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Taras Shevchenko

Encyclopedia of the life and works



Taras Shevchenko

I return to my hero. After Brüllow had told me, “The foundation has been laid,” hope started to take on more definite forms in my imagination. I began thinking of the best way to occupy my pupil.

My domestic resources were paltry. I thought about the Gallery of Antique Art. Andrei Grigoryevich (keeper of the gallery) would be very likely to agree, but in the gallery the statues were so poorly illuminated, it was difficult to draw them. After much thinking I turned with a twenty kopeck coin to the living Antinous, the model Taras, so that he let my pupil into the plaster classroom after classes.

That is just what I did. Throughout the week (he had his meals in the classroom as well) he drew the head of Lucius Verus, the libertine confidant of Marcus Aurelius, and the head of The Genius by Canova. Then I made him attend the figure class and told him to begin by drawing human anatomy from four sides. During my free time I visited the class and encouraged the indefatigable toiler with a pound of sifted-flour bread and a piece of sausage. His invariable meal consisted of a hunk of black bread and water, if Taras brought the water. Occasionally, I also stopped to feast my eyes on the Belvedere torso and, unable to check the urge, would sit down and draw it myself. A marvellous, exemplary work of antique sculpture! Small wonder the blind Michelangelo admired by touch this piece of a Hercules at rest. So it is strange that in the travelogue of a certain gentleman, Gersevanov, there is such an artistically true appreciation of Michelangelo’s pedantic creation The Last Judgment, of the divine frescos of Raphael and many other famous works of sculpture and painting, while in the Belvedere torso he sees only a piece of marble and nothing more. Strange indeed!

After anatomical sketches he made a drawing of Germanicus and a dancing faun. Then one fine morning I introduced him to Karl the Great. His delight was beyond description when Brüllow praised his drawings kindly and condescendingly.

Never in my life had I seen a merrier and happier man than him throughout the next few days. “Is he really so sweet and kind?” he asked me several times. “Always,” I replied. “And is that red room his favourite one?” “It is,” I said. “Everything red! Red room, red couch. Red curtains on the window. Red dressing gown and a picture in red, everything red! Will I ever see him that closely again?” After this question he burst out crying. I did not comfort him, of course. What other concern, what comfort could be superior to these happy, heavenly, divine tears? “Everything red!” he repeated through sobs. The red room hung mostly with expensive oriental weapons and illuminated by the sun through transparent red curtains, impressed me for a minute, used to the decoration that I was, but it remained imprinted on his memory to the grave. After his long and terrible trials he had forgotten everything: both art, his spiritual life, and the love that had poisoned him, and me, his sincere friend – he had forgotten everything altogether: the red decorations and Karl Pavlovich were the only things on his mind.

The next day after the visit I met Karl Pavlovich, and he asked me the address, first and second name of the young man’s lord. I informed him. He took a cab and drove off, saying:

“See me in the evening!”

In the evening I visited him.

“He is the biggest swine in house shoes I have ever seen!” was the first thing Karl Pavlovich said on meeting me.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, having guessed who he was talking about.

“The matter is that tomorrow you’ll see that reptile and ask him to set the price for your pupil.”

Karl the Great was out of humour.

Не was silent for a long time, pacing up and down the room, then he spat in exasperation, and said:

“Vandalism! Let’s go upstairs,” he added, turning to me, and we went up to his apartments where he had his bedroom and library which also served him as a dining room.

He ordered a lamp to be brought. Asking me to read him something, he sat down to finish a sepia, A Sleeping Odalisque, for Vladislavlev’s album, it seems.

Our peaceful occupation did not last long, though. The swine in house shoes must have been still preying on his mind.

“Let’s go outdoors,” he said, covering the drawing.

We went out into the street, walked along the quay for a long time, and then came out into the Bolshoi Prospect.

“Well, is he at your place now?” he asked me.

“No, he does not stay for the night,” I said.

“Let’s have supper somewhere,” he said, and we went to Deli’s. I have seen quite a few Russian landowners of various sorts in my lifetime: both rich and of middling means, and crofters. I even saw some who lived permanently either in France or England and spoke in rapture about the prosperity of the local farmers and peasants, while back in their home country they robbed the muzhik of his last sheep. I saw many an eccentric of the latter type. But I never saw a Russian who in his home would have rudely received Brüllow. My curiosity was excited to the extreme: I could not fall asleep for a long time, thinking and asking myself what that swine in house shoes could look like. My curiosity flagged, however, when I was putting on my tailcoat next morning. Common sense told me that this swine was no such interesting rarity, for which I should be sacrificing my self-esteem, although the matter I had to deal with called for greater sacrifice. Still, there was the question: what if I, just like my great teacher, would be unable to stand the torture? What then? After some thinking I took off the tailcoat, donned my casual coat, and went to the old man Venetsianov. He was experienced in such matters, and must have had not once nor twice met such eccentrics, coming out of such encounters with credit.

Venetsianov was already at his work when I called on him. He was making an India-ink drawing of his own painting, Mother Teaches her Child to Pray. The drawing was commissioned for Vladislavlev’s almanac The Dawn. I explained the reason for my ill-timed visit, told him the address of the reptile; the old man interrupted his work, dressed, and we went out into the street. He took a cab and drove off, while I returned to my quarters, where I met my cheerful happy pupil. His cheerfulness and happiness seemed to have been marred by something. He resembled a person who wanted to confide a great secret in his friend, but was afraid of doing it lest the secret become public. Before I took off my coat and donned my smock frock I noticed that something was definitely wrong with my friend.

