Start page

Taras Shevchenko

Encyclopedia of the life and works



Taras Shevchenko

The Society for the Encouragement of Artists rented large apartments for five of its pensioners in Kastyurin’s house standing on the Seventh Line between the Bolshoi and Sredny Prospects. Apart from the rooms the pensioners occupied, there were two classrooms adorned with antique statues, such as Venus de Medici, Apollino, Germanicus, and a group of gladiators. I intended my pupil to live in this boarding house (instead of the plaster class under the patronage of the model Taras). Besides the statues, there was also a human skeleton, which it was necessary for him to know, the more so since he drew the anatomical statue of Fischer, without having any idea about a human skeleton.

The next day after the dinner at Venetsianov’s, I paid a call on the then secretary of the Society, Vasily Ivanovich Grigorovich, with such a noble purpose in mind, and asked his permission for my pupil to visit the classrooms of the boarding house.

The obliging Vasiliy Ivanovich gave me in lieu of an entrance card a message to the artist Golovnya who lived with the pensioners as a foreman. I should not dwell on such a sorry character as the artist Golovnya, but since he is a rare character, the more so among artists, I will say a few words about him.

A powerfully, grotesquely drawn figure of Plyushkin pales in comparison with this anti-artist Golovnya. Plyushkin had at least a youth to remember of and, consequently, joy, though not a full, exuberant joy, but joy nonetheless, whereas this poor devil had nothing that could resemble either youth or joy. He was a pensioner of the Society for the Encouragement of Artists, and when he had to complete the program for the second gold medal at an Academy of Arts competition (the subject of the program was Adam and Eve standing over their dead son Abel), he had to have a female model for the painting.

In St. Petersburg it was not easy and, the main thing, not cheap to get one. The fellow set his wits to work and repaired to Kikin, a generous patron of artists and the then President of the Society for the Encouragement of Artists, to ask his assistance, that is, money to hire a model. After receiving a hundred-ruble bill, he sewed it up in his straw mattress, while the primary beauty he drew from a doll which painters use for draperies. He who knows the significance of a gold medal for a young artist will understand the contemptibly petty soul of this niggardly man. Compared with him Plyushkin is a profligate.

It was to this moral freak that I introduced my morally beautiful foundling with the note.

The first time I took the skeleton out of the wardrobe, put it in a posture of a lusty drinker, and lightly sketching the general position of the skeleton, asked my pupil to draw the details. Two days later I compared his drawing with the anatomical lithographs of Bassin with great satisfaction, and found the details to be more distinct and accurate. Perhaps I should put the blame for such a conclusion on the magnifying glass through which I regarded my foundling. Whatever the reason, I liked his drawing.

Не continued drawing the skeleton in various postures and, under the patronage of the model Taras, the statue of Midas, who was hanged by Apollo. All this took its course just like the passing winter and the advent of spring. My pupil was becoming noticeably leaner, paler, and more thoughtful.

“What is the matter with you?” I asked him. “Are you feeling unwell?”

“I am all right,” he answered sadly.

“What makes you weep then?”

“I’m not weeping, it’s nothing.” Tears gushed forth from his expressive beautiful eyes.

I could not understand what was happening. I was already beginning to wonder whether it was not the arrow of a vile cupid that had pierced his chaste young heart, when one latent spring morning he informed me that he would be unable to visit me every day, since work would begin on Monday and he would have to paint fences again. I raised his spirits as much as I could. But I did not breathe a single word about Karl Pavlovich’s intentions, the more so, since I myself knew of absolutely nothing on which I could base any hope.

On Sunday I visited his taskmaster, intending to ask if my pupil could be replaced by a common house painter.

“Why not? It’s possible,” he replied. “The decoration work has not been started yet. But once it begins, you’ll have to excuse me. He is a decorator-painter, and you know pretty well what that means in our trade. Do you really think it possible?” he continued. “Will he have the means to find a replacement for himself?”

“I will provide you a worker.”

