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Taras Shevchenko

Encyclopedia of the life and works



Taras Shevchenko

This is not the occasion, and it is mal à propos besides, to dilate on this humanitarian artist; let it be done by one of his numerous students who knows in greater detail his magnanimous deeds in the field of arts.

I told the old man everything I knew about my friend and sought his advice on my future actions in order to bring the matter to a desired result. He, a man experienced in matters of this sort, neither promised nor advised anything positive. He only advised that I get acquainted with the young man’s taskmaster, and alleviate his lot as much as I could at the present time.

I did so. Without waiting for Sunday, I went to the Summer Garden the next day before sunrise, but alas! I did not find my friend; neither did I see him the day after or on the third day. So I decided to see what Sunday would bring.

On Sunday morning my friend appeared. Asked why he had not been in the Summer Garden, he told me that they started work in the Boishoi Theatre (at that time Cavoss was redoing its interior), for which reason he could not now visit the Summer Garden. That Sunday we spent in the same manner as the previous one. In the evening, as we parted, I asked the name of his taskmaster and the hours I could find him at work.

The next day I went to the Boishoi Theatre and made the acquaintance of his master. I praised his stencils effusively and the ceiling patterns he himself had composed, thus laying a firm foundation for our acquaintance. He was the master of a house decoration and painting guild. He permanently kept three, at times even more smock-frocked slovens as his apprentices, and depending on necessity, hired from one to ten Kostroma peasants – painters and glaziers – by the day or by the month, which, consequently, made him by his art and resources a master of a better standing within his guild.

Apart from these financial qualities, I saw several engravings by Audran and Volpato on his walls, and on the chest of drawers several volumes of books, including The Travels of Anacharsis the Younger. This cheered me up. But alas! when I hinted vaguely about improving the lot of his smock-frocked apprentices, he was surprised at such a wild idea and began to prove to me that this would not lead to anything more than to their own ruin.

I did not argue with him at this first meeting. Besides, it would have been to no purpose to convince him of the contrary. People who are financially well-off and intellectually backward do not believe in any theory whatsoever, after living through a meagre youth in dirt and trials and then somehow making it in this godly world. For them there exists no other way to prosperity than the one they themselves covered. And frequently these crude convictions are intermixed with a still cruder feeling: I was not patted on the back, as it were, so why should I pat others?

The guild-master, it seemed, was not devoid of this anti-human feeling. Eventually I managed, however, to persuade him not to hinder my protégé from visiting me on holidays and workdays, when there was no work – say, in winter. Although he agreed, he nonetheless regarded it as indulgence which would lead to nothing but ruin. He almost guessed right.

Summer and autumn passed, winter set in. The work in the Bolshoi was finished, the theater opened, and the sorceress Taglioni started exercising her magic. Young people exalted in dizzy raptures, while the more mature raved about it. Only strict matrons and desperate lionesses grumbled persistently, and during the delirious applause uttered with contempt: “Mauvais genre,” while unapproachable puritanical ladies exclaimed as one: “Obscenity! Obscenity! Open public obscenity!” All these bigots and female hypocrites did not miss a single performance of Taglioni, however. And when the famous actress agreed to become Princess Trubetskoy, they were the first to bewail the great loss and censured the woman for what they themselves could not have achieved with every available cosmetic resource.

Karl the Great (as the late Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky called the also late Karl Pavlovich Brüllow) was extremely fond of the fine arts, whatever their expression, but with regard to modern ballet he was next to indifferent; he spoke of ballet as of a sugar confection. To climax her triumph, Taglioni danced the cachucha (in the ballet La Gitana). That same evening the cachucha spread all over our Palmyra. The next day it already held sway both in the palatial chambers of an aristocrat and in the modest quarters of a Kolomna clerk. The cachucha was everywhere: in the home, on the street, at an office desk, in the tavern, and… at dinner, at supper – in a word, always and everywhere there was the cachucha. I do not mention here the soirées and little evening parties, at which the cachucha was an indispensable element. It was all tolerable as far as beauty and youth were concerned. But then respectable mothers and even paterfamilias joined in the craze, it was simply a St. Vitus dance in the form of cachucha. Soon mothers and fathers came to their senses and started arraying their barely toddling cherubs in à la Gitana tunics. Poor babies, how many tears you shed because of that accursed cachucha! But it made the effect complete, an effect that reached the proportions of speculation. If, for instance, the amphitryon had no cherub of its own, an evening party was adorned with a cherub taken on hire.

