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Taras Shevchenko

Encyclopedia of the life and works



Taras Shevchenko

January 25, 1856

The great Thorvaldsen embarked on his brilliant career by carving ornaments and tritons for blunt-nosed Copenhagen ships. My hero also began, not a brilliant but nonetheless artistic pursuit, by grinding ochre and mummy and painting floors, roofs, and fences. A cheerless, hopeless start indeed. But are there really many of you, lucky artists of genius, who started differently? Only a miserable few. In Holland, for instance, during its most brilliant golden period, Ostade, Berghem, Teniers and a multitude of noted artists (except for Rubens and Van Dyck) started and ended their careers in tatters.

It would not be fair to refer to mercantile Holland alone. Go over Vasari and you will see exactly the same, or worse. I say “worse” because at that time the policy of St. Peter’s heirs demanded refined decorations for dazzling the multitudes and outshining the heretical teachings of Wycliffe and Hus which had already started rearing that undaunted Dominican Luther. And it was then, as I say, that it suddenly occurred to Leo X and Julius II to lavish gold on every painter and mason they came across, and when, at that golden time, great artists died of hunger as, for instance, Correggio and Zampieri. It happened thus (quite often, unfortunately), always and wherever the divine vivifying art made its way. And it is so in our enlightened nineteenth century, a century of philanthropy and of everything disposed for the benefit of mankind, with all its means to fend off and give refuge to the victims of the “punishing goddess consigned to doom.”

For what reason, I ask, does such a cheerless, such a bitter lot fall to these angels incarnate, to these representatives of living virtue on earth? Probably it is because they are angels embodied in flesh.

Such а discourse only leads to the reader being distracted from the subject which l intend to present to him in full clarity.

The summer nights in St. Petersburg I almost always spent on the street or somewhere on the islands, but most frequently on the Academy Quay. I liked this place especially when the Neva River was calm and, like a gigantic mirror, reflected the grand portico of the Rumyantsev Museum, the corner of the Senate, and the red curtains in the house of Countess Laval in all their details.

During the long winter nights her house was illuminated from within, and the red curtains flashed like fire against the dark background; it always annoyed me that the Neva was covered with ice and snow and the decoration lost its true effect.

I also liked to behold the sunrise from the Troitsky Bridge. A wonderful, majestic view!

In a truly artistic work there is something charming that is more beautiful than nature itself – it is the sublime soul of the artist, it is divine creativity. But in nature there are such marvellous phenomena, before which the poet-artist prostrates himself and only blesses the Creator for such sweet, soul-bewitching moments.

I frequently admired Shchedrin’s landscapes, and I was especially fascinated by his small painting Portici before Sunset. A fascinating work! But it never fascinated me as much as the view from the Troitsky Bridge onto the Vyborg side before the appearance of the sun.

Once, after having had my fill of delight in a scene no human hand could have created, I walked to the Summer Garden for a rest. Whenever I happened to be in the Summer Garden, I never stopped on any of the alleys adorned with marble statues: these statues produced a bad impression on me, especially the ugly Saturn gobbling up his own child that was as ugly as he was himself. I passed by these clumsy gods and goddesses, sat down beside a pond for a rest, and admired the wonderful granite vase and the grand architecture of the Mikhailovsky Castle.

Approaching the point where the large alley is crossed by a transversal alley and where, in the surroundings of the gods and goddesses, Saturn gobbled up his own child, I almost bumped into a living man in a dirty smock frock of ticking who sat on a pail just opposite Saturn.

I stopped in my tracks. The boy (a boy he really was of fourteen to fifteen years of age) looked round and started to hide something in his bosom. I came up closer to him and asked what he was doing here.

“Nothing,” he replied shyly. “I was going to work, and so turned into the garden on my way.” After a moment’s pause, he added: “I was drawing.” “Show me what you were drawing.” He took a quartern of grey writing paper from his bosom and timidly handed it to me. The quartern bore a fairly accurately traced outline of Saturn.

I held the drawing for a long time and admired the soiled face of the artist. There was something attractive in the irregular features of his lean face, especially in his eyes, as clever and humble as a girl’s.

“Do you come often to draw here?” I asked him.

“Every Sunday,” he replied. “And if we work close by, I come here on workdays, too.”

