By Sandi Radoja
Nadežda Petrovic is described as Serbia’s most famous impressionist and fauvist, and is widely considered the greatest Serbian expressionist painter of all time.
She was born in Cacak in October 1873 to Dimitrije and Mileva Petrovic, one of nine children. Her mother was a schoolteacher who came from a prominent Serbian political family, her father was a writer who taught art and literature. One brother, Rastko, was also a writer and a diplomat. When Nadezda’s father became ill, the family moved to Kraljevo and eventually to Belgrade where she completed her higher education, graduating in 1891.
A few years later she moved to Munich to study under the legendary Anton Azbe, a Slovene realist painter and teacher, at the school he founded there. Her work was exhibited throughout Europe in the early 1900s, but such activity was interrupted for her with the outbreak of the Balkan Wars. She volunteered as a nurse in 1912, earning a Medal for Bravery, Order of the Red Cross, and the Order of St. Sava.
Her good deeds came at a costly price as she contracted typhus and cholera in 1913. Despite that setback, she went on to volunteer for nursing duties with the Serbian Army at the outbreak of World War I, eventually succumbing to typhus on April 3, 1915. She died at the age of 41 in the very hospital depicted in her painting The Valjevo Hospital.
Throughout her short life, Nadezda taught at the women’s university in Belgrade, helped organize a society to aid ethnic Serbs in Ottoman-controlled Kosovo and Macedonia, did humanitarian work for the poor, and was an activist who protested the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
In 1910, she went to Paris to be with her friend and renowned sculptor Ivan Mestrovic for a year. Returning to Belgrade on news of her father’s death, she then resumed teaching at the women’s school. Her mother died within a year.
She is honored with monuments in Belgrade, Cacak and Nis, and on the 200 dinar note of Serbia as well as a Yugoslav stamp. In August 2018, a bust was dedicated to Petrovic at the Serbian Cultural Garden in Rockefeller Park, Cleveland, Ohio. Today, these and other remembrances along with her exquisite work stand as reflections that have captured on canvas many of her life experiences.