‘Tis hard to credit now, though fresh is its renown.

At the height of the cachucha mania I was visited by Karl the Great (he loved visiting his students); he sat down on a couch and became thoughtful. Silently I admired his intelligent curly head. After a minute he quickly raised his eyes, and asked with a laugh: “Know what?”

“I don’t,” I replied.

“Today Huber (translator of the Faust) promised to get me a ticket for La Gitana. Let’s go see it.”

“So send your Lukyan over to Huber for the tickets.”

“Won’t this lad run over?” he said, pointing at my protégé.

“He’ll do it fast. Write the note.” On a shred of grey paper he wrote with an Italian pencil: “Get me two tickets. K.Brüllow.” To this laconic message I added an address, and my Mercury flew away.

“What is he, your model or some servant?” he asked, gesturing at the closing door.

“Neither the former nor the latter,” I replied.

“I like his face: it is not a serfs.”

“Far from a serf’s, but on the other hand “ – I stopped in mid-sentence.

“But on the other hand, he is a serf, isn’t he?” – he picked up the thread of my thought.

“Unfortunately, yes,” I added.

“Barbarism,” he said in a whisper and became thoughtful.

After a minute in this mood he flung the cigar on the floor, took his hat and left, but the next moment he was back, and said: “I’ll wait till he returns to have a look at his face once more.” Then, lighting a cigar, he said: “Show me his work.”

“Who told you I had any?”

“There must be some,” he said with determination. I showed him the finished drawing of the mask of Laokoon and the traced outline of a foot by Michelangelo. He regarded the drawings for a long time, that is, held them in his hands, and looked – God knows what he was looking at by then.

“Who is his master?” he asked, raising his head. I told him the name of the landowner. “Your pupil must be given some serious thought. Lukyan promised to treat me to roast beef, so come for dinner.” After saying this, he went up to the door, and stopped again. “Bring him to my place sometime. Good-bye.”

And he left.

A quarter of an hour later my Mercury returned and announced that he, that is, Huber, wished to call on Karl Pavlovich himself.

“And do you know who Karl Pavlovich is?” I asked him.

“I do,” he said, “but I never saw him face to face.”

“What about today?”

“Was that really him?”


“Why didn’t you tell me, I would have looked at him closer at least. I thought it was just some gentleman. Will he be visiting you again?” he asked after a brief silence.

“I don’t know,” I said, and began to dress.

“Oh, my God! Oh, my God! How I would like to look at him from the distance at least. You know,” he continued, “whenever I walk down the street, I always think of him and look at the passers-by, trying to find him among them. So you say his portrait in The Last Day of Pompeii is very lifelike?”

“Yes, it is, but still you did not recognize him when he had been here. Oh well, don’t you grieve; if he does not visit me before Sunday, we will pay him a call then. For the time being, here is a ticket for you to Madame Jurgens’. I’m dining out tonight.” After giving these instructions, I left.

At Brüllow’s studio I met Vasily Zhukovsky and Count Mikhail Vielgorsky. They were admiring the still unfinished painting The Crucifixion of Christ commissioned by the Lutheran Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. The head of the weeping Mary Magdalene was already finished. As Zhukovsky looked at this marvellous weeping beauty of a woman, he burst into tears himself, embraced Karl the Great, and kissed him as if he were the beauty he had created.

I often visited the Hermitage with Brüllow. The visits were accompanied by splendid lectures on the theory of painting. Every time the lecture concluded with Teniers and especially with his The Barracks. He used to stop for long in front of the painting, and after an exuberant, heartfelt panegyric to the famous Fleming, he would say:

“It is worth coming from America for this one painting alone.” The same could be said today of his Crucifixion and, especially, the head of the weeping Mary Magdalene. After the embraces and kisses, Zhukovsky went out into the other room; Brüllow, on seeing me, gave me a smile and followed Zhukovsky. Half an hour later they returned to the studio, and Brüllow, coming up to me, said with a smile: “The foundation has been laid.” At that moment the door opened, and Huber came in, this time not in a casual uniform but in a black dandyish tailcoat. No sooner had he bowed than Zhukovsky approached him and, shaking his hand in a friendly way, asked him to read the final scene from Faust, which Huber did.

