The Mysterious Portrait
by Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol
Nowhere did so many people pause as before the little picture-shop in the
Shtchukinui Dvor. This little shop contained, indeed, the most varied
collection of curiosities. The pictures were chiefly oil-paintings covered
with dark varnish, in frames of dingy yellow. Winter scenes with white
trees; very red sunsets, like raging conflagrations, a Flemish boor, more
like a turkey-cock in cuffs than a human being, were the prevailing
subjects. To these must be added a few engravings, such as a portrait of
Khozreff-Mirza in a sheepskin cap, and some generals with three-cornered
hats and hooked noses. Moreover, the doors of such shops are usually
festooned with bundles of those publications, printed on large sheets of
bark, and then coloured by hand, which bear witness to the native talent
of the Russian.
On one was the Tzarevna Miliktrisa Kirbitievna; on another the city of
Jerusalem. There are usually but few purchasers of these productions, but
gazers are many. Some truant lackey probably yawns in front of them,
holding in his hand the dishes containing dinner from the cook-shop for
his master, who will not get his soup very hot. Before them, too, will
most likely be standing a soldier wrapped in his cloak, a dealer from the
old-clothes mart, with a couple of penknives for sale, and a huckstress,
with a basketful of shoes. Each expresses admiration in his own way. The
muzhiks generally touch them with their fingers; the dealers gaze
seriously at them; serving boys and apprentices laugh, and tease each
other with the coloured caricatures; old lackeys in frieze cloaks look at
them merely for the sake of yawning away their time somewhere; and the
hucksters, young Russian women, halt by instinct to hear what people are
gossiping about, and to see what they are looking at.
At the time our story opens, the young painter, Tchartkoff, paused
involuntarily as he passed the shop. His old cloak and plain attire showed
him to be a man who was devoted to his art with self-denying zeal, and who
had no time to trouble himself about his clothes. He halted in front of
the little shop, and at first enjoyed an inward laugh over the
monstrosities in the shape of pictures.
At length he sank unconsciously into a reverie, and began to ponder as to
what sort of people wanted these productions? It did not seem remarkable
to him that the Russian populace should gaze with rapture upon "Eruslanoff
Lazarevitch," on "The Glutton" and "The Carouser," on "Thoma and Erema."
The delineations of these subjects were easily intelligible to the masses.
But where were there purchases for those streaky, dirty oil-paintings? Who
needed those Flemish boors, those red and blue landscapes, which put forth
some claims to a higher stage of art, but which really expressed the
depths of its degradation? They did not appear the works of a self-taught
child. In that case, in spite of the caricature of drawing, a sharp
distinction would have manifested itself. But here were visible only
simple dullness, steady-going incapacity, which stood, through self-will,
in the ranks of art, while its true place was among the lowest trades. The
same colours, the same manner, the same practised hand, belonging rather
to a manufacturing automaton than to a man!
He stood before the dirty pictures for some time, his thoughts at length
wandering to other matters. Meanwhile the proprietor of the shop, a little
grey man, in a frieze cloak, with a beard which had not been shaved since
Sunday, had been urging him to buy for some time, naming prices, without
even knowing what pleased him or what he wanted. "Here, I'll take a silver
piece for these peasants and this little landscape. What painting! it
fairly dazzles one; only just received from the factory; the varnish isn't
dry yet. Or here is a winter scene—take the winter scene; fifteen
rubles; the frame alone is worth it. What a winter scene!" Here the
merchant gave a slight fillip to the canvas, as if to demonstrate all the
merits of the winter scene. "Pray have them put up and sent to your house.
Where do you live? Here, boy, give me some string!"
"Hold, not so fast!" said the painter, coming to himself, and perceiving
that the brisk dealer was beginning in earnest to pack some pictures up.
He was rather ashamed not to take anything after standing so long in front
of the shop; so saying, "Here, stop! I will see if there is anything I
want here!" he stooped and began to pick up from the floor, where they
were thrown in a heap, some worn, dusty old paintings. There were old
family portraits, whose descendants, probably could not be found on earth;
with torn canvas and frames minus their gilding; in short, trash. But the
painter began his search, thinking to himself, "Perhaps I may come across
something." He had heard stories about pictures of the great masters
having been found among the rubbish in cheap print-sellers' shops.
The dealer, perceiving what he was about, ceased his importunities, and
took up his post again at the door, hailing the passers-by with, "Hither,
friends, here are pictures; step in, step in; just received from the
makers!" He shouted his fill, and generally in vain, had a long talk with
a rag-merchant, standing opposite, at the door of his shop; and finally,
recollecting that he had a customer in his shop, turned his back on the
public and went inside. "Well, friend, have you chosen anything?" said he.
But the painter had already been standing motionless for some time before
a portrait in a large and originally magnificent frame, upon which,
however, hardly a trace of gilding now remained.
It represented an old man, with a thin, bronzed face and high cheek-bones;
the features seemingly depicted in a moment of convulsive agitation. He
wore a flowing Asiatic costume. Dusty and defaced as the portrait was,
Tchartkoff saw, when he had succeeded in removing the dirt from the face,
traces of the work of a great artist. The portrait appeared to be
unfinished, but the power of the handling was striking. The eyes were the
most remarkable picture of all: it seemed as though the full power of the
artist's brush had been lavished upon them. They fairly gazed out of the
portrait, destroying its harmony with their strange liveliness. When he
carried the portrait to the door, the eyes gleamed even more
penetratingly. They produced nearly the same impression on the public. A
woman standing behind him exclaimed, "He is looking, he is looking!" and
jumped back. Tchartkoff experienced an unpleasant feeling, inexplicable
even to himself, and placed the portrait on the floor.
"Well, will you take the portrait?" said the dealer.
"How much is it?" said the painter.
"Why chaffer over it? give me seventy-five kopeks."
"Well, how much will you give?"
"Twenty kopeks," said the painter, preparing to go.
"What a price! Why, you couldn't buy the frame for that! Perhaps you will
decide to purchase to-morrow. Sir, sir, turn back! Add ten kopeks. Take
it, take it! give me twenty kopeks. To tell the truth, you are my only
customer to-day, and that's the only reason."
Thus Tchartkoff quite unexpectedly became the purchaser of the old
portrait, and at the same time reflected, "Why have I bought it? What is
it to me?" But there was nothing to be done. He pulled a twenty-kopek
piece from his pocket, gave it to the merchant, took the portrait under
his arm, and carried it home. On the way thither, he remembered that the
twenty-kopek piece he had given for it was his last. His thoughts at once
became gloomy. Vexation and careless indifference took possession of him
at one and the same moment. The red light of sunset still lingered in one
half the sky; the houses facing that way still gleamed with its warm
light; and meanwhile the cold blue light of the moon grew brighter. Light,
half-transparent shadows fell in bands upon the ground. The painter began
by degrees to glance up at the sky, flushed with a transparent light; and
at the same moment from his mouth fell the words, "What a delicate tone!
What a nuisance! Deuce take it!" Re-adjusting the portrait, which kept
slipping from under his arm, he quickened his pace.
Weary and bathed in perspiration, he dragged himself to Vasilievsky
Ostroff. With difficulty and much panting he made his way up the stairs
flooded with soap-suds, and adorned with the tracks of dogs and cats. To
his knock there was no answer: there was no one at home. He leaned against
the window, and disposed himself to wait patiently, until at last there
resounded behind him the footsteps of a boy in a blue blouse, his servant,
model, and colour-grinder. This boy was called Nikita, and spent all his
time in the streets when his master was not at home. Nikita tried for a
long time to get the key into the lock, which was quite invisible, by
reason of the darkness.
Finally the door was opened. Tchartkoff entered his ante-room, which was
intolerably cold, as painters' rooms always are, which fact, however, they
do not notice. Without giving Nikita his coat, he went on into his studio,
a large room, but low, fitted up with all sorts of artistic rubbish—plaster
hands, canvases, sketches begun and discarded, and draperies thrown over
chairs. Feeling very tired, he took off his cloak, placed the portrait
abstractedly between two small canvasses, and threw himself on the narrow
divan. Having stretched himself out, he finally called for a light.
"There are no candles," said Nikita.
"And there were none last night," said Nikita. The artist recollected
that, in fact, there had been no candles the previous evening, and became
silent. He let Nikita take his coat off, and put on his old worn
"There has been a gentleman here," said Nikita.
"Yes, he came for money, I know," said the painter, waving his hand.
"He was not alone," said Nikita.
"Who else was with him?"
"I don't know, some police officer or other."
"But why a police officer?"
"I don't know why, but he says because your rent is not paid."
"Well, what will come of it?"
"I don't know what will come of it: he said, 'If he won't pay, why, let
him leave the rooms.' They are both coming again to-morrow."
"Let them come," said Tchartkoff, with indifference; and a gloomy mood
took full possession of him.
Young Tchartkoff was an artist of talent, which promised great things: his
work gave evidence of observation, thought, and a strong inclination to
approach nearer to nature.
"Look here, my friend," his professor said to him more than once, "you
have talent; it will be a shame if you waste it: but you are impatient;
you have but to be attracted by anything, to fall in love with it, you
become engrossed with it, and all else goes for nothing, and you won't
even look at it. See to it that you do not become a fashionable artist. At
present your colouring begins to assert itself too loudly; and your
drawing is at times quite weak; you are already striving after the
fashionable style, because it strikes the eye at once. Have a care!
society already begins to have its attraction for you: I have seen you
with a shiny hat, a foppish neckerchief.... It is seductive to paint
fashionable little pictures and portraits for money; but talent is ruined,
not developed, by that means. Be patient; think out every piece of work,
discard your foppishness; let others amass money, your own will not fail
The professor was partly right. Our artist sometimes wanted to enjoy
himself, to play the fop, in short, to give vent to his youthful impulses
in some way or other; but he could control himself withal. At times he
would forget everything, when he had once taken his brush in his hand, and
could not tear himself from it except as from a delightful dream. His
taste perceptibly developed. He did not as yet understand all the depths
of Raphael, but he was attracted by Guido's broad and rapid handling, he
paused before Titian's portraits, he delighted in the Flemish masters. The
dark veil enshrouding the ancient pictures had not yet wholly passed away
from before them; but he already saw something in them, though in private
he did not agree with the professor that the secrets of the old masters
are irremediably lost to us. It seemed to him that the nineteenth century
had improved upon them considerably, that the delineation of nature was
more clear, more vivid, more close. It sometimes vexed him when he saw how
a strange artist, French or German, sometimes not even a painter by
profession, but only a skilful dauber, produced, by the celerity of his
brush and the vividness of his colouring, a universal commotion, and
amassed in a twinkling a funded capital. This did not occur to him when
fully occupied with his own work, for then he forgot food and drink and
all the world. But when dire want arrived, when he had no money wherewith
to buy brushes and colours, when his implacable landlord came ten times a
day to demand the rent for his rooms, then did the luck of the wealthy
artists recur to his hungry imagination; then did the thought which so
often traverses Russian minds, to give up altogether, and go down hill,
utterly to the bad, traverse his. And now he was almost in this frame of
"Yes, it is all very well, to be patient, be patient!" he exclaimed, with
vexation; "but there is an end to patience at last. Be patient! but what
money have I to buy a dinner with to-morrow? No one will lend me any. If I
did bring myself to sell all my pictures and sketches, they would not give
me twenty kopeks for the whole of them. They are useful; I feel that not
one of them has been undertaken in vain; I have learned something from
each one. Yes, but of what use is it? Studies, sketches, all will be
studies, trial-sketches to the end. And who will buy, not even knowing me
by name? Who wants drawings from the antique, or the life class, or my
unfinished love of a Psyche, or the interior of my room, or the portrait
of Nikita, though it is better, to tell the truth, than the portraits by
any of the fashionable artists? Why do I worry, and toil like a learner
over the alphabet, when I might shine as brightly as the rest, and have
money, too, like them?"
