Nikolai Tosya was born into a very old and very conservative family of Russian aristocrats. Countess Sonya Tosya, the family’s formidable matriarch, claimed that their line could be traced all the way back to Peter the Great. Nikolai’s father had been Sonya’s only male child, and when that pattern repeated with Nikolai, great expectations were immediately placed on his shoulders.
Unfortunately, Nikolai struggled to find his niche. He was too blunt for politics, too mercurial for business, and too kind hearted for a military career. The only area where he truly excelled was drawing and painting. Whenever Nikolai got the chance, he retreated to the family library, where he painstakingly copied the illustrations from various books. Eventually, he felt confident enough to begin creating his own originals. Which were actually quite good. But Nikolai’s grandmother considered his artistic pursuits to be a waste of time and constantly discouraged them.
When Nikolai turned 18, it was decided that he might as well get to work producing the next generation, since he’d proved incapable of other meaningful contributions to the family. Oddly, Nikolai resisted the idea of marriage. Up until this point, he’d been an obedient son, trying his best to please (even when he failed). But this subject led to an actual argument with his grandmother, ended only when Nikolai stormed out of the room.
However, few men can withstand the combined pressure of their entire family, and Nikolai was not one of them. Eventually, he agreed to a meeting with the bride that had been selected for him: Natasha Smirnova. Although the Smirnovs lacked an impressive social rank, their ownership of several successful mines had made them extremely rich, and the match would inject some much needed wealth into the Tosya family.
To Nikolai’s surprise, he found himself growing surprisingly fond of Natasha. She possessed a gentle and generous heart. She moved slowly through the world, taking the time to fully absorb all its little details. And, more than anything else, she liked his artwork, asking him to tell her stories about the people and scenes that he drew. A second meeting followed the first. Then a third. Eventually, when the time came to propose, Nikolai told Natasha that he already considered her to be his dearest friend and would gladly make her his wife. There was just one problem -- Nikolai was homosexual and unsure if he’d ever be able to physically consummate their union.
Natasha was a practical woman. She knew that her family would insist that she take a husband in order to increase their own social status. Better this earnest and awkward man, for whom she felt genuine affection, rather than whoever might come next. She accepted Nicholas’s proposal and they were married in the Spring.
For awhile, they were happy, and people often remarked how tenderly the couple treated each other. But fairy tales never last. Neither Nikolai nor Natasha had realized the fierce pressure that would be put on them to continue the Tosya line. As the years passed, and Natasha showed no signs of ever getting pregnant, that pressure mounted to unbearable levels. Some responsibility for this failure was placed on Nikolai, but Natasha took the bulk of the blame. Whispers turned to rumors, and rumors turned to open insults. Although Nikolai tried to defend his wife, he didn’t dare admit the truth.
Finally, in a desperate attempt to produce a child, Natasha had an affair with one of the servants. Perhaps it would have worked, if the affair hadn’t been exposed. Nikolai’s family greeted the news of her transgression with absolute glee, considering this the ideal opportunity to void the marriage and find him a more fertile wife. But Nikolai insisted on remaining loyal to Natasha. Unfortunately, his devotion wasn’t enough to save her. Succumbing to her shame and misery, Natasha committed suicide, and Nicholas found her lying on their bed, still clutching the empty vial of poison.
Inwardly, Nikolai was a raging storm of grief and guilt. Outwardly, however, he appeared remarkably composed. It was a facade he maintained long enough to ensure that Natasha was buried with the dignity befitting an Tosya. (Of course, any mention of suicide had been quickly hushed up, and less scandalous cause of death was invented). Then, on the night after the funeral, Nikolai fled from the home that he’d shared with his wife, taking nothing except his best art supplies and enough money pay for passage on steamship headed towards America.
It was an abrupt shift, going from a life of privilege to a more working class existence. Nikolai made mistakes. He clung to old habits, misjudged the people around him, and allowed himself to be taken advantage of. Nevertheless, it was extremely liberating to be freed from the pressures of his old life. By the time the steamship docked in New York, Nikolai had shed most of his noble affectations, although his thick Russian accent remained.
He’d also developed a new artistic passion. It began with sketching some of the ship’s more exotic passengers -- the ones that his family would have described as “abominations in the eyes of god”. Nikolai didn’t attempt to normalize his subjects or disguise the features that made them seem unsettling to normal human eyes. But he didn’t find them grotesque. While remaining brutally realistic, his pictures also convey the beauty that can be found in the strange.
Nikolai’s constant search for new and unusual subject matter has brought him to the frontier.