“Well, what’s new?” I asked him. “What did you do yesterday evening? How’s your master?”

“He is all right,” he answered in a halting voice. “I read André Savoyard before he retired to bed, and then I lit the stearin candle you gave me and drew.”

“So what did you draw?” I asked. “From a print or something else?”

“Just something,” he said, blushing. “Recently I read Ozerov’s Oedipus in Athens and I liked it, so I tried to arrange a composition.”

“That’s good. Did you bring the composition along? Let me have a look.” He produced a small bundle of paper from his pocket, and as he unrolled it with trembling hands and gave it to me, he said several times:

“I hadn’t the time to trace it with a pen.” This was his first creation, which it took him so much effort to show to me. His modesty or, still better to say, timidity was to my liking. It was a true sign of talent. I also liked the work itself for its simplicity: Oedipus, Antigone, and Polynices in the distance. Only three figures. The first attempts are rarely that laconic. They are always complicated. The young imagination does not contract nor concentrate on one expressive word, note, or line. It needs space, it soars and in its soaring it frequently gets tangled, falls, and shatters against what is indestructibly laconic.

I praised his choice of scene, advised that he, apart from poetry, should read history, and more than anything else diligently copy good prints like those of Raphael, Volpato or Poussin and Audran, for instance.

“Your master has the one and the others, so draw in your spare time. I’ll get the books for you.” Then and there I gave him several volumes of Gillies’ History of Ancient Greece.

“My master has a full portfolio of prints besides the ones than hang on his walls,” he said, accepting the books. “But he does not permit me to copy them: he is afraid I will ruin them. Yes…” he continued, smiling, “I told him you had taken me to Karl Pavlovich and showed him my drawings and that…” he faltered at that point, “and that he… oh, well, I don’t believe it myself.”

“What is it?” I picked up the thread of his thought.

“He doesn’t believe that Brüllow praised your drawings?”

“He doesn’t believe that I saw Karl Pavlovich at all, and called me a fool when I tried to prove it to him.”

Не wanted to say something else when Venetsianov came into the room and, taking off his hat, said smilingly:

“Nothing out of the ordinary! A landowner just as they come. Truth is, he kept me in the entrance hall for about an hour. Oh well, it’s just a habit of theirs. Nothing you can do about it: a habit is the same as a law. He received me in his study. The study was something I didn’t like. To tell the truth, everything in it was luxurious, expensive and gorgeous, but it all was gorgeous in a Japanese sort of way. At first I discoursed upon enlightenment in general and philanthropy in particular. He heard me out at length and with attention, interrupting me in the end: ‘Why don’t you tell me straight off and simply what you and your Brüllow want from me? He threw me off my balance yesterday. That’s a veritable American savage for you!’ He burst into loud laughter. At first I got confused, but I soon regained my composure and told him about my business matter-of-factly and simply. “You should have said so a long time ago, instead of dilating on philanthropy. What has philanthropy got to do with it! It’s money, and nothing else!” he added, pleased with himself. “So you want to know the final price? Did I understand you correctly?” To which I replied: “It is so indeed.” – “All right then, here is my price: two thousand five hundred rubles! Agreed?” – “Agreed!” I replied. – “He is a craftsman,” he added, “and necessary in my household”… Then he was about to say something else, but I bowed and left. And here I am,” the old man concluded with a smile.

“Hearty thanks to you.”

“And hearty thanks to you as well!” he said, shaking my hand strongly. “You gave me a chance to do at least something for the benefit of our beautiful art and to see for myself at last a crank who calls our Karl the Great an American savage.” The old man laughed jovially. “I contributed my share,” he said, after he ceased laughing. “Now it’s up to you to do the rest. In case of failure, I will approach the English Club again. So long.”

“Let us go to Karl Pavlovich together,” I said.

“I won’t go there and I don’t advise you either. Remember the proverb: “An untimely guest is worse than a Tatar,” especially so with an artist and in the morning besides. It’s much worse than an entire Tatar horde.” – “You make me blush for today’s morning,” I said.

“Not in the least. You acted like a true Christian. For work and leisure we have determined the hours. But for a good deed there are no fixed hours. A hearty thanks again for your visit today. Goodbye! We have dinner at home today. Do come. If you see Belvedere, bring him along,” he added on leaving. Belvedere was the way he called Apollon Nikolayevich Mokritsky, a student of Brüllow and an ardent admirer of Schiller.

In the street I parted with Venetsianov and went to Karl Pavlovich to inform him of the results of my personal diplomacy. But alas! even Lukyan was out. Lipin, thankfully, looked out of the kitchen and said that the host had gone to the Portico. I went there – but the Portico was closed (that is how we used to call the building standing behind what is now the Academy Garden, where Brüllow, Baron Klodt, Sauerweid and Bassin had their studios). Walking through the Liteiny Dvor, I reached the street, and passing by the store of Dovizielli, saw the curly-headed profile of Karl the Great through the window. On seeing me, he went out into the street.

“Well?” he asked.

“Where are you dining today?” I inquired.

“I don’t know. Why do you ask?”

“I’ll tell you why,” I said. “Let us go to Venetsianov for dinner; he will tell you such strange things about the reptile as you have probably never heard and will never hear.”

“Good, let us go,” he said, and we went to Venetsianov.

During dinner the old man told about his visit that day, and when he came to the part about the American savage, we all burst into laughter which became hysterical by the end of the dinner.