Thus speaking, the artist suddenly shuddered, and turned pale. A
convulsively distorted face gazed at him, peeping forth from the
surrounding canvas; two terrible eyes were fixed straight upon him; on the
mouth was written a menacing command of silence. Alarmed, he tried to
scream and summon Nikita, who already was snoring in the ante-room; but he
suddenly paused and laughed. The sensation of fear died away in a moment;
it was the portrait he had bought, and which he had quite forgotten. The
light of the moon illuminating the chamber had fallen upon it, and lent it
a strange likeness to life.
He began to examine it. He moistened a sponge with water, passed it over
the picture several times, washed off nearly all the accumulated and
incrusted dust and dirt, hung it on the wall before him, wondering yet
more at the remarkable workmanship. The whole face had gained new life,
and the eyes gazed at him so that he shuddered; and, springing back, he
exclaimed in a voice of surprise: "It looks with human eyes!" Then
suddenly there occurred to him a story he had heard long before from his
professor, of a certain portrait by the renowned Leonardo da Vinci, upon
which the great master laboured several years, and still regarded as
incomplete, but which, according to Vasari, was nevertheless deemed by all
the most complete and finished product of his art. The most finished thing
about it was the eyes, which amazed his contemporaries; the very smallest,
barely visible veins in them being reproduced on the canvas.
But in the portrait now before him there was something singular. It was no
longer art; it even destroyed the harmony of the portrait; they were
living, human eyes! It seemed as though they had been cut from a living
man and inserted. Here was none of that high enjoyment which takes
possession of the soul at the sight of an artist's production, no matter
how terrible the subject he may have chosen.
Again he approached the portrait, in order to observe those wondrous eyes,
and perceived, with terror, that they were gazing at him. This was no copy
from Nature; it was life, the strange life which might have lighted up the
face of a dead man, risen from the grave. Whether it was the effect of the
moonlight, which brought with it fantastic thoughts, and transformed
things into strange likenesses, opposed to those of matter-of-fact day, or
from some other cause, but it suddenly became terrible to him, he knew not
why, to sit alone in the room. He draw back from the portrait, turned
aside, and tried not to look at it; but his eye involuntarily, of its own
accord, kept glancing sideways towards it. Finally, he became afraid to
walk about the room. It seemed as though some one were on the point of
stepping up behind him; and every time he turned, he glanced timidly back.
He had never been a coward; but his imagination and nerves were sensitive,
and that evening he could not explain his involuntary fear. He seated
himself in one corner, but even then it seemed to him that some one was
peeping over his shoulder into his face. Even Nikita's snores, resounding
from the ante-room, did not chase away his fear. At length he rose from
the seat, without raising his eyes, went behind a screen, and lay down on
his bed. Through the cracks of the screen he saw his room lit up by the
moon, and the portrait hanging stiffly on the wall. The eyes were fixed
upon him in a yet more terrible and significant manner, and it seemed as
if they would not look at anything but himself. Overpowered with a feeling
of oppression, he decided to rise from his bed, seized a sheet, and,
approaching the portrait, covered it up completely.
Having done this, he lay done more at ease on his bed, and began to
meditate upon the poverty and pitiful lot of the artist, and the thorny
path lying before him in the world. But meanwhile his eye glanced
involuntarily through the joint of the screen at the portrait muffled in
the sheet. The light of the moon heightened the whiteness of the sheet,
and it seemed to him as though those terrible eyes shone through the
cloth. With terror he fixed his eyes more steadfastly on the spot, as if
wishing to convince himself that it was all nonsense. But at length he saw—saw
clearly; there was no longer a sheet—the portrait was quite
uncovered, and was gazing beyond everything around it, straight at him;
gazing as it seemed fairly into his heart. His heart grew cold. He watched
anxiously; the old man moved, and suddenly, supporting himself on the
frame with both arms, raised himself by his hands, and, putting forth both
feet, leapt out of the frame. Through the crack of the screen, the empty
frame alone was now visible. Footsteps resounded through the room, and
approached nearer and nearer to the screen. The poor artist's heart began
beating fast. He expected every moment, his breath failing for fear, that
the old man would look round the screen at him. And lo! he did look from
behind the screen, with the very same bronzed face, and with his big eyes
Tchartkoff tried to scream, and felt that his voice was gone; he tried to
move; his limbs refused their office. With open mouth, and failing breath,
he gazed at the tall phantom, draped in some kind of a flowing Asiatic
robe, and waited for what it would do. The old man sat down almost on his
very feet, and then pulled out something from among the folds of his wide
garment. It was a purse. The old man untied it, took it by the end, and
shook it. Heavy rolls of coin fell out with a dull thud upon the floor.
Each was wrapped in blue paper, and on each was marked, "1000 ducats." The
old man protruded his long, bony hand from his wide sleeves, and began to
undo the rolls. The gold glittered. Great as was the artist's unreasoning
fear, he concentrated all his attention upon the gold, gazing motionless,
as it made its appearance in the bony hands, gleamed, rang lightly or
dully, and was wrapped up again. Then he perceived one packet which had
rolled farther than the rest, to the very leg of his bedstead, near his
pillow. He grasped it almost convulsively, and glanced in fear at the old
man to see whether he noticed it.
But the old man appeared very much occupied: he collected all his rolls,
replaced them in the purse, and went outside the screen without looking at
him. Tchartkoff's heart beat wildly as he heard the rustle of the
retreating footsteps sounding through the room. He clasped the roll of
coin more closely in his hand, quivering in every limb. Suddenly he heard
the footsteps approaching the screen again. Apparently the old man had
recollected that one roll was missing. Lo! again he looked round the
screen at him. The artist in despair grasped the roll with all his
strength, tried with all his power to make a movement, shrieked—and
He was bathed in a cold perspiration; his heart beat as hard as it was
possible for it to beat; his chest was oppressed, as though his last
breath was about to issue from it. "Was it a dream?" he said, seizing his
head with both hands. But the terrible reality of the apparition did not
resemble a dream. As he woke, he saw the old man step into the frame: the
skirts of the flowing garment even fluttered, and his hand felt plainly
that a moment before it had held something heavy. The moonlight lit up the
room, bringing out from the dark corners here a canvas, there the model of
a hand: a drapery thrown over a chair; trousers and dirty boots. Then he
perceived that he was not lying in his bed, but standing upright in front
of the portrait. How he had come there, he could not in the least
comprehend. Still more surprised was he to find the portrait uncovered,
and with actually no sheet over it. Motionless with terror, he gazed at
it, and perceived that the living, human eyes were fastened upon him. A
cold perspiration broke out upon his forehead. He wanted to move away, but
felt that his feet had in some way become rooted to the earth. And he felt
that this was not a dream. The old man's features moved, and his lips
began to project towards him, as though he wanted to suck him in. With a
yell of despair he jumped back—and awoke.
"Was it a dream?" With his heart throbbing to bursting, he felt about him
with both hands. Yes, he was lying in bed, and in precisely the position
in which he had fallen asleep. Before him stood the screen. The moonlight
flooded the room. Through the crack of the screen, the portrait was
visible, covered with the sheet, as it should be, just as he had covered
it. And so that, too, was a dream? But his clenched fist still felt as
though something had been held in it. The throbbing of his heart was
violent, almost terrible; the weight upon his breast intolerable. He fixed
his eyes upon the crack, and stared steadfastly at the sheet. And lo! he
saw plainly the sheet begin to open, as though hands were pushing from
underneath, and trying to throw it off. "Lord God, what is it!" he
shrieked, crossing himself in despair—and awoke.
And was this, too, a dream? He sprang from his bed, half-mad, and could
not comprehend what had happened to him. Was it the oppression of a
nightmare, the raving of fever, or an actual apparition? Striving to calm,
as far as possible, his mental tumult, and stay the wildly rushing blood,
which beat with straining pulses in every vein, he went to the window and
opened it. The cool breeze revived him. The moonlight lay on the roofs and
the white walls of the houses, though small clouds passed frequently
across the sky. All was still: from time to time there struck the ear the
distant rumble of a carriage. He put his head out of the window, and gazed
for some time. Already the signs of approaching dawn were spreading over
the sky. At last he felt drowsy, shut to the window, stepped back, lay
down in bed, and quickly fell, like one exhausted, into a deep sleep.
He awoke late, and with the disagreeable feeling of a man who has been
half-suffocated with coal-gas: his head ached painfully. The room was dim:
an unpleasant moisture pervaded the air, and penetrated the cracks of his
windows. Dissatisfied and depressed as a wet cock, he seated himself on
his dilapidated divan, not knowing what to do, what to set about, and at
length remembered the whole of his dream. As he recalled it, the dream
presented itself to his mind as so oppressively real that he even began to
wonder whether it were a dream, whether there were not something more
here, whether it were not really an apparition. Removing the sheet, he
looked at the terrible portrait by the light of day. The eyes were really
striking in their liveliness, but he found nothing particularly terrible
about them, though an indescribably unpleasant feeling lingered in his
mind. Nevertheless, he could not quite convince himself that it was a
dream. It struck him that there must have been some terrible fragment of
reality in the vision. It seemed as though there were something in the old
man's very glance and expression which said that he had been with him that
night: his hand still felt the weight which had so recently lain in it as
if some one had but just snatched it from him. It seemed to him that, if
he had only grasped the roll more firmly, it would have remained in his
hand, even after his awakening.
"My God, if I only had a portion of that money!" he said, breathing
heavily; and in his fancy, all the rolls of coin, with their fascinating
inscription, "1000 ducats," began to pour out of the purse. The rolls
opened, the gold glittered, and was wrapped up again; and he sat
motionless, with his eyes fixed on the empty air, as if he were incapable
of tearing himself from such a sight, like a child who sits before a plate
of sweets, and beholds, with watering mouth, other people devouring them.
