Hristo Tsokev (1847 – 1883) is one of the first Bulgarian gifted and well-schooled artists from the pre-liberation epoch. The first artist – from Gabrovo with specially completed education. The historiographer doctor Petar Tsonchev is among these researchers, who first pay attention, in “In the societal and cultural past of Gabrovo” (1934), to the personality and work of the prominent revival painter, who was sunk in oblivion. The “cultural people from Gabrovo” start talking about him, before that – the high school teacher and his colleague Nikola Golosmanov (letter from 1917 with biographical notes about the artist) and butler Stefan Stanimirov. Hardly, during the First World War a small collection of his earliest works happens to come to the National archaeological museum in Sofia. Alexander Protich during 1923 for the first time publishes his artworks with brief information about his life. In the grand jubilee exhibition “One hundred years of Bulgarian art”, arranged during 1935 in Sofia, for the first time Hristo Tsokev is represented in the capital, with his original painting, in front of the Bulgarian society. Seriously starting to talk, for the duty of the artist, is the famous scholar, historian and art critic Nikola Mavrodinov, in “The new Bulgarian painting” and “Art from the Bulgarian revival”. Apparent interest is inspired by the deep research of Asen Vasilev “The revival artists” (1956) and “Revival masters” (1965), Tsanko Lavrenov in the studios “New data for the revival artist Hristo Tsokev” (1956). A high valuation for the work of the artist, viewed in all genres (life painting, landscape, historical multiple-figure composition, free and applied graphics), in which he works, is given during 1962 by Mara Tsoncheva in “Bulgarian revival – painting and graphics” and other. During 1973, the monography of Vera Dinova – Ruseva “Hristo Tsokev” is published, which clarifies many moments of his personal and artistic biography, complemented by a rich illustrative material.
Hristo Tsokev is the second son of Hristo Ivanov Bankov – a bright man, from an old family, craftsman – master of “eminii” (slippers) from the Tsokiuvtsi huts around Gabrovo. The grandfather owned land and a home in Tryavna, but during 1798, kardzhalii and daalii attack and burn the village and together with many Tryavna citizens he ran to Gabrovo. The huts bear the name of his family “Tsokiuvtsi”. The name of the old Tryavna family Tsokevi may be a line of iconographers and priests, if one judges by the inclinations of the sons. The young Hristo receives his primary education in the holy Apostle monastery in Gabrovo (near the Palauzovo school in sixth district) with a warm request to his father to continue studying. During the spring of 1859 the little boy leaves with a Hilendar taxidiot (a monk, who collects money to help the monastery) and pilgrims from Gabrovo for Aton. The only way for the father to satisfy the need of his son for knowledge and artistic education is to agree, for the poor, underage boy to commit himself to the monastic life. As a novice in the Hilendar monastery, where Paisii Hilendarski, Ilarion Makariopolski, Neofit Bozveli and other prominent Bulgarian enlighteners, lived and dreamed for the freedom of Bulgaria, he stayed until the spring of 1860. During that time in the Svetogor monasteries worked many Bulgarian iconographers. The rare gift of the boy – to paint, is fostered by the Abbot of the monastery, who sends him for an artistic education in Russia by using the trip of Hilendar envoys for the annual help for the monastery. Like in the Hilendar monastery, so in the Kievo-Pechora lavra, where he stays for seven years, he studies iconography. Here he is dedicated to Inok Haralampiy (pronounced a monk at 16/17 years old).
The monk artist, who has passed through the unbearably heavy for his freedom-loving spirit life by a Kievo-pechora rules, willingly leaves the lavra and goes to Moscow, casts off the cassock and starts to study secular painting at the school for painting, sculpture and architecture. What a similarity with Levski’s biography. Vasil Levski casts off the cassock, to become a revolutionary, Hristo Tsokev – to become a secular painter, to whom the efforts for freedom are not uninteresting. The goal of both of them is one and the same – to serve the enslaved Motherland in the name of freedom. In the Moscow school, Hristo Tsokev reveals very brightly the gift of a portrait painter. He studies with a scholarship of the Slavic charity committee in Moscow, and a help at different times from the Odessa Bulgarian board of trustees. During 1873 he sends a request to the council of the Moscow school: “Имея намерение поступить во вновь открь|вшееся в Габрово училище, кода я преглъшен в качестве учителя по рисования и живописи – всепокорнеише прошу Совет удостоит меня званием свободного художника”. /”Having the intention to enter the newly opened school in Gabrovo, I am supposed to be a teacher in drawing and painting – I beg you that the Council will honor me as a free artist.”/ In his return to Gabrovo Hristo Tsokev doesn’t start working in the main class school (the high school), as the position for an art teacher is not yet open. He works as a “free artist”. Despite difficult material and creative circumstances he creates many portraits and icons for the Gabrovo, Svishtov and Gorna Oriahovitsa churches and monasteries. He paints a whole gallery of images of prominent teachers from Gabrovo (priest Vasil Mihov), merchants (Ilia Vidinliev, Petko Manafov, Tsanko Dobrev), craftsmen, their fathers, mothers (of Raicho Karolev), wives (his wife Kichka Bedrozova), children (Mariika Vidinlieva, Mariika Dobreva) and other. “For less than 10 years – notes Vera Dinova-Ruseva – he finds himself as an artist. Finding himself in the home environment, up against the highly ethical personality of the Bulgarian revolutionary, surrounded only by the religious paintings with Bulgarian traditions, he creates his own style. By pose some of the portraits remind of the saints images from the church walls. The basic interest of the artist is concentrated on the face of the object, reflecting the personality of the person – the Bulgarian, as well as his time – the Bulgarian revival … with that enterprise, energy, human dignity and realization of the personality, characteristic of the epoch. With his graphics and drawings of acts from the suffering of the oppressed by slavery Bulgarian, Hristo Tsokev – adds Vera Dinova – Ruseva – forms himself as an active striker for raising of the national consciousness, as a real revolutionary romantic.
During the fall of 1879 the dream of Hristo Tsokev to be a teacher in the Gabrovo high school is fulfilled. The motherland is free. One of the first art teachers in Bulgaria can unfold his pedagogical activity.“
“N. Golosmanov notes that A man had to see with his own eyes with what zest Tsokev worked with his young students… in order to get to know about his love for painting and his wish to awake in his young compatriots love for that noble art.” A head teacher of 31 students during the years of 1881/1882, by memories of his students he was very democratic, conscientious teacher, noting himself with a large responsiveness to the personal needs of the boys. One strong cold helps the long stalking tuberculosis. During 1883 Hristo Tsokev participates in a contest for a teacher in the capital high school for boys, for which he sent his artwork and he won. The quickly developing disease impeded his moving to Sofia. Hardly making it to 36 years old he passes away in Gabrovo. “One of the best teachers of the government real high school in Gabrovo, was deprived of one of the most dignified teachers, the town of Gabrovo of one of its best citizens, who in a later time was able to earn the love of all the town’s people, and Bulgaria – of one its most remarkable, talented sons.“ writes “Teaching newspaper” magazine during 1883.
The works of Hristo Tsokev today are a part of the golden fund of the National gallery of art. Six portraits with images of Gabrovo people, are in the founded before five decades Gabrovo gallery, initially an art department of the History museum. Updated in the last years “Hristo Tsokev” art gallery in Gabrovo is an attractive cultural and creative centre.