“Are you learning the house-painting trade?”

“And decorative painting, too,” he added.

“Under whose apprenticeship are you?”

“Shiryaev, the house painter’s.” I wanted to question him in greater detail, but he picked up the pail of yellow paint with one hand, took a big wiped-off yellow brush with the other and made to leave.

“Where are you in such a hurry?”

“To work. I’m already late as it is, and when the master comes, I’ll be in trouble.”

“Come and see me on Sunday morning, and if you have any of your drawings, bring them along for me to have a look at.”

“All right, I will come. Where do you live, though?”

I wrote down my address on his drawing, and we parted.

Early in the morning on Sunday I returned from my night stroll, and in the corridor, in front of my apartment, I was met by my new acquaintance, who this time was dressed not in a dirty smock frock of ticking, but in what looked like a frock coat of brown colour, and held a large roll of paper in his hand. I greeted him and held out my hand: he rushed over and wanted to kiss it. I pulled my hand back: his servility embarrassed me. Without saying a word, I entered the apartment, while he remained standing in the corridor. I took off my frock coat, put on a smock frock, but he still had not entered the room. I went out into the corridor and looked my acquaintance had vanished. So I went downstairs and asked the janitor whether he had seen him.

“I did see a lad with papers in his hands,” he said. “He ran out into the street.”

I went outside – there was not a single trace of him. I felt as sad as if I had lost something that was dear to me. My sadness prevailed until the next Sunday and I could not think of anything to explain the sudden flight of my friend. After waiting till Sunday, I went to the Troitsky Bridge at two o’clock in the morning and, having admired the sunrise, walked to the Summer Garden, went around all the alleys – but my friend was not there. Just when I was about to go home, I remembered Belvedere Apollo, that is, a parody on the Belvedere god, standing all by itself right near the Moika Quay. There I directed my steps, and there was my friend. On seeing me, he stopped drawing, and flushed to the roots of his hair like a child that had been caught red-handed in the act of stealing jam. I took his trembling hand and led him off to a tavern where, in passing, I ordered the sleepy waiter to bring us some tea. I bestowed as much kindness as I could upon my friend, and when he regained his composure, I asked why he had fled from the corridor.

“You got angry with me, and so it made me afraid,” he replied. “I didn’t even think of getting angry with you,” I told him. “But your humiliation was unpleasant to me. Only a dog licks a hand, a man should not do that.” This strongly expressed idea had such an effect on him that he was about to seize my hand again.

I broke into laughter, a flood of carmine spilled across his face, as he stood there with hanging head. After the tea we took leave of each other. On parting, I told him to see me by all means either that day or the following Sunday.

I do not possess the happy ability of getting to the bottom of a person right away, but I do have the unhappy ability to form a close friendship with a person quickly. I say unhappy, because rarely did a quick rapprochement result in anything good for me. It had been especially true with the one-eyed and squint-eyed: they showed me their real worth. Many a time when I met them there turned out to be not a single decent man among them – just trash. Or l must have simply suffered the frowns of luck.

I was seeing my new acquaintance only for the third time, but we had already become close friends. I had developed a fondness and liking of him. Indeed, there was something in his face which could not but be liked. His countenance, at first not very beautiful, became ever more attractive to me. After all, there are happy faces in this world.

I went straight home, afraid lest I make my friend wait for me in the corridor. And what do you think? No sooner had I walked up the stairs than I saw him. Dressed in the same brown frock coat, he had washed himself, combed his hair, and was smiling. “You are a remarkably fast runner,” I said. “Looks like you went home first, didn’t you? How did you manage to make it so fast?”

“You see, I was in a hurry to be home when the master would be back from mass.”

“Is your master so strict?” I asked.

“Strict and…”

“… and cruel, you wanted to say.”

“No, stingy – that’s what I wanted to say. He’d give me a lashing, while he’d actually be glad I had been late for dinner.”

We entered my apartment. On the easel that day was a copy of Velasquez’s The Old Man which hangs in the Stroganov Gallery, and his eyes drank it in. I took the roll of papers out of his hand, unrolled it, and started looking at the drawings. Here was everything that marred the appearance of the Summer Garden – from the frivolous, sweetly smiling goddesses to the ugly Phraclitus and Heraclitus. And, finally, there were several drawings of bas-reliefs adorning the facades of some buildings, including the bas-relief cupids on the house by architect Montferrand on the corner of the Moika Quay and Fonarny Lane.