At last there came a knock on the door, which recalled him unpleasantly to
himself. The landlord entered with the constable of the district, whose
presence is even more disagreeable to poor people than is the presence of
a beggar to the rich. The landlord of the little house in which Tchartkoff
lived resembled the other individuals who own houses anywhere in the
Vasilievsky Ostroff, on the St. Petersburg side, or in the distant regions
of Kolomna—individuals whose character is as difficult to define as
the colour of a threadbare surtout. In his youth he had been a captain and
a braggart, a master in the art of flogging, skilful, foppish, and stupid;
but in his old age he combined all these various qualities into a kind of
dim indefiniteness. He was a widower, already on the retired list, no
longer boasted, nor was dandified, nor quarrelled, but only cared to drink
tea and talk all sorts of nonsense over it. He walked about his room, and
arranged the ends of the tallow candles; called punctually at the end of
each month upon his lodgers for money; went out into the street, with the
key in his hand, to look at the roof of his house, and sometimes chased
the porter out of his den, where he had hidden himself to sleep. In short,
he was a man on the retired list, who, after the turmoils and wildness of
his life, had only his old-fashioned habits left.
"Please to see for yourself, Varukh Kusmitch," said the landlord, turning
to the officer, and throwing out his hands, "this man does not pay his
rent, he does not pay."
"How can I when I have no money? Wait, and I will pay."
"I can't wait, my good fellow," said the landlord angrily, making a
gesture with the key which he held in his hand. "Lieutenant-Colonel
Potogonkin has lived with me seven years, seven years already; Anna
Petrovna Buchmisteroff rents the coach-house and stable, with the
exception of two stalls, and has three household servants: that is the
kind of lodgers I have. I say to you frankly, that this is not an
establishment where people do not pay their rent. Pay your money at once,
please, or else clear out."
"Yes, if you rented the rooms, please to pay," said the constable, with a
slight shake of the head, as he laid his finger on one of the buttons of
"Well, what am I to pay with? that's the question. I haven't a groschen
just at present."
"In that case, satisfy the claims of Ivan Ivanovitch with the fruits of
your profession," said the officer: "perhaps he will consent to take
"No, thank you, my good fellow, no pictures. Pictures of holy subjects,
such as one could hang upon the walls, would be well enough; or some
general with a star, or Prince Kutusoff's portrait. But this fellow has
painted that muzhik, that muzhik in his blouse, his servant who grinds his
colours! The idea of painting his portrait, the hog! I'll thrash him well:
he took all the nails out of my bolts, the scoundrel! Just see what
subjects! Here he has drawn his room. It would have been well enough had
he taken a clean, well-furnished room; but he has gone and drawn this one,
with all the dirt and rubbish he has collected. Just see how he has
defaced my room! Look for yourself. Yes, and my lodgers have been with me
seven years, the lieutenant-colonel, Anna Petrovna Buchmisteroff. No, I
tell you, there is no worse lodger than a painter: he lives like a pig—God
The poor artist had to listen patiently to all this. Meanwhile the officer
had occupied himself with examining the pictures and studies, and showed
that his mind was more advanced than the landlord's, and that he was not
insensible to artistic impressions.
"Heh!" said he, tapping one canvas, on which was depicted a naked woman,
"this subject is—lively. But why so much black under her nose? did
she take snuff?"
"Shadow," answered Tchartkoff gruffly, without looking at him.
"But it might have been put in some other place: it is too conspicuous
under the nose," observed the officer. "And whose likeness is this?" he
continued, approaching the old man's portrait. "It is too terrible. Was he
really so dreadful? Ah! why, he actually looks at one! What a
thunder-cloud! From whom did you paint it?"
"Ah! it is from a—" said Tchartkoff, but did not finish his
sentence: he heard a crack. It seems that the officer had pressed too hard
on the frame of the portrait, thanks to the weight of his constable's
hands. The small boards at the side caved in, one fell on the floor, and
with it fell, with a heavy crash, a roll of blue paper. The inscription
caught Tchartkoff's eye—"1000 ducats." Like a madman, he sprang to
pick it up, grasped the roll, and gripped it convulsively in his hand,
which sank with the weight.
"Wasn't there a sound of money?" inquired the officer, hearing the noise
of something falling on the floor, and not catching sight of it, owing to
the rapidity with which Tchartkoff had hastened to pick it up.
"What business is it of yours what is in my room?"
"It's my business because you ought to pay your rent to the landlord at
once; because you have money, and won't pay, that's why it's my business."
"Well, I will pay him to-day."
"Well, and why wouldn't you pay before, instead of giving trouble to your
landlord, and bothering the police to boot?"
"Because I did not want to touch this money. I will pay him in full this
evening, and leave the rooms to-morrow. I will not stay with such a
"Well, Ivan Ivanovitch, he will pay you," said the constable, turning to
the landlord. "But in case you are not satisfied in every respect this
evening, then you must excuse me, Mr. Painter." So saying, he put on his
three-cornered hat, and went into the ante-room, followed by the landlord
hanging his head, and apparently engaged in meditation.
"Thank God, Satan has carried them off!" said Tchartkoff, as he heard the
outer door of the ante-room close. He looked out into the ante-room, sent
Nikita off on some errand, in order to be quite alone, fastened the door
behind him, and, returning to his room, began with wildly beating heart to
undo the roll.
In it were ducats, all new, and bright as fire. Almost beside himself, he
sat down beside the pile of gold, still asking himself, "Is not this all a
dream?" There were just a thousand in the roll, the exterior of which was
precisely like what he had seen in his dream. He turned them over, and
looked at them for some minutes. His imagination recalled up all the tales
he had heard of hidden hoards, cabinets with secret drawers, left by
ancestors for their spendthrift descendants, with firm belief in the
extravagance of their life. He pondered this: "Did not some grandfather,
in the present instance, leave a gift for his grandchild, shut up in the
frame of a family portrait?" Filled with romantic fancies, he began to
think whether this had not some secret connection with his fate? whether
the existence of the portrait was not bound up with his own, and whether
his acquisition of it was not due to a kind of predestination?
He began to examine the frame with curiosity. On one side a cavity was
hollowed out, but concealed so skilfully and neatly by a little board,
that, if the massive hand of the constable had not effected a breach, the
ducats might have remained hidden to the end of time. On examining the
portrait, he marvelled again at the exquisite workmanship, the
extraordinary treatment of the eyes. They no longer appeared terrible to
him; but, nevertheless, each time he looked at them a disagreeable feeling
involuntarily lingered in his mind.
"No," he said to himself, "no matter whose grandfather you were, I'll put
a glass over you, and get you a gilt frame." Then he laid his hand on the
golden pile before him, and his heart beat faster at the touch. "What
shall I do with them?" he said, fixing his eyes on them. "Now I am
independent for at least three years: I can shut myself up in my room and
work. I have money for colours now; for food and lodging—no one will
annoy and disturb me now. I will buy myself a first-class lay figure, I
will order a plaster torso, and some model feet, I will have a Venus. I
will buy engravings of the best pictures. And if I work three years to
satisfy myself, without haste or with the idea of selling, I shall surpass
all, and may become a distinguished artist."
Thus he spoke in solitude, with his good judgment prompting him; but
louder and more distinct sounded another voice within him. As he glanced
once more at the gold, it was not thus that his twenty-two years and fiery
youth reasoned. Now everything was within his power on which he had
hitherto gazed with envious eyes, had viewed from afar with longing. How
his heart beat when he thought of it! To wear a fashionable coat, to feast
after long abstinence, to hire handsome apartments, to go at once to the
theatre, to the confectioner's, to... other places; and seizing his money,
he was in the street in a moment.
First of all he went to the tailor, was clothed anew from head to foot,
and began to look at himself like a child. He purchased perfumes and
pomades; hired the first elegant suite of apartments with mirrors and
plateglass windows which he came across in the Nevsky Prospect, without
haggling about the price; bought, on the impulse of the moment, a costly
eye-glass; bought, also on the impulse, a number of neckties of every
description, many more than he needed; had his hair curled at the
hairdresser's; rode through the city twice without any object whatever;
ate an immense quantity of sweetmeats at the confectioner's; and went to
the French Restaurant, of which he had heard rumours as indistinct as
though they had concerned the Empire of China. There he dined, casting
proud glances at the other visitors, and continually arranging his curls
in the glass. There he drank a bottle of champagne, which had been known
to him hitherto only by hearsay. The wine rather affected his head; and he
emerged into the street, lively, pugnacious, and ready to raise the Devil,
according to the Russian expression. He strutted along the pavement,
levelling his eye-glass at everybody. On the bridge he caught sight of his
former professor, and slipped past him neatly, as if he did not see him,
so that the astounded professor stood stock-still on the bridge for a long
time, with a face suggestive of a note of interrogation.
All his goods and chattels, everything he owned, easels, canvas, pictures,
were transported that same evening to his elegant quarters. He arranged
the best of them in conspicuous places, threw the worst into a corner, and
promenaded up and down the handsome rooms, glancing constantly in the
mirrors. An unconquerable desire to take the bull by the horns, and show
himself to the world at once, had arisen in his mind. He already heard the
shouts, "Tchartkoff! Tchartkoff! Tchartkoff paints! What talent Tchartkoff
has!" He paced the room in a state of rapture.
The next day he took ten ducats, and went to the editor of a popular
journal asking his charitable assistance. He was joyfully received by the
journalist, who called him on the spot, "Most respected sir," squeezed
both his hands, and made minute inquiries as to his name, birthplace,
residence. The next day there appeared in the journal, below a notice of
some newly invented tallow candles, an article with the following heading:—
"TCHARTKOFF'S IMMENSE TALENT
"We hasten to delight the cultivated inhabitants of the capital with a
discovery which we may call splendid in every respect. All are agreed that
there are among us many very handsome faces, but hitherto there has been
no means of committing them to canvas for transmission to posterity. This
want has now been supplied: an artist has been found who unites in himself
all desirable qualities. The beauty can now feel assured that she will be
depicted with all the grace of her charms, airy, fascinating,
butterfly-like, flitting among the flowers of spring. The stately father
of a family can see himself surrounded by his family. Merchant, warrior,
citizen, statesman—hasten one and all, wherever you may be. The
artist's magnificent establishment (Nevsky Prospect, such and such a
number) is hung with portraits from his brush, worthy of Van Dyck or
Titian. We do not know which to admire most, their truth and likeness to
the originals, or the wonderful brilliancy and freshness of the colouring.
Hail to you, artist! you have drawn a lucky number in the lottery. Long
live Andrei Petrovitch!" (The journalist evidently liked familiarity.)
"Glorify yourself and us. We know how to prize you. Universal popularity,
and with it wealth, will be your meed, though some of our brother
journalists may rise against you."
The artist read this article with secret satisfaction; his face beamed. He
was mentioned in print; it was a novelty to him: he read the lines over
several times. The comparison with Van Dyck and Titian flattered him
extremely. The praise, "Long live Andrei Petrovitch," also pleased him
greatly: to be spoken of by his Christian name and patronymic in print was
an honour hitherto totally unknown to him. He began to pace the chamber
briskly, now he sat down in an armchair, now he sprang up, and seated
himself on the sofa, planning each moment how he would receive visitors,
male and female; he went to his canvas and made a rapid sweep of the
brush, endeavouring to impart a graceful movement to his hand.
