Nadežda Petrović: Story of an Ordinary Woman Who Became Outstanding


It is a special year for Serbia. Throughout the whole year, there are themed exhibitions, manifestations and conferences, dedicated to one person and her story, in order to honour an anniversary of her death. She was a Serbian artist born in Čačak, a humanitarian and best known for her important role as a nurse in the First Balkan war and the First World War. Her name is Nadežda Petrović and it has been exactly 100 years since she passed away due to the consequences of the infectious diseases typhus and cholera, which she contracted helping wounded in war.

It is rather strange to see what perspective about history and the past do modern people have. History is seen as our collective experience, but we perceive it as something that has passed and reached a finishing point. We have knowledge of main battles and wars, of migrations and main events. We watch lists of names of people that lost their lives in wars, endless lists of important dates and somewhere along the way – we lose awareness of the fact that those were real people, of flesh and blood, that were much more than just a paragraph in our history books. History is actually an endless process. It is important to learn from it. Nadežda Petrović is one of the many who are somewhat marginalised and never got a full recognition for their work. The greatness of this heroine is that she never asked for it, which is a proof of her full and honest nobleness.

Nadežda Petrović lived only for 42 years. She never had a husband, although it seems she never wanted one. Her mother wanted her to get married. In a letter to her mother, Nadežda said:

I am not looking for love, nor a husband, nor a man, nor a heart and respect. I am living only for myself and my parents … I want to be a painter, not just a wife, there are a lot of wives out there… If you really want me to be happy, then just ask me to be a painter, not a bride.

Nadežda was fortunate to be born in a well situated family and to get a good and proper education. Her father, Dimitrije, was an art teacher – a wealthy and respected man. Her mother, Mileva, worked as a teacher, which wasn’t that common back in those days. So, Nadežda grew up surrounded with people who were erudite and she had all the needed conditions to become a great artist. Her family was united under the idea of unification of South Slavs into a single state (the idea of unique and united country, Yugoslavia). After Serbia, she pursued her education in Munich and Paris, which affected her art. We can clearly see the influences from these different periods, so her artwork can be divided into three periods as well: Munich period (1898-1903), Serbian period (1903-1910), Paris period (1910-1912), but also the fourth one, War period (1912-1915).

Nadežda Petrović in considered to be one of the most important Balkan artists of that period. Her works belong to impressionism art and fauvism as well.  She declared herself as an impressionist, but many see the tendencies towards expressionism in her work.

As impressionists, Nadežda advocated working outside the studio, in order to capture the natural light that liberates and makes spontaneous movement. In her best works dominate large landscapes, and colours with impact – bright reds and complementary green. She also painted portraits and portraits with landscapes from Serbia, in patriotic spirit. Her patriotism is reflected in the frequent choice of themes from the national history.

Through all this time, Nadežda was also a humanitarian and politically active. She is the founder of the “Circle of Serbian Sisters” in 1903; she fought for women’s rights and social justice; she worked as a philanthropist. She was a fearless woman and that wasn’t typical for that time; she encouraged other women to speak for themselves too. She held a speech from the balcony of the National Theatre in Belgrade for the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by the Austro-Hungarians. She was also the first female war photographer in this area.

Nadežda spent her last years as a volunteer nurse, first in the Balkan wars, when she demanded to be to the front, so she could work in a makeshift hospital. Even during the war, she managed to paint a bit. As soon as the First World War broke out, Nadežda served as a nurse, once again – at her own request. She refused to go to the Red Cross in Switzerland, but immediately reported for duty in a hospital of Danube Division. She reported frequently to the ones left at home – this is one of the preserved postcards:

We live here surrounded with constant cries and moans of the wounded, we are bandaging wounds, listening to the victorious shouting of our heroic army and its marches; we’re welcoming them when they arrive and then follow them back into the battlefield. Yet it all goes enthusiastically, as the Turks are losing the battle, and our victory is at hand. Our soldiers are our brothers and their cries “Nurse, nurse!” – make me feel proud to be there to help.

Due to the epidemic of typhus fever, Nadežda Petrović died on the 3rd of April, 1915. While she was on her deathbed, she managed to paint the tents of Valjevo, which served as an improvised hospital for the wounded.

If you are interested to see some of art works of Nadežda Petrović, you can follow this link. Or explore the internet, for the virtual base of Nadežda’s work is really rich and well organised.


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