“You?” he asked, surprised. “For what joy and gain are you taking the trouble?”

“Just like that,” I replied. “Just for nothing. For my personal pleasure.”

“A fine pleasure, I’d say! You’re throwing your money about for nothing! You must be rolling in money, eh?” And smiling complacently, he continued: “Tell me how much do you charge for a portrait?”

“Depends on the portrait,” I replied, guessing in advance his train of thought. “It also depends on who is commissioning it. You, for instance, I’d charge no more than one hundred rubles in silver.”

“Oh no, sir, you may charge a hundred anyone you wish, but with me it would be good if I’d chance ten rubles.”

“All right, let’s do it this way, then,” I said, extending him my hand. “Release your decorator for about two months, and you’ll have your portrait.”

“For two months?” he said, making up his mind. “I can’t agree for two – it’s too much. A month will do.”

“Well, let it be a month at least. I agree,” I said, and we struck a bargain as if we were horse dealers.

“So when shall we start?” he asked me, “Could as well be tomorrow,” I said, putting on my hat.

“Where are you going? What about drinking a bumper to seal the bargain ?”

“No, thank you. When we’re through, we can do it. Goodbye.”


What is a swift month of freedom within many hard, long years of bondage? It’s like one seed in a sack of poppy seeds. I admired him during that happy month. His expressive young face beamed with such bright joy and happiness that I, forgive me, God, envied him. His poor but neat and clean clothes seemed dandyish to me, and even his frieze greatcoat seemed like it had been made of wool, and of the finest Riga wool for that matter. During dinners at Madame Jurgens’ nobody shot sidelong glances either at me or at him. So I was not the only one to note such a happy transformation.

During one such happy day, as the two of us were walking to Madame Jurgens’, we met Karl Pavlovich on the Bolshoi Prospect.

“Where are you going?” he asked us.

“To Madame Jurgens’,” I replied.

“I’m going with you. For some reason I’m hungry all of a sudden,” he said and turned into the Third Line with us.

Karl the Great liked to visit the talkative Madame Jurgens once in a while. He liked not so much the obliging Madame Jurgens nor her servant Olympiada who had been the late Petrovsky’s model for Hagar. As a true artist, he liked our motley company. There he could see a poor toiler, a Senate clerk dressed in his one and only and far from brand-new uniform, and a skinny, pale university student treating himself to Madame Jurgens’ meals for the money he had received from a rich, fast-living Bursch for copying Fischer’s lectures.

There he could see many and many a thing he could not have seen at the Dumet and St. George restaurants. But whenever he came, the attentive Madame Jurgens asked him to proceed to a table laid in a special room with some unusual, quickly prepared food which he, as a true socialist, always declined to accept. But this time he did not refuse and asked for a table to be laid in the special room for three persons, and sent Olympiada to Fox for a bottle of Jackson’s.

The feet of Madame Jurgens did not touch the ground; she went into such a fuss and bustle she nearly pulled off her new wig along with the cap, when she remembered that the cap should have been changed for such a dear guest. For her he was really a dear guest. From the day he visited her the first time, paying guests started to multiply day after day. And what paying guests they were! Not some riff-raff artists or students or Senate clerks with no more than twenty kopecks to their name, but people who ordered a bottle of mead or some specially prepared beefsteak. It was quite to be expected. If they paid twenty-five kopecks just to have a look at a lady from Amsterdam, so why should they not pay thirty kopecks to have a look at Brüllow at close quarters? Madame Jurgens understood this quite well and exploited it as much as possible.

My pupil sat at the table without uttering a word; silently and with a deepening pallor he drank a glass of Jackson’s, silently he shook the hand of Karl the Great, and silently did he arrive at home, and there, without undressing, he fell on the floor and wept for the rest of the day and throughout the entire night.

