Shevchenko was born on March 9, 1814 as the third child of a family in serfdom in the small town of Moryntsi near Cherkasy in what is today Central Ukraine and was then a part of the Russian Empire. His ancestors belonged to the Cossack minority and had as such experienced brutal suppression, a family history that was instilled to Taras and his siblings. When he was eight years old, after the family had moved to the nearby village Kyrylivka and three more siblings had been born, Taras started receiving some education by attending grammar lessons given at church. In that environment, he learned to write and read and also about the works of Gregory Skorovda, a Ukrainian writer and philosopher of the 18th century, who had also had a Cossack family background and who would become an early influence on Shevchenko.
These acquaintances finally made it possible for Shevchenko to escape serfdom, for Bryullov and other artists collected enough money to buy his freedom. Taras immediately used this freedom to enroll as a student at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, supervised by Bryullov. During his studies there, he not only perfected his painting skills to receive several awards for them, but he also began writing and published poetry collections (“Kobzar”, 1840) as well as plays and a drama. Soon it became apparent that Ukrainian national identity was one of the main motifs of his work. Shevchenko repeatedly traveled to Ukraine in these years, met with artists and writers there and from his siblings who still lived as servants, he learned about the oppression of the people by the tsar. All these influences combined to turn Ukraine, its people and its landscapes into Shevchenko’s primary subject. “Body and soul I am the son and brother of our unfortunate nation”, he wrote.
Shevchenko graduated from the Academy in 1845 and almost immediately relocated to Kyiv. His works became increasingly political in tone now. In early 1846, he joined the secret Kyrylo-Methodius Society, a brotherhood that aimed at creating a Pan-Slavic federation, a more liberal political system and to end the increasingly worse conditions the people had to live under. These revolutionary ideas however led to the arrest of all of the society’s members including Shevchenko in 1847. He was imprisoned in St. Petersburg, but was detailed to an army unit in the Ural mountains. The tsar himself, having read Shevchenko’s satiric works, gave the order that the author was forbidden to draw, paint and write while in the military, which he secretly did nevertheless. Many drawings and paintings were completed in his military years. He was ordered to take part in expeditions to chart the Aral Sea in 1848 and 1849, one year later he transferred to a fortress in Kazakhstan which is now named after him.
In 1857, Taras Shevchenko was finally pardoned and allowed to leave the fortress. He could not return to St. Petersburg as he had wished but was instead ordered to Nizhnyi Novgorod, where he stayed for almost two years, before he was allowed to move back to Ukraine in 1859. There, he intended to buy a piece of land and build a house, but soon after his arrival he was arrested yet again, this time on charges of blasphemy, and ordered to go back to St. Petersburg. Despite all the obstacles he faced in these years, they were the most productive of his career. He produced many paintings, many of them centered around the struggle of the peasants for a self-determined life. However, the hard years in prison and in the military had left their tracks on Shevchenko’s health and when he fell ill once again in March 1861, he did not survive it. Taras Shevchenko died on the day after his 47th birthday and was buried at a cemetery in St. Petersburg. A few days after the burial, some of his friends made sure his last will to be buried in Ukraine was fulfilled. Shevchenko’s body was brought to Ukraine by horse-drawn wagon and he was put to rest once again on May 8. His final resting place is in Kaniv in Cherkasy province, on a hill overlooking the Dnieper river. There is also a museum dedicated to him at the cemetery.