the US with his family as political refugees in 1989. Educated at Belarus State University with a major in Nuclear Physics, he has worked here as a librarian, a lizard breeder, and a programmer-analyst for a Computer Science Corporation. Vitaly's hobbies and interests are varied, including philately (with Judaica as one of the topics); butterflies and dragonflies monitoring and photography; Jewish history of the Russian Empire/ USSR, military history, and the history of Russian Art; hiking; Jewish genealogy, including the origin and distribution of Jewish surnames in Minsk Gubernia; aquariums, terrariums, and wild flowers.   

Copyright 2002 Belarus SIG and Vitaly Charny

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