One more week of freedom was left, but the next day after the dinner I described, he rolled up his drawings and, without saying a word to me, went out of the door. I believed that he went to the Seventh Line as usual, and so did not ask him where he was going. When dinner time came, he did not turn up, and in the evening, he still had not returned. A day later I went to his taskmaster, but he was not there either. I got afraid, not knowing what to think. Toward the evening of the third day he showed up paler than usual and dishevelled.

“Where have you been?” I asked. “What’s the matter with you? Are you sick? Are you unwell?” – “I’m unwell,” he replied in a barely distinguishable way.

I sent the janitor over to a private physician, Zhidovtsev, and took to undressing and putting my pupil to bed. He obeyed me like a meek child. Zhidovtsev felt his pulse and suggested I have the young man sent to a hospital. “The reason why,” he said, “is because it is dangerous to treat fever at home with your means.” I complied, and that same evening I took my poor pupil to the St. Mary Magdalene Hospital by Tuchkov Bridge. The influence of Zhidovtsev as a private physician made it possible to have my patient accepted without any legal formalities. The following day I informed his taskmaster what had happened, and the formalities were performed with all the attendant ritual. I visited him several times every day, and every time I left the hospital, I felt ever sadder. I had become so accustomed and used to him that I did not know what to do with myself without him. I would walk to the Petersburg side, turn into the Petrovsky Park (at that time it was only just being laid out), arrive at the Sobolevsky dachas, and go back to the hospital again, but he was still burning with fever. I would ask the nurse:

“Has he come round yet?”

“No, sir.”

“Is he delirious?”

“He keeps repeating one and the same thing: red and red!”

“Nothing else?”

“Nothing else, sir.”

I would go out into the street again, pass Tuchkov Bridge, walk to the Sobolevsky dachas, and return to the hospital. Eight days passed in this manner; on the ninth day he regained consciousness, and when I came up to him, he gave me a keen, expressive and warm-hearted look such as I will never forget. He wanted to tell me something, but could not; he tried to stretch out his hand to me, tears being the only thing that followed his efforts. I left the ward.

In the corridor I met the doctor on duty, who told me that the danger had passed and the vigour of youth had triumphed. Reassured by the kindly doctor, I went to my quarters. I lit a cigar, it burned badly, so I threw it away. I went out into the boulevard. Still, something was amiss, something was lacking to complete my happiness. I walked to the Academy and dropped in on Karl Pavlovich – he was not at home. I went out onto the quay, and there he stood by a huge sphinx, watching a yawl with a merry group of passengers skim down the ice-clear river, leaving a long silvery streak in her wake.

“Have you been at my studio?” he asked, without greeting me.

“I wasn’t,” I replied.

“Let us go.”

We went silently to his studio. There we met Lipin. He had brought a palette with fresh paints, and having made himself comfortable in an easy chair, was admiring the still damp underpainting of the portrait of Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky. On our entry, the poor Lipin jumped to his feet and was thrown into confusion like a schoolboy who had been caught red-handed.

“Put away the palette. I won’t work today,” Karl Pavlovich said to Lipin. He sat down on the easy chair. For half an hour at least he looked at his work and, turning to me, said:

“The expression of his eyes must be softer. His verse is soft and sweet, after all. Isn’t that so?”

Without giving me a chance to answer, he continued:

“Do you know the purpose of this portrait?”

“I don’t,” I replied. Another ten minutes of silence followed. Then he got to his feet, took his hat, and said:

“Let us go out into the street, and I will tell you the purpose of that portrait.” When we were on the street, he said:

“I changed my mind. Such things cannot be spoken about beforehand. Besides, I am pretty sure that you are not curious,” he added as a joke.

“If you want it that way, let it remain a mystery to me,” I said.

“It will be so only till the next sitting. Well, how is your protégé getting along? Does he feel any better?”

“He is recovering.”

“Which means that the danger is over?”

“At least that is what the doctor tells me.”

“Goodbye,” he said, extending his hand. “I will drop in on Halberg. I doubt whether the poor chap will get on his feet,” he added sadly, and we parted.