But what surprised me in these more than vague outlines was their remarkable resemblance to the originals, especially the outlines of Phraclitus and Heraclitus. They were more expressive than the originals and, truth to tell, uglier as well, but nonetheless I could not look indifferently at these drawings. My discovery made me happy at heart. But it did not enter my mind to ask myself then what I would be able to do with this rough diamond, given my more than inadequate means. To tell the truth, this thought had crossed my mind even then and was immediately absorbed by the proverb: “God is not without mercy, and a Cossack not without fortune.”

“Why don’t you have a single shaded-off drawing?” I asked, handing him the roll back.

“I made them early in the morning, before sunrise.”

“So you didn’t see how they were illuminated?”

“I went to have a look at them in the daytime, but I could not draw them: there were people walking around.”

“What do you intend to do now: stay with me for dinner or go home?” He was silent for a minute or so and, without raising his eyes, said in a faint whisper:

“I’d stay, if you permit me.”

“How will you deal with your master then?”

“I’ll tell him I’ve been sleeping in the loft.”

“All right, let’s go and have dinner.”

Madame Jurgens’ eating house had no visitors when we arrived, and I was very glad. It would have been unpleasant for me to meet some official’s smooth face smiling senselessly at the sight of my ill-clad friend.

After dinner I had a mind to take him to the Academy and show him The Last Day of Pompeii. But not everything should happen at once. So I offered either to take him for a stroll down a boulevard or to read a book. He chose the latter. I, for my part, made him read aloud to examine him on this subject as well. I fell asleep on the first page of Dickens’ famous novel Nicholas Nickleby. But this was neither the writer’s nor the reader’s fault: I simply wanted to sleep, because I had not slept all the night.

When I awoke and went into the other room, my awful studio struck my eye somewhat pleasantly. There were no cigar butts, no tobacco ash anywhere in sight, everything was clean and swept, even the palette that had been hanging on a nail with dried-up paints – it, too, was cleaned and glistened like a piece of glass; while the architect of this harmony was sitting by the window and drawing the mask of Thorvaldsen’s famous model Fortunata.

All this was extremely pleasant to me. This service clearly spoke in his favour. But, for reasons unbeknown to me, I did not let him notice my satisfaction. I corrected an outline in his drawing, put in the shadows, and we went to the Kapernaum for tea. Kapernaum is a tavern actually called Berlin on the corner of Sixth Line and Academy Lane. That is how Pimenov, it seems, christened it during his heady student years.

During tea he told me about his life and fortune. It was a sad, distressing story, told with naive simplicity, without a shade of discontent or reproach. Before this confession I thought about ways of improving his education, but on hearing his life story, I stopped thinking. He was a serf.

This sad discovery perplexed me to such an extent that I lost all hope of his re-education. Silence reigned for al least half on hour. His sobs roused me from my torpor. I looked at him and asked what had made him cry. “It’s unpleasant for you that I… He did not finish his thought and burst into tears. I reassured him as best as I could and we returned to my quarters.

On the way we came upon old Venetsianov. After the first exchange of greetings he looked closely at my companion and asked, smiling good-naturedly:

“A future artist, I suppose?”

To which I replied: “Yes, and no.”

He asked me the reason why. I explained him in a whisper. The old man became thoughtful, shook my hand strongly, and we parted.

I took the way Venetsianov had looked and shaken my hand as a reproach for me having succumbed to hopelessness.

I cheered up and remembered some of the artists, students, and wards of Venetsianov, and saw, to tell the truth, something like a vague glimmer of hope on the horizon.

On parting with me in the evening, my protégé asked me to give him a little print for copying. I happened to have a freshly printed copy of Farnese Hercules, engraved by Slyudzhinsky after the drawing of Zavyalov, and Losenko’s Apollino. I wrapped the originals in a piece of Peterhof paper, provided him with Italian pencils, instructed him how to keep them from becoming hard, and we went out into the street. He went home, while I made for old Venetsianov’s home.