The next day, the bell at his door rang. He hastened to open it. A lady
entered, accompanied by a girl of eighteen, her daughter, and followed by
a lackey in a furred livery-coat.
"You are the painter Tchartkoff?"
The artist bowed.
"A great deal is written about you: your portraits, it is said, are the
height of perfection." So saying, the lady raised her glass to her eyes
and glanced rapidly over the walls, upon which nothing was hanging. "But
where are your portraits?"
"They have been taken away" replied the artist, somewhat confusedly: "I
have but just moved into these apartments; so they are still on the road,
they have not arrived."
"You have been in Italy?" asked the lady, levelling her glass at him, as
she found nothing else to point it at.
"No, I have not been there; but I wish to go, and I have deferred it for a
while. Here is an arm-chair, madame: you are fatigued?"
"Thank you: I have been sitting a long time in the carriage. Ah, at last I
behold your work!" said the lady, running to the opposite wall, and
bringing her glass to bear upon his studies, sketches, views and portraits
which were standing there on the floor. "It is charming. Lise! Lise, come
here. Rooms in the style of Teniers. Do you see? Disorder, disorder, a
table with a bust upon it, a hand, a palette; dust, see how the dust is
painted! It is charming. And here on this canvas is a woman washing her
face. What a pretty face! Ah! a little muzhik! So you do not devote
yourself exclusively to portraits?"
"Oh! that is mere rubbish. I was trying experiments, studies."
"Tell me your opinion of the portrait painters of the present day. Is it
not true that there are none now like Titian? There is not that strength
of colour, that—that—What a pity that I cannot express myself
in Russian." The lady was fond of paintings, and had gone through all the
galleries in Italy with her eye-glass. "But Monsieur Nohl—ah, how
well he paints! what remarkable work! I think his faces have been more
expression than Titian's. You do not know Monsieur Nohl?"
"Who is Nohl?" inquired the artist.
"Monsieur Nohl. Ah, what talent! He painted her portrait when she was only
twelve years old. You must certainly come to see us. Lise, you shall show
him your album. You know, we came expressly that you might begin her
"What? I am ready this very moment." And in a trice he pulled forward an
easel with a canvas already prepared, grasped his palette, and fixed his
eyes on the daughter's pretty little face. If he had been acquainted with
human nature, he might have read in it the dawning of a childish passion
for balls, the dawning of sorrow and misery at the length of time before
dinner and after dinner, the heavy traces of uninterested application to
various arts, insisted upon by her mother for the elevation of her mind.
But the artist saw only the tender little face, a seductive subject for
his brush, the body almost as transparent as porcelain, the delicate white
neck, and the aristocratically slender form. And he prepared beforehand to
triumph, to display the delicacy of his brush, which had hitherto had to
deal only with the harsh features of coarse models, and severe antiques
and copies of classic masters. He already saw in fancy how this delicate
little face would turn out.
"Do you know," said the lady with a positively touching expression of
countenance, "I should like her to be painted simply attired, and seated
among green shadows, like meadows, with a flock or a grove in the
distance, so that it could not be seen that she goes to balls or
fashionable entertainments. Our balls, I must confess, murder the
intellect, deaden all remnants of feeling. Simplicity! would there were
more simplicity!" Alas, it was stamped on the faces of mother and daughter
that they had so overdanced themselves at balls that they had become
almost wax figures.
Tchartkoff set to work, posed his model, reflected a bit, fixed upon the
idea, waved his brush in the air, settling the points mentally, and then
began and finished the sketching in within an hour. Satisfied with it, he
began to paint. The task fascinated him; he forgot everything, forgot the
very existence of the aristocratic ladies, began even to display some
artistic tricks, uttering various odd sounds and humming to himself now
and then as artists do when immersed heart and soul in their work. Without
the slightest ceremony, he made the sitter lift her head, which finally
began to express utter weariness.
"Enough for the first time," said the lady.
"A little more," said the artist, forgetting himself.
"No, it is time to stop. Lise, three o'clock!" said the lady, taking out a
tiny watch which hung by a gold chain from her girdle. "How late it is!"
"Only a minute," said Tchartkoff innocently, with the pleading voice of a
But the lady appeared to be not at all inclined to yield to his artistic
demands on this occasion; she promised, however, to sit longer the next
"It is vexatious, all the same," thought Tchartkoff to himself: "I had
just got my hand in;" and he remembered no one had interrupted him or
stopped him when he was at work in his studio on Vasilievsky Ostroff.
Nikita sat motionless in one place. You might even paint him as long as
you pleased; he even went to sleep in the attitude prescribed him. Feeling
dissatisfied, he laid his brush and palette on a chair, and paused in
irritation before the picture.
The woman of the world's compliments awoke him from his reverie. He flew
to the door to show them out: on the stairs he received an invitation to
dine with them the following week, and returned with a cheerful face to
his apartments. The aristocratic lady had completely charmed him. Up to
that time he had looked upon such beings as unapproachable, born solely to
ride in magnificent carriages, with liveried footmen and stylish coachmen,
and to cast indifferent glances on the poor man travelling on foot in a
cheap cloak. And now, all of a sudden, one of these very beings had
entered his room; he was painting her portrait, was invited to dinner at
an aristocratic house. An unusual feeling of pleasure took possession of
him: he was completely intoxicated, and rewarded himself with a splendid
dinner, an evening at the theatre, and a drive through the city in a
carriage, without any necessity whatever.
But meanwhile his ordinary work did not fall in with his mood at all. He
did nothing but wait for the moment when the bell should ring. At last the
aristocratic lady arrived with her pale daughter. He seated them, drew
forward the canvas with skill, and some efforts of fashionable airs, and
began to paint. The sunny day and bright light aided him not a little: he
saw in his dainty sitter much which, caught and committed to canvas, would
give great value to the portrait. He perceived that he might accomplish
something good if he could reproduce, with accuracy, all that nature then
offered to his eyes. His heart began to beat faster as he felt that he was
expressing something which others had not even seen as yet. His work
engrossed him completely: he was wholly taken up with it, and again forgot
the aristocratic origin of the sitter. With heaving breast he saw the
delicate features and the almost transparent body of the fair maiden grow
beneath his hand. He had caught every shade, the slight sallowness, the
almost imperceptible blue tinge under the eyes—and was already
preparing to put in the tiny mole on the brow, when he suddenly heard the
mother's voice behind him.
"Ah! why do you paint that? it is not necessary: and you have made it
here, in several places, rather yellow; and here, quite so, like dark
The artist undertook to explain that the spots and yellow tinge would turn
out well, that they brought out the delicate and pleasing tones of the
face. He was informed that they did not bring out tones, and would not
turn out well at all. It was explained to him that just to-day Lise did
not feel quite well; that she never was sallow, and that her face was
distinguished for its fresh colouring.
Sadly he began to erase what his brush had put upon the canvas. Many a
nearly imperceptible feature disappeared, and with it vanished too a
portion of the resemblance. He began indifferently to impart to the
picture that commonplace colouring which can be painted mechanically, and
which lends to a face, even when taken from nature, the sort of cold
ideality observable on school programmes. But the lady was satisfied when
the objectionable tone was quite banished. She merely expressed surprise
that the work lasted so long, and added that she had heard that he
finished a portrait completely in two sittings. The artist could not think
of any answer to this. The ladies rose, and prepared to depart. He laid
aside his brush, escorted them to the door, and then stood disconsolate
for a long while in one spot before the portrait.
He gazed stupidly at it; and meanwhile there floated before his mind's eye
those delicate features, those shades, and airy tints which he had copied,
and which his brush had annihilated. Engrossed with them, he put the
portrait on one side and hunted up a head of Psyche which he had some time
before thrown on canvas in a sketchy manner. It was a pretty little face,
well painted, but entirely ideal, and having cold, regular features not
lit up by life. For lack of occupation, he now began to tone it up,
imparting to it all he had taken note of in his aristocratic sitter. Those
features, shadows, tints, which he had noted, made their appearance here
in the purified form in which they appear when the painter, after closely
observing nature, subordinates himself to her, and produces a creation
equal to her own.
Psyche began to live: and the scarcely dawning thought began, little by
little, to clothe itself in a visible form. The type of face of the
fashionable young lady was unconsciously transferred to Psyche, yet
nevertheless she had an expression of her own which gave the picture
claims to be considered in truth an original creation. Tchartkoff gave
himself up entirely to his work. For several days he was engrossed by it
alone, and the ladies surprised him at it on their arrival. He had not
time to remove the picture from the easel. Both ladies uttered a cry of
amazement, and clasped their hands.
"Lise, Lise! Ah, how like! Superb, superb! What a happy thought, too, to
drape her in a Greek costume! Ah, what a surprise!"
The artist could not see his way to disabuse the ladies of their error.
Shamefacedly, with drooping head, he murmured, "This is Psyche."
"In the character of Psyche? Charming!" said the mother, smiling, upon
which the daughter smiled too. "Confess, Lise, it pleases you to be
painted in the character of Psyche better than any other way? What a sweet
idea! But what treatment! It is Correggio himself. I must say that,
although I had read and heard about you, I did not know you had so much
talent. You positively must paint me too." Evidently the lady wanted to be
portrayed as some kind of Psyche too.
"What am I to do with them?" thought the artist. "If they will have it so,
why, let Psyche pass for what they choose:" and added aloud, "Pray sit a
little: I will touch it up here and there."
"Ah! I am afraid you will... it is such a capital likeness now!"
But the artist understood that the difficulty was with respect to the
sallowness, and so he reassured them by saying that he only wished to give
more brilliancy and expression to the eyes. In truth, he was ashamed, and
wanted to impart a little more likeness to the original, lest any one
should accuse him of actual barefaced flattery. And the features of the
pale young girl at length appeared more closely in Psyche's countenance.
"Enough," said the mother, beginning to fear that the likeness might
become too decided. The artist was remunerated in every way, with smiles,
money, compliments, cordial pressures of the hand, invitations to dinner:
in short, he received a thousand flattering rewards.
The portrait created a furore in the city. The lady exhibited it to her
friends, and all admired the skill with which the artist had preserved the
likeness, and at the same time conferred more beauty on the original. The
last remark, of course, was prompted by a slight tinge of envy. The artist
was suddenly overwhelmed with work. It seemed as if the whole city wanted
to be painted by him. The door-bell rang incessantly. From one point of
view, this might be considered advantageous, as presenting to him endless
practice in variety and number of faces. But, unfortunately, they were all
people who were hard to get along with, either busy, hurried people, or
else belonging to the fashionable world, and consequently more occupied
than any one else, and therefore impatient to the last degree. In all
quarters, the demand was merely that the likeness should be good and
quickly executed. The artist perceived that it was a simple impossibility
to finish his work; that it was necessary to exchange power of treatment
for lightness and rapidity, to catch only the general expression, and not
waste labour on delicate details.
Moreover, nearly all of his sitters made stipulations on various points.