The impression he produced was tremendous, and the poet awarded him with a sincere kiss. Shortly after Zhukovsky and the Count Velyegorsky left the studio, and with fewer people around Huber recited to us his latest creation, Terpsichore.

“I’m definitely against going to see La Gitana,” Brüllow said.

“Why?” Huber asked.

“So as to preserve my faith in your Terpsichore.”

“How is that?”

“It is better to believe in a wonderful fantasy than…”

“Is this to mean,” Huber interrupted him, “that my verse is superior to the divine Taglioni? It’s not worth the little finger, not a nail on her little finger, I swear to God. Oh, I nearly forgot: at Alexander’s today we will be eating macaroni and stofatto with Lachryma Christi. Nestor will be there, Misha et cetera, et cetera… and, lastly, there’ll be Pyanenko.”

“Let’s go!” Brüllow took his hat. “Oh yes, one more thing I forgot,” Huber continued, taking the tickets out of his pocket. “Here are your two tickets, and after the performance come to Nestor at the Exchange.” (That is how Nestor Kukolnik’s literary soirées were called in jest.) “I remember,” Brüllow said, and handed me a ticket, as he put on his hat. “Are you coming with us, too?” Huber asked, turning to me. “Yes!” I replied. “Let’s go!” Huber said, and we went out into the corridor. Lukyan grumbled, as he closed the door: “There’s the roast beef for you!” After the macaroni, stofatto and Lachryma Christi, the company proceeded to the Exchange, while we, that is, Huber, Karl the Great, and me, went to the theatre. Before the overture started I admired the creations of my protégé.

(All the ornaments and arabesques adorning the plafond of the Bolshoi Theatre were done by him on the instructions of the architect Cavoss. I had been informed of this not by him, nor by his enterprising, pushing taskmaster, but by the machinist Kartashov who had always been present during the work and treated my protégé to tea in the morning). I was about to tell Brüllow of the arabesques of my pupil when the overture burst forth. Everyone, myself included, turned toward the curtain. The overture ended, the curtain lifted and the ballet began. Before the cachucha everything went smoothly, the audience behaved like any other well-mannered audience would do. With the first click of the castanets everything was a-quiver and a-tremble. The applause swept across the auditorium like peals of a distant thunder, quietly at first, then louder, and – once the cachucha was over – the thunder crashed in wild abandon. The well-mannered audience, me, its sinful member included, went crazy and howled whatever came to their mind: some shouted “Bravo!”, others “Da capo!” and still others were just moaning and working with their feet and hands. After the first attack of frenzy I looked at Karl the Great and saw sweat rolling down the face of the poor chap – he was working with his hands and feet and shouting at the top of his voice: “Da capo!” Huber did the same. I got my wind back a little and followed suit after my teacher. By and by the hurricane began to abate; encored for the tenth time, the sorceress fluttered on stage, and after several exquisitely graceful curtsies disappeared.

Then Karl the Great got to his feet, wiped the sweat off his brow, and turning to Huber, said:

“Let us go backstage, and you’ll introduce me to her.”

“Let’s go,” Huber said enthusiastically, and we went behind the curtains. Backstage there was already a milling crowd of admirers consisting mostly of bald pates, spectacles and opera glasses. We joined the crowd. Not without effort did we push our way to the centre of this mass. Oh God, what did we see there! The fluttering sorceress, who minutes ago had been as light as Zephyr, was lying on a reclining chair, with gaping mouth and distended nostrils like an Arab steed, while ceruse and rouge mixed with sweat were running down her face like turbid rivulets in spring.

“Disgusting!” Karl the Great said and backed out.

I followed him, while poor Huber – poor devil he was indeed! – had just finished delivering a well-turned compliment befitting the occasion and, after having uttered the name Brüllow, turned round, but Brüllow was gone. I don’t know how he extricated himself from that mess.

There was one more act of the ballet to be seen, but we left the theater lest we spoil the dessert with cabbage, as Brüllow put it. I don’t know whether he went to a ballet after La Gitana, but I know for sure that he never spoke of ballet anymore.