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Taras Shevchenko

Encyclopedia of the life and works



Taras Shevchenko

His first letters lacked variety and resembled the detailed and monotonous diary of a schoolboy. They were interesting only for me and nobody else. His subsequent letters began to reveal both smoothness, competence, and, occasionally, substance, as his ninth letter, for instance:

Today at ten o’clock in the morning we wound the canvas with The Crucifixion on a roller and had it taken by the models to the Lutheran St. Peter’s and Paul’s Church. Karl Pavlovich entrusted me with accompanying it right to the church. Fifteen minutes later he himself arrived, willed the canvas to be stretched on the frame again and put in place. Since it had not been varnished yet, it did not show anything but a dark mat spot from the distance. After the midday meal Mikhailov and I went and varnished it. Shortly after Karl Pavlovich arrived; at first he sat down in the front pew, and after staying there for a while went to the very last pew. We also came up to him and sat at his side. He sat there silently for a long time, saying occasionally: “Vandal! There isn’t a single ray of light falling on the sanctuary. What do they need that painting for? Now if it be this way!” he said, turning to us and pointing at the arch dividing the church. “If The Crucifixion of Christ were to be painted on the entire length of this arch, it would have been a painting worthy of the Son of Man.”

Oh, if only I could convey to you at least a hundredth, a thousandth part of what I heard from him then! But you yourself know how he speaks. It is impossible to commit his words to paper – they turn to stone.

Right then and there he created this colossal painting, with all the minutest details, in his imagination and put it in place. And what a painting it was! Nicholas Poussin’s Crucifixion is no more than an artefact of provincial craftsmanship from Suzdal in comparison, and Martin is nothing to talk about.

He kept indulging in these fantasies, while I listened with reverence; then he put on his hat and left the church, Mikhailov and I following him.

Walking past the statues of the Apostles Peter and Paul, he said: “Dummies in wet rags! Just to think of it – they are replicas from Thorvaldsen!” On our way past the store of Dazziaro, he mingled with the crowd of gapers and stopped at the window hung with coloured French lithographs. My God, thought I, looking at him. And this is the very same genius who just recently had soared so high in the realm of the fine arts and now was admiring the sickly sweet beauties of Grevedon! Incomprehensible! But, incidentally, it is true. Today I did not attend classes for the first time, because Karl Pavlovich did not let me; he sat Mikhailov and me at a checkers board for the two of us to play against him, and lost to us a ride in his carriage for three hours. We went on a ride to the islands, while he stayed at home, waiting us for supper.

Р. S. I do not remember whether I wrote you in my last letter that during my third quarterly examination in September I was transferred to the nature class as a top student for my Warrior. Had it not been for you, my unforgettable friend, I would not have been advanced to the nature class even after a year. I began attending Professor Buyalsky’s lectures on anatomy. He is now reading on the skeleton. In this case, too, you are the reason why I know the skeleton by heart. In everything and everywhere, you are my only, my unforgettable benefactor. Farewell. Devoted to you with all my being.

Yours, N.N.

The rest of the story I intend telling by means of his own letters. It will be the more interesting, since in them he frequently describes the pursuits and almost day-to-day domestic life of Karl Pavlovich, whose favourite pupil and comrade he was. For the future biographer of Brüllow I will eventually publish all the letters, but now I will offer only those which are directly related to his studies and development in the field of the fine arts and the evolution of his inner highly moral life.

“October is already coming to an end, but there is still no trace of Sternberg. I do not know what to do with the quarters. It is no burden for me, and I share the rent with Mikhailov. I stay almost uninterruptedly at Karl Pavlovich’s place, only occasionally returning to my quarters for the night and sometimes staying the night at his home. As for Mikhailov, he does not come home for the night at all.

God knows where and how he lives. I see him only at Karl Pavlovich’s or occasionally during classes. He is a very original person and kind at heart. Karl Pavlovich suggests I move over to his home for good, but I am ashamed and, I am afraid to tell you, it seems to me that I feel more free having quarters of my own, and secondly, I’d terribly like to live together with Sternberg for several months at least, primarily because you had advised so. You would not give me bad advice.

Karl Pavlovich is working industriously on a copy from Domenichino’s painting St. John the Divine. The copy was commissioned by the Academy of Arts. While he works, I read. He has a large library, but it is absolutely without order; several times we tried to impart a semblance of order to it, but it all ended in failure.

However, there is no lack of things to read. Karl Pavlovich promised Smirdin to make a drawing for his One Hundred Litterateurs, for which he has Smirdin’s entire library at his service. I read almost all the novels by Walter Scott and am now reading Michaud’s History of the Crusades.

I like it much more than the novels, and I Karl Pavlovich says the same. I made a sketch of Peter the Hermit leading a crowd of crusaders through a German town, abiding in my drawing by the manner and costumes of Retzsch. I showed it