The ladies required that mind and character should be represented in their
portraits; that all angles should be rounded, all unevenness smoothed
away, and even removed entirely if possible; in short, that their faces
should be such as to cause every one to stare at them with admiration, if
not fall in love with them outright. When they sat to him, they sometimes
assumed expressions which greatly amazed the artist; one tried to express
melancholy; another, meditation; a third wanted to make her mouth appear
small on any terms, and puckered it up to such an extent that it finally
looked like a spot about as big as a pinhead. And in spite of all this,
they demanded of him good likenesses and unconstrained naturalness. The
men were no better: one insisted on being painted with an energetic,
muscular turn to his head; another, with upturned, inspired eyes; a
lieutenant of the guard demanded that Mars should be visible in his eyes;
an official in the civil service drew himself up to his full height in
order to have his uprightness expressed in his face, and that his hand
might rest on a book bearing the words in plain characters, "He always
stood up for the right."
At first such demands threw the artist into a cold perspiration. Finally
he acquired the knack of it, and never troubled himself at all about it.
He understood at a word how each wanted himself portrayed. If a man wanted
Mars in his face, he put in Mars: he gave a Byronic turn and attitude to
those who aimed at Byron. If the ladies wanted to be Corinne, Undine, or
Aspasia, he agreed with great readiness, and threw in a sufficient measure
of good looks from his own imagination, which does no harm, and for the
sake of which an artist is even forgiven a lack of resemblance. He soon
began to wonder himself at the rapidity and dash of his brush. And of
course those who sat to him were in ecstasies, and proclaimed him a
Tchartkoff became a fashionable artist in every sense of the word. He
began to dine out, to escort ladies to picture galleries, to dress
foppishly, and to assert audibly that an artist should belong to society,
that he must uphold his profession, that artists mostly dress like
showmakers, do not know how to behave themselves, do not maintain the
highest tone, and are lacking in all polish. At home, in his studio, he
carried cleanliness and spotlessness to the last extreme, set up two
superb footmen, took fashionable pupils, dressed several times a day,
curled his hair, practised various manners of receiving his callers, and
busied himself in adorning his person in every conceivable way, in order
to produce a pleasing impression on the ladies. In short, it would soon
have been impossible for any one to have recognised in him the modest
artist who had formerly toiled unknown in his miserable quarters in the
He now expressed himself decidedly concerning artists and art; declared
that too much credit had been given to the old masters; that even Raphael
did not always paint well, and that fame attached to many of his works
simply by force of tradition: that Michael Angelo was a braggart because
he could boast only a knowledge of anatomy; that there was no grace about
him, and that real brilliancy and power of treatment and colouring were to
be looked for in the present century. And there, naturally, the question
touched him personally. "I do not understand," said he, "how others toil
and work with difficulty: a man who labours for months over a picture is a
dauber, and no artist in my opinion; I don't believe he has any talent:
genius works boldly, rapidly. Here is this portrait which I painted in two
days, this head in one day, this in a few hours, this in little more than
an hour. No, I confess I do not recognise as art that which adds line to
line; that is a handicraft, not art." In this manner did he lecture his
visitors; and the visitors admired the strength and boldness of his works,
uttered exclamations on hearing how fast they had been produced, and said
to each other, "This is talent, real talent! see how he speaks, how his
eyes gleam! There is something really extraordinary in his face!"
It flattered the artist to hear such reports about himself. When printed
praise appeared in the papers, he rejoiced like a child, although this
praise was purchased with his money. He carried the printed slips about
with him everywhere, and showed them to friends and acquaintances as if by
accident. His fame increased, his works and orders multiplied. Already the
same portraits over and over again wearied him, by the same attitudes and
turns, which he had learned by heart. He painted them now without any
great interest in his work, brushing in some sort of a head, and giving
them to his pupil's to finish. At first he had sought to devise a new
attitude each time. Now this had grown wearisome to him. His brain was
tired with planning and thinking. It was out of his power; his fashionable
life bore him far away from labour and thought. His work grew cold and
colourless; and he betook himself with indifference to the reproduction of
monotonous, well-worn forms. The eternally spick-and-span uniforms, and
the so-to-speak buttoned-up faces of the government officials, soldiers,
and statesmen, did not offer a wide field for his brush: it forgot how to
render superb draperies and powerful emotion and passion. Of grouping,
dramatic effect and its lofty connections, there was nothing. In face of
him was only a uniform, a corsage, a dress-coat, and before which the
artist feels cold and all imagination vanishes. Even his own peculiar
merits were no longer visible in his works, yet they continued to enjoy
renown; although genuine connoisseurs and artists merely shrugged their
shoulders when they saw his latest productions. But some who had known
Tchartkoff in his earlier days could not understand how the talent of
which he had given such clear indications in the outset could so have
vanished; and strove in vain to divine by what means genius could be
extinguished in a man just when he had attained to the full development of
But the intoxicated artist did not hear these criticisms. He began to
attain to the age of dignity, both in mind and years: to grow stout, and
increase visibly in flesh. He often read in the papers such phrases as,
"Our most respected Andrei Petrovitch; our worthy Andrei Petrovitch." He
began to receive offers of distinguished posts in the service, invitations
to examinations and committees. He began, as is usually the case in
maturer years, to advocate Raphael and the old masters, not because he had
become thoroughly convinced of their transcendent merits, but in order to
snub the younger artists. His life was already approaching the period when
everything which suggests impulse contracts within a man; when a powerful
chord appeals more feebly to the spirit; when the touch of beauty no
longer converts virgin strength into fire and flame, but when all the
burnt-out sentiments become more vulnerable to the sound of gold, hearken
more attentively to its seductive music, and little by little permit
themselves to be completely lulled to sleep by it. Fame can give no
pleasure to him who has stolen it, not won it; so all his feelings and
impulses turned towards wealth. Gold was his passion, his ideal, his fear,
his delight, his aim. The bundles of bank-notes increased in his coffers;
and, like all to whose lot falls this fearful gift, he began to grow
inaccessible to every sentiment except the love of gold. But something
occurred which gave him a powerful shock, and disturbed the whole tenor of
One day he found upon his table a note, in which the Academy of Painting
begged him, as a worthy member of its body, to come and give his opinion
upon a new work which had been sent from Italy by a Russian artist who was
perfecting himself there. The painter was one of his former comrades, who
had been possessed with a passion for art from his earliest years, had
given himself up to it with his whole soul, estranged himself from his
friends and relatives, and had hastened to that wonderful Rome, at whose
very name the artist's heart beats wildly and hotly. There he buried
himself in his work from which he permitted nothing to entice him. He
visited the galleries unweariedly, he stood for hours at a time before the
works of the great masters, seizing and studying their marvellous methods.
He never finished anything without revising his impressions several times
before these great teachers, and reading in their works silent but
eloquent counsels. He gave each impartially his due, appropriating from
all only that which was most beautiful, and finally became the pupil of
the divine Raphael alone, as a great poet, after reading many works, at
last made Homer's "Iliad" his only breviary, having discovered that it
contains all one wants, and that there is nothing which is not expressed
in it in perfection. And so he brought away from his school the grand
conception of creation, the mighty beauty of thought, the high charm of
that heavenly brush.
When Tchartkoff entered the room, he found a crowd of visitors already
collected before the picture. The most profound silence, such as rarely
settles upon a throng of critics, reigned over all. He hastened to assume
the significant expression of a connoisseur, and approached the picture;
but, O God! what did he behold!
Pure, faultless, beautiful as a bride, stood the picture before him. The
critics regarded this new hitherto unknown work with a feeling of
involuntary wonder. All seemed united in it: the art of Raphael, reflected
in the lofty grace of the grouping; the art of Correggio, breathing from
the finished perfection of the workmanship. But more striking than all
else was the evident creative power in the artist's mind. The very
minutest object in the picture revealed it; he had caught that melting
roundness of outline which is visible in nature only to the artist
creator, and which comes out as angles with a copyist. It was plainly
visible how the artist, having imbibed it all from the external world, had
first stored it in his mind, and then drawn it thence, as from a spiritual
source, into one harmonious, triumphant song. And it was evident, even to
the uninitiated, how vast a gulf there was fixed between creation and a
mere copy from nature. Involuntary tears stood ready to fall in the eyes
of those who surrounded the picture. It seemed as though all joined in a
silent hymn to the divine work.
Motionless, with open mouth, Tchartkoff stood before the picture. At
length, when by degrees the visitors and critics began to murmur and
comment upon the merits of the work, and turning to him, begged him to
express an opinion, he came to himself once more. He tried to assume an
indifferent, everyday expression; strove to utter some such commonplace
remark as; "Yes, to tell the truth, it is impossible to deny the artist's
talent; there is something in it;" but the speech died upon his lips,
tears and sobs burst forth uncontrollably, and he rushed from the room
like one beside himself.
In a moment he stood in his magnificent studio. All his being, all his
life, had been aroused in one instant, as if youth had returned to him, as
if the dying sparks of his talent had blazed forth afresh. The bandage
suddenly fell from his eyes. Heavens! to think of having mercilessly
wasted the best years of his youth, of having extinguished, trodden out
perhaps, that spark of fire which, cherished in his breast, might perhaps
have been developed into magnificence and beauty, and have extorted too,
its meed of tears and admiration! It seemed as though those impulses which
he had known in other days re-awoke suddenly in his soul.
He seized a brush and approached his canvas. One thought possessed him
wholly, one desire consumed him; he strove to depict a fallen angel. This
idea was most in harmony with his frame of mind. The perspiration started
out upon his face with his efforts; but, alas! his figures, attitudes,
groups, thoughts, arranged themselves stiffly, disconnectedly. His hand
and his imagination had been too long confined to one groove; and the
fruitless effort to escape from the bonds and fetters which he had imposed
upon himself, showed itself in irregularities and errors. He had despised
the long, wearisome ladder to knowledge, and the first fundamental law of
the future great man, hard work. He gave vent to his vexation. He ordered
all his later productions to be taken out of his studio, all the
fashionable, lifeless pictures, all the portraits of hussars, ladies, and
councillors of state.
He shut himself up alone in his room, would order no food, and devoted
himself entirely to his work. He sat toiling like a scholar. But how
pitifully wretched was all which proceeded from his hand! He was stopped
at every step by his ignorance of the very first principles: simple
ignorance of the mechanical part of his art chilled all inspiration and
formed an impassable barrier to his imagination. His brush returned
involuntarily to hackneyed forms: hands folded themselves in a set
attitude; heads dared not make any unusual turn; the very garments turned
out commonplace, and would not drape themselves to any unaccustomed
posture of the body. And he felt and saw this all himself.
"But had I really any talent?" he said at length: "did not I deceive
myself?" Uttering these words, he turned to the early works which he had
painted so purely, so unselfishly, in former days, in his wretched cabin
yonder in lonely Vasilievsky Ostroff. He began attentively to examine them
all; and all the misery of his former life came back to him. "Yes," he
cried despairingly, "I had talent: the signs and traces of it are
He paused suddenly, and shivered all over. His eyes encountered other eyes
fixed immovably upon him. It was that remarkable portrait which he had
bought in the Shtchukinui Dvor. All this time it had been covered up,
concealed by other pictures, and had utterly gone out of his mind. Now, as
if by design, when all the fashionable portraits and paintings had been
removed from the studio, it looked forth, together with the productions of
his early youth. As he recalled all the strange events connected with it;
as he remembered that this singular portrait had been, in a manner, the
cause of his errors; that the hoard of money which he had obtained in such
peculiar fashion had given birth in his mind to all the wild caprices
which had destroyed his talent—madness was on the point of taking
possession of him. At once he ordered the hateful portrait to be removed.
But his mental excitement was not thereby diminished. His whole being was
shaken to its foundation; and he suffered that fearful torture which is
sometimes exhibited when a feeble talent strives to display itself on a
scale too great for it and cannot do so. A horrible envy took possession
of him—an envy which bordered on madness. The gall flew to his heart
when he beheld a work which bore the stamp of talent. He gnashed his
teeth, and devoured it with the glare of a basilisk. He conceived the most
devilish plan which ever entered into the mind of man, and he hastened
with the strength of madness to carry it into execution. He began to
purchase the best that art produced of every kind. Having bought a picture
at a great price, he transported it to his room, flung himself upon it
with the ferocity of a tiger, cut it, tore it, chopped it into bits, and
stamped upon it with a grin of delight.
The vast wealth he had amassed enabled him to gratify this devilish
desire. He opened his bags of gold and unlocked his coffers. No monster of
ignorance ever destroyed so many superb productions of art as did this
raging avenger. At any auction where he made his appearance, every one
despaired at once of obtaining any work of art. It seemed as if an angry
heaven had sent this fearful scourge into the world expressly to destroy
all harmony. Scorn of the world was expressed in his countenance. His
tongue uttered nothing save biting and censorious words. He swooped down
like a harpy into the street: and his acquaintances, catching sight of him
in the distance, sought to turn aside and avoid a meeting with him, saying
that it poisoned all the rest of the day.
Fortunately for the world and art, such a life could not last long: his
passions were too overpowering for his feeble strength. Attacks of madness
began to recur more frequently, and ended at last in the most frightful
illness. A violent fever, combined with galloping consumption, seized upon
him with such violence, that in three days there remained only a shadow of
his former self. To this was added indications of hopeless insanity.
Sometimes several men were unable to hold him. The long-forgotten, living
eyes of the portrait began to torment him, and then his madness became
dreadful. All the people who surrounded his bed seemed to him horrible
portraits. The portrait doubled and quadrupled itself; all the walls
seemed hung with portraits, which fastened their living eyes upon him;
portraits glared at him from the ceiling, from the floor; the room widened
and lengthened endlessly, in order to make room for more of the motionless
eyes. The doctor who had undertaken to attend him, having learned
something of his strange history, strove with all his might to fathom the
secret connection between the visions of his fancy and the occurrences of
his life, but without the slightest success. The sick man understood
nothing, felt nothing, save his own tortures, and gave utterance only to
frightful yells and unintelligible gibberish. At last his life ended in a
final attack of unutterable suffering. Nothing could be found of all his
great wealth; but when they beheld the mutilated fragments of grand works
of art, the value of which exceeded a million, they understood the
terrible use which had been made of it.
A THRONG of carriages and other vehicles stood at the entrance of a house
in which an auction was going on of the effects of one of those wealthy
art-lovers who have innocently passed for Maecenases, and in a
simple-minded fashion expended, to that end, the millions amassed by their
thrifty fathers, and frequently even by their own early labours. The long
saloon was filled with the most motley throng of visitors, collected like
birds of prey swooping down upon an unburied corpse. There was a whole
squadron of Russian shop-keepers from the Gostinnui Dvor, and from the
old-clothes mart, in blue coats of foreign make. Their faces and
expressions were a little more natural here, and did not display that
fictitious desire to be subservient which is so marked in the Russian
shop-keeper when he stands before a customer in his shop. Here they stood
upon no ceremony, although the saloons were full of those very aristocrats
before whom, in any other place, they would have been ready to sweep, with
reverence, the dust brought in by their feet. They were quite at their
ease, handling pictures and books without ceremony, when desirous of
ascertaining the value of the goods, and boldly upsetting bargains
mentally secured in advance by noble connoisseurs. There were many of
those infallible attendants of auctions who make it a point to go to one
every day as regularly as to take their breakfast; aristocratic
connoisseurs who look upon it as their duty not to miss any opportunity of
adding to their collections, and who have no other occupation between
twelve o'clock and one; and noble gentlemen, with garments very
threadbare, who make their daily appearance without any selfish object in
view, but merely to see how it all goes off.
A quantity of pictures were lying about in disorder: with them were
mingled furniture, and books with the cipher of the former owner, who
never was moved by any laudable desire to glance into them. Chinese vases,
marble slabs for tables, old and new furniture with curving lines, with
griffins, sphinxes, and lions' paws, gilded and ungilded, chandeliers,
sconces, all were heaped together in a perfect chaos of art.
The auction appeared to be at its height.
The surging throng was competing for a portrait which could not but arrest
the attention of all who possessed any knowledge of art. The skilled hand
of an artist was plainly visible in it. The portrait, which had apparently
been several times restored and renovated, represented the dark features
of an Asiatic in flowing garments, and with a strange and remarkable
expression of countenance; but what struck the buyers more than anything
else was the peculiar liveliness of the eyes. The more they were looked
at, the more did they seem to penetrate into the gazer's heart. This
peculiarity, this strange illusion achieved by the artist, attracted the
attention of nearly all. Many who had been bidding gradually withdrew, for
the price offered had risen to an incredible sum. There remained only two
well-known aristocrats, amateurs of painting, who were unwilling to forego
such an acquisition. They grew warm, and would probably have run the
bidding up to an impossible sum, had not one of the onlookers suddenly
exclaimed, "Permit me to interrupt your competition for a while: I,
perhaps, more than any other, have a right to this portrait."
These words at once drew the attention of all to him. He was a tall man of
thirty-five, with long black curls. His pleasant face, full of a certain
bright nonchalance, indicated a mind free from all wearisome, worldly
excitement; his garments had no pretence to fashion: all about him
indicated the artist. He was, in fact, B. the painter, a man personally
well known to many of those present.
"However strange my words may seem to you," he continued, perceiving that
the general attention was directed to him, "if you will listen to a short
story, you may possibly see that I was right in uttering them. Everything
assures me that this is the portrait which I am looking for."
A natural curiosity illuminated the faces of nearly all present; and even
the auctioneer paused as he was opening his mouth, and with hammer
uplifted in the air, prepared to listen. At the beginning of the story,
many glanced involuntarily towards the portrait; but later on, all bent
their attention solely on the narrator, as his tale grew gradually more
"You know that portion of the city which is called Kolomna," he began.
"There everything is unlike anything else in St. Petersburg. Retired
officials remove thither to live; widows; people not very well off, who
have acquaintances in the senate, and therefore condemn themselves to this
for nearly the whole of their lives; and, in short, that whole list of
people who can be described by the words ash-coloured—people whose
garments, faces, hair, eyes, have a sort of ashy surface, like a day when
there is in the sky neither cloud nor sun. Among them may be retired
actors, retired titular councillors, retired sons of Mars, with ruined
eyes and swollen lips.
"Life in Kolomna is terribly dull: rarely does a carriage appear, except,
perhaps, one containing an actor, which disturbs the universal stillness
by its rumble, noise, and jingling. You can get lodgings for five rubles a
month, coffee in the morning included. Widows with pensions are the most
aristocratic families there; they conduct themselves well, sweep their
rooms often, chatter with their friends about the dearness of beef and
cabbage, and frequently have a young daughter, a taciturn, quiet,
sometimes pretty creature; an ugly dog, and wall-clocks which strike in a
melancholy fashion. Then come the actors whose salaries do not permit them
to desert Kolomna, an independent folk, living, like all artists, for
pleasure. They sit in their dressing-gowns, cleaning their pistols, gluing
together all sorts of things out of cardboard, playing draughts and cards
with any friend who chances to drop in, and so pass away the morning,
doing pretty nearly the same in the evening, with the addition of punch
now and then. After these great people and aristocracy of Kolomna, come
the rank and file. It is as difficult to put a name to them as to remember
the multitude of insects which breed in stale vinegar. There are old women
who get drunk, who make a living by incomprehensible means, like ants,
dragging old clothes and rags from the Kalinkin Bridge to the old
clothes-mart, in order to sell them for fifteen kopeks—in short, the
very dregs of mankind, whose conditions no beneficent, political economist
has devised any means of ameliorating.
"I have mentioned them in order to point out how often such people find
themselves under the necessity of seeking immediate temporary assistance
and having recourse to borrowing. Hence there settles among them a
peculiar race of money-lenders who lend small sums on security at an
enormous percentage. Among these usurers was a certain... but I must not
omit to mention that the occurrence which I have undertaken to relate
occurred the last century, in the reign of our late Empress Catherine the
Second. So, among the usurers, at that epoch, was a certain person—an
extraordinary being in every respect, who had settled in that quarter of
the city long before. He went about in flowing Asiatic garb; his dark
complexion indicated a Southern origin, but to what particular nation he
belonged, India, Greece, or Persia, no one could say with certainty. Of
tall, almost colossal stature, with dark, thin, ardent face, heavy
overhanging brows, and an indescribably strange colour in his large eyes
of unwonted fire, he differed sharply and strongly from all the
ash-coloured denizens of the capital.
"His very dwelling was unlike the other little wooden houses. It was of
stone, in the style of those formerly much affected by Genoese merchants,
with irregular windows of various sizes, secured with iron shutters and
bars. This usurer differed from other usurers also in that he could
furnish any required sum, from that desired by the poor old beggar-woman
to that demanded by the extravagant grandee of the court. The most
gorgeous equipages often halted in front of his house, and from their
windows sometimes peeped forth the head of an elegant high-born lady.
Rumour, as usual, reported that his iron coffers were full of untold gold,
treasures, diamonds, and all sorts of pledges, but that, nevertheless, he
was not the slave of that avarice which is characteristic of other
usurers. He lent money willingly, and on very favourable terms of payment
apparently, but, by some curious method of reckoning, made them mount to
an incredible percentage. So said rumour, at any rate. But what was
strangest of all was the peculiar fate of those who received money from
him: they all ended their lives in some unhappy way. Whether this was
simply the popular superstition, or the result of reports circulated with
an object, is not known. But several instances which happened within a
brief space of time before the eyes of every one were vivid and striking.
"Among the aristocracy of that day, one who speedily drew attention to
himself was a young man of one of the best families who had made a figure
in his early years in court circles, a warm admirer of everything true and
noble, zealous in his love for art, and giving promise of becoming a
Maecenas. He was soon deservedly distinguished by the Empress, who
conferred upon him an important post, fully proportioned to his deserts—a
post in which he could accomplish much for science and the general
welfare. The youthful dignitary surrounded himself with artists, poets,
and learned men. He wished to give work to all, to encourage all. He
undertook, at his own expense, a number of useful publications; gave
numerous orders to artists; offered prizes for the encouragement of
different arts; spent a great deal of money, and finally ruined himself.
But, full of noble impulses, he did not wish to relinquish his work,
sought to raise a loan, and finally betook himself to the well-known
usurer. Having borrowed a considerable sum from him, the man in a short
time changed completely. He became a persecutor and oppressor of budding
talent and intellect. He saw the bad side in everything produced, and
every word he uttered was false.
"Then, unfortunately, came the French Revolution. This furnished him with
an excuse for every kind of suspicion. He began to discover a
revolutionary tendency in everything; to concoct terrible and unjust
accusations, which made scores of people unhappy. Of course, such conduct
could not fail in time to reach the throne. The kind-hearted Empress was
shocked; and, full of the noble spirit which adorns crowned heads, she
uttered words still engraven on many hearts. The Empress remarked that not
under a monarchical government were high and noble impulses persecuted;
not there were the creations of intellect, poetry, and art contemned and
oppressed. On the other hand, monarchs alone were their protectors.
Shakespeare and Moliere flourished under their magnanimous protection,
while Dante could not find a corner in his republican birthplace. She said
that true geniuses arise at the epoch of brilliancy and power in emperors
and empires, but not in the time of monstrous political apparitions and
republican terrorism, which, up to that time, had never given to the world
a single poet; that poet-artists should be marked out for favour, since
peace and divine quiet alone compose their minds, not excitement and
tumult; that learned men, poets, and all producers of art are the pearls
and diamonds in the imperial crown: by them is the epoch of the great
ruler adorned, and from them it receives yet greater brilliancy.
"As the Empress uttered these words she was divinely beautiful for the
moment, and I remember old men who could not speak of the occurrence
without tears. All were interested in the affair. It must be remarked, to
the honour of our national pride, that in the Russian's heart there always
beats a fine feeling that he must adopt the part of the persecuted. The
dignitary who had betrayed his trust was punished in an exemplary manner
and degraded from his post. But he read a more dreadful punishment in the
faces of his fellow-countrymen: universal scorn. It is impossible to
describe what he suffered, and he died in a terrible attack of raving
"Another striking example also occurred. Among the beautiful women in
which our northern capital assuredly is not poor, one decidedly surpassed
the rest. Her loveliness was a combination of our Northern charms with
those of the South, a gem such as rarely makes its appearance on earth. My
father said that he had never beheld anything like it in the whole course
of his life. Everything seemed to be united in her, wealth, intellect, and
wit. She had throngs of admirers, the most distinguished of them being
Prince R., the most noble-minded of all young men, the finest in face, and
an ideal of romance in his magnanimous and knightly sentiments. Prince R.
was passionately in love, and was requited by a like ardent passion.
"But the match seemed unequal to the parents. The prince's family estates
had not been in his possession for a long time, his family was out of
favour, and the sad state of his affairs was well known to all. Of a
sudden the prince quitted the capital, as if for the purpose of arranging
his affairs, and after a short interval reappeared, surrounded with luxury
and splendour. Brilliant balls and parties made him known at court. The
lady's father began to relent, and the wedding took place. Whence this
change in circumstances, this unheard-of-wealth, came, no one could fully
explain; but it was whispered that he had entered into a compact with the
mysterious usurer, and had borrowed money of him. However that may have
been, the wedding was a source of interest to the whole city, and the
bride and bridegroom were objects of general envy. Every one knew of their
warm and faithful love, the long persecution they had had to endure from
every quarter, the great personal worth of both. Ardent women at once
sketched out the heavenly bliss which the young couple would enjoy. But it
turned out very differently.
"In the course of a year a frightful change came over the husband. His
character, up to that time so noble, became poisoned with jealous
suspicions, irritability, and inexhaustible caprices. He became a tyrant
to his wife, a thing which no one could have foreseen, and indulged in the
most inhuman deeds, and even in blows. In a year's time no one would have
recognised the woman who, such a little while before, had dazzled and
drawn about her throngs of submissive adorers. Finally, no longer able to
endure her lot, she proposed a divorce. Her husband flew into a rage at
the very suggestion. In the first outburst of passion, he chased her about
the room with a knife, and would doubtless have murdered her then and
there, if they had not seized him and prevented him. In a fit of madness
and despair he turned the knife against himself, and ended his life amid
the most horrible sufferings.
"Besides these two instances which occurred before the eyes of all the
world, stories circulated of many more among the lower classes, nearly all
of which had tragic endings. Here an honest sober man became a drunkard;
there a shopkeeper's clerk robbed his master; again, a driver who had
conducted himself properly for a number of years cut his passenger's
throat for a groschen. It was impossible that such occurrences, related,
not without embellishments, should not inspire a sort of involuntary
horror amongst the sedate inhabitants of Kolomna. No one entertained any
doubt as to the presence of an evil power in the usurer. They said that he
imposed conditions which made the hair rise on one's head, and which the
miserable wretch never afterward dared reveal to any other being; that his
money possessed a strange power of attraction; that it grew hot of itself,
and that it bore strange marks. And it is worthy of remark, that all the
colony of Kolomna, all these poor old women, small officials, petty
artists, and insignificant people whom we have just recapitulated, agreed
that it was better to endure anything, and to suffer the extreme of
misery, rather than to have recourse to the terrible usurer. Old women
were even found dying of hunger, who preferred to kill their bodies rather
than lose their soul. Those who met him in the street experienced an
involuntary sense of fear. Pedestrians took care to turn aside from his
path, and gazed long after his tall, receding figure. In his face alone
there was sufficient that was uncommon to cause any one to ascribe to him
a supernatural nature. The strong features, so deeply chiselled; the
glowing bronze of his complexion; the incredible thickness of his brows;
the intolerable, terrible eyes—everything seemed to indicate that
the passions of other men were pale compared to those raging within him.
My father stopped short every time he met him, and could not refrain each
time from saying, 'A devil, a perfect devil!' But I must introduce you as
speedily as possible to my father, the chief character of this story.
"My father was a remarkable man in many respects. He was an artist of rare
ability, a self-taught artist, without teachers or schools, principles and
rules, carried away only by the thirst for perfection, and treading a path
indicated by his own instincts, for reasons unknown, perchance, even to
himself. Through some lofty and secret instinct he perceived the presence
of a soul in every object. And this secret instinct and personal
conviction turned his brush to Christian subjects, grand and lofty to the
last degree. His was a strong character: he was an honourable, upright,
even rough man, covered with a sort of hard rind without, not entirely
lacking in pride, and given to expressing himself both sharply and
scornfully about people. He worked for very small results; that is to say,
for just enough to support his family and obtain the materials he needed;
he never, under any circumstances, refused to aid any one, or to lend a
helping hand to a poor artist; and he believed with the simple, reverent
faith of his ancestors. At length, by his unintermitting labour and
perseverance in the path he had marked out for himself, he began to win
the approbation of those who honoured his self-taught talent. They gave
him constant orders for churches, and he never lacked employment.
"One of his paintings possessed a strong interest for him. I no longer
recollect the exact subject: I only know that he needed to represent the
Spirit of Darkness in it. He pondered long what form to give him: he
wished to concentrate in his face all that weighs down and oppresses a
man. In the midst of his meditations there suddenly occurred to his mind
the image of the mysterious usurer; and he thought involuntarily, 'That's
how I ought to paint the Devil!' Imagine his amazement when one day, as he
was at work in his studio, he heard a knock at the door, and directly
after there entered that same terrible usurer.
"'You are an artist?' he said to my father abruptly.
"'I am,' answered my father in surprise, waiting for what should come
"'Good! Paint my portrait. I may possibly die soon. I have no children;
but I do not wish to die completely, I wish to live. Can you paint a
portrait that shall appear as though it were alive?'
"My father reflected, 'What could be better! he offers himself for the
Devil in my picture.' He promised. They agreed upon a time and price; and
the next day my father took palette and brushes and went to the usurer's
house. The lofty court-yard, dogs, iron doors and locks, arched windows,
coffers, draped with strange covers, and, last of all, the remarkable
owner himself, seated motionless before him, all produced a strange
impression on him. The windows seemed intentionally so encumbered below
that they admitted the light only from the top. 'Devil take him, how well
his face is lighted!' he said to himself, and began to paint assiduously,
as though afraid that the favourable light would disappear. 'What power!'
he repeated to himself. 'If I only accomplish half a likeness of him, as
he is now, it will surpass all my other works: he will simply start from
the canvas if I am only partly true to nature. What remarkable features!'
He redoubled his energy; and began himself to notice how some of his
sitter's traits were making their appearance on the canvas.
"But the more closely he approached resemblance, the more conscious he
became of an aggressive, uneasy feeling which he could not explain to
himself. Notwithstanding this, he set himself to copy with literal
accuracy every trait and expression. First of all, however, he busied
himself with the eyes. There was so much force in those eyes, that it
seemed impossible to reproduce them exactly as they were in nature. But he
resolved, at any price, to seek in them the most minute characteristics
and shades, to penetrate their secret. As soon, however, as he approached
them in resemblance, and began to redouble his exertions, there sprang up
in his mind such a terrible feeling of repulsion, of inexplicable
expression, that he was forced to lay aside his brush for a while and
begin anew. At last he could bear it no longer: he felt as if these eyes
were piercing into his soul, and causing intolerable emotion. On the
second and third days this grew still stronger. It became horrible to him.
He threw down his brush, and declared abruptly that he could paint the
stranger no longer. You should have seen how the terrible usurer changed
countenance at these words. He threw himself at his feet, and besought him
to finish the portrait, saying that his fate and his existence depended on
it; that he had already caught his prominent features; that if he could
reproduce them accurately, his life would be preserved in his portrait in
a supernatural manner; that by that means he would not die completely;
that it was necessary for him to continue to exist in the world.
"My father was frightened by these words: they seemed to him strange and
terrible to such a degree, that he threw down his brushes and palette and
rushed headlong from the room.
"The thought of it troubled him all day and all night; but the next
morning he received the portrait from the usurer, by a woman who was the
only creature in his service, and who announced that her master did not
want the portrait, and would pay nothing for it, and had sent it back. On
the evening of the same day he learned that the usurer was dead, and that
preparations were in progress to bury him according to the rites of his
religion. All this seemed to him inexplicably strange. But from that day a
marked change showed itself in his character. He was possessed by a
troubled, uneasy feeling, of which he was unable to explain the cause; and
he soon committed a deed which no one could have expected of him. For some
time the works of one of his pupils had been attracting the attention of a
small circle of connoisseurs and amateurs. My father had perceived his
talent, and manifested a particular liking for him in consequence.
Suddenly the general interest in him and talk about him became unendurable
to my father who grew envious of him. Finally, to complete his vexation,
he learned that his pupil had been asked to paint a picture for a recently
built and wealthy church. This enraged him. 'No, I will not permit that
fledgling to triumph!' said he: 'it is early, friend, to think of
consigning old men to the gutters. I still have powers, God be praised!
We'll soon see which will put down the other.'
"And this straightforward, honourable man employed intrigues which he had
hitherto abhorred. He finally contrived that there should be a competition
for the picture which other artists were permitted to enter into. Then he
shut himself up in his room, and grasped his brush with zeal. It seemed as
if he were striving to summon all his strength up for this occasion. And,
in fact, the result turned out to be one of his best works. No one doubted
that he would bear off the palm. The pictures were placed on exhibition,
and all the others seemed to his as night to day. But of a sudden, one of
the members present, an ecclesiastical personage if I mistake not, made a
remark which surprised every one. 'There is certainly much talent in this
artist's picture,' said he, 'but no holiness in the faces: there is even,
on the contrary, a demoniacal look in the eyes, as though some evil
feeling had guided the artist's hand.' All looked, and could not but
acknowledge the truth of these words. My father rushed forward to his
picture, as though to verify for himself this offensive remark, and
perceived with horror that he had bestowed the usurer's eyes upon nearly
all the figures. They had such a diabolical gaze that he involuntarily
shuddered. The picture was rejected; and he was forced to hear, to his
indescribable vexation, that the palm was awarded to his pupil.
"It is impossible to describe the state of rage in which he returned home.
He almost killed my mother, he drove the children away, broke his brushes
and easels, tore down the usurer's portrait from the wall, demanded a
knife, and ordered a fire to be built in the chimney, intending to cut it
in pieces and burn it. A friend, an artist, caught him in the act as he
entered the room—a jolly fellow, always satisfied with himself,
inflated by unattainable wishes, doing daily anything that came to hand,
and taking still more gaily to his dinner and little carouses.
"'What are you doing? What are you preparing to burn?' he asked, and
stepped up to the portrait. 'Why, this is one of your very best works. It
is the usurer who died a short time ago: yes, it is a most perfect
likeness. You did not stop until you had got into his very eyes. Never did
eyes look as these do now.'
"'Well, I'll see how they look in the fire!' said my father, making a
movement to fling the portrait into the grate.
"'Stop, for Heaven's sake!' exclaimed his friend, restraining him: 'give
it to me, rather, if it offends your eyes to such a degree.' My father
resisted, but yielded at length; and the jolly fellow, well pleased with
his acquisition, carried the portrait home with him.
"When he was gone, my father felt more calm. The burden seemed to have
disappeared from his soul in company with the portrait. He was surprised
himself at his evil feelings, his envy, and the evident change in his
character. Reviewing his acts, he became sad at heart; and not without
inward sorrow did he exclaim, 'No, it was God who punished me! my picture,
in fact, was meant to ruin my brother-man. A devilish feeling of envy
guided my brush, and that devilish feeling must have made itself visible
"He set out at once to seek his former pupil, embraced him warmly, begged
his forgiveness, and endeavoured as far as possible to excuse his own
fault. His labours continued as before; but his face was more frequently
thoughtful. He prayed more, grew more taciturn, and expressed himself less
sharply about people: even the rough exterior of his character was
modified to some extent. But a certain occurrence soon disturbed him more
than ever. He had seen nothing for a long time of the comrade who had
begged the portrait of him. He had already decided to hunt him up, when
the latter suddenly made his appearance in his room. After a few words and
questions on both sides, he said, 'Well, brother, it was not without cause
that you wished to burn that portrait. Devil take it, there's something
horrible about it! I don't believe in sorcerers; but, begging your pardon,
there's an unclean spirit in it.'
"'How so?' asked my father.
"'Well, from the very moment I hung it up in my room I felt such
depression—just as if I wanted to murder some one. I never knew in
my life what sleeplessness was; but I suffered not from sleeplessness
alone, but from such dreams!—I cannot tell whether they were dreams,
or what; it was as if a demon were strangling one: and the old man
appeared to me in my sleep. In short, I can't describe my state of mind. I
had a sensation of fear, as if expecting something unpleasant. I felt as
if I could not speak a cheerful or sincere word to any one: it was just as
if a spy were sitting over me. But from the very hour that I gave that
portrait to my nephew, who asked for it, I felt as if a stone had been
rolled from my shoulders, and became cheerful, as you see me now. Well,
brother, you painted the very Devil!'
"During this recital my father listened with unswerving attention, and
finally inquired, 'And your nephew now has the portrait?'
"'My nephew, indeed! he could not stand it!' said the jolly fellow: 'do
you know, the soul of that usurer has migrated into it; he jumps out of
the frame, walks about the room; and what my nephew tells of him is simply
incomprehensible. I should take him for a lunatic, if I had not undergone
a part of it myself. He sold it to some collector of pictures; and he
could not stand it either, and got rid of it to some one else.'
"This story produced a deep impression on my father. He grew seriously
pensive, fell into hypochondria, and finally became fully convinced that
his brush had served as a tool of the Devil; and that a portion of the
usurer's vitality had actually passed into the portrait, and was now
troubling people, inspiring diabolical excitement, beguiling painters from
the true path, producing the fearful torments of envy, and so forth. Three
catastrophes which occurred afterwards, three sudden deaths of wife,
daughter, and infant son, he regarded as a divine punishment on him, and
firmly resolved to withdraw from the world.
"As soon as I was nine years old, he placed me in an academy of painting,
and, paying all his debts, retired to a lonely cloister, where he soon
afterwards took the vows. There he amazed every one by the strictness of
his life, and his untiring observance of all the monastic rules. The prior
of the monastery, hearing of his skill in painting, ordered him to paint
the principal picture in the church. But the humble brother said plainly
that he was unworthy to touch a brush, that his was contaminated, that
with toil and great sacrifice must he first purify his spirit in order to
render himself fit to undertake such a task. He increased the rigours of
monastic life for himself as much as possible. At last, even they became
insufficient, and he retired, with the approval of the prior, into the
desert, in order to be quite alone. There he constructed himself a cell
from branches of trees, ate only uncooked roots, dragged about a stone
from place to place, stood in one spot with his hands lifted to heaven,
from the rising until the going down of the sun, reciting prayers without
cessation. In this manner did he for several years exhaust his body,
invigorating it, at the same time, with the strength of fervent prayer.
"At length, one day he returned to the cloister, and said firmly to the
prior, 'Now I am ready. If God wills, I will finish my task.' The subject
he selected was the Birth of Christ. A whole year he sat over it, without
leaving his cell, barely sustaining himself with coarse food, and praying
incessantly. At the end of the year the picture was ready. It was a really
wonderful work. Neither prior nor brethren knew much about painting; but
all were struck with the marvellous holiness of the figures. The
expression of reverent humility and gentleness in the face of the Holy
Mother, as she bent over the Child; the deep intelligence in the eyes of
the Holy Child, as though he saw something afar; the triumphant silence of
the Magi, amazed by the Divine Miracle, as they bowed at his feet: and
finally, the indescribable peace which emanated from the whole picture—all
this was presented with such strength and beauty, that the impression it
made was magical. All the brethren threw themselves on their knees before
it; and the prior, deeply affected, exclaimed, 'No, it is impossible for
any artist, with the assistance only of earthly art, to produce such a
picture: a holy, divine power has guided thy brush, and the blessing of
Heaven rested upon thy labour!'
"By that time I had completed my education at the academy, received the
gold medal, and with it the joyful hope of a journey to Italy—the
fairest dream of a twenty-year-old artist. It only remained for me to take
leave of my father, from whom I had been separated for twelve years. I
confess that even his image had long faded from my memory. I had heard
somewhat of his grim saintliness, and rather expected to meet a hermit of
rough exterior, a stranger to everything in the world, except his cell and
his prayers, worn out, tried up, by eternal fasting and penance. But how
great was my surprise when a handsome old man stood before me! No traces
of exhaustion were visible on his countenance: it beamed with the light of
a heavenly joy. His beard, white as snow, and his thin, almost transparent
hair of the same silvery hue, fell picturesquely upon his breast, and upon
the folds of his black gown, even to the rope with which his poor monastic
garb was girded. But most surprising to me of all was to hear from his
mouth such words and thoughts about art as, I confess, I long shall bear
in mind, and I sincerely wish that all my comrades would do the same.
"'I expected you, my son,' he said, when I approached for his blessing.
'The path awaits you in which your life is henceforth to flow. Your path
is pure—desert it not. You have talent: talent is the most priceless
of God's gifts—destroy it not. Search out, subject all things to
your brush; but in all see that you find the hidden soul, and most of all,
strive to attain to the grand secret of creation. Blessed is the elect one
who masters that! There is for him no mean object in nature. In lowly
themes the artist creator is as great as in great ones: in the despicable
there is nothing for him to despise, for it passes through the purifying
fire of his mind. An intimation of God's heavenly paradise is contained
for the artist in art, and by that alone is it higher than all else. But
by as much as triumphant rest is grander than every earthly emotion, by so
much is the lofty creation of art higher than everything else on earth.
Sacrifice everything to it, and love it with passion—not with the
passion breathing with earthly desire, but a peaceful, heavenly passion.
It cannot plant discord in the spirit, but ascends, like a resounding
prayer, eternally to God. But there are moments, dark moments—' He
paused, and I observed that his bright face darkened, as though some cloud
crossed it for a moment. 'There is one incident of my life,' he said. 'Up
to this moment, I cannot understand what that terrible being was of whom I
painted a likeness. It was certainly some diabolical apparition. I know
that the world denies the existence of the Devil, and therefore I will not
speak of him. I will only say that I painted him with repugnance: I felt
no liking for my work, even at the time. I tried to force myself, and,
stifling every emotion in a hard-hearted way, to be true to nature. I have
been informed that this portrait is passing from hand to hand, and sowing
unpleasant impressions, inspiring artists with feelings of envy, of dark
hatred towards their brethren, with malicious thirst for persecution and
oppression. May the Almighty preserve you from such passions! There is
nothing more terrible.'
"He blessed and embraced me. Never in my life was I so grandly moved.
Reverently, rather than with the feeling of a son, I leaned upon his
breast, and kissed his scattered silver locks.
"Tears shone in his eyes. 'Fulfil my one request, my son,' said he, at the
moment of parting. 'You may chance to see the portrait I have mentioned
somewhere. You will know it at once by the strange eyes, and their
peculiar expression. Destroy it at any cost.'
"Judge for yourselves whether I could refuse to promise, with an oath, to
fulfil this request. In the space of fifteen years I had never succeeded
in meeting with anything which in any way corresponded to the description
given me by my father, until now, all of a sudden, at an auction—"
The artist did not finish his sentence, but turned his eyes to the wall in
order to glance once more at the portrait. The entire throng of auditors
made the same movement, seeking the wonderful portrait with their eyes.
But, to their extreme amazement, it was no longer on the wall. An
indistinct murmur and exclamation ran through the crowd, and then was
heard distinctly the word, "stolen." Some one had succeeded in carrying it
off, taking advantage of the fact that the attention of the spectators was
distracted by the story. And those present long remained in a state of
surprise, not knowing whether they had really seen those remarkable eyes,
or whether it was simply a dream which had floated for an instant before
their eyesight, strained with long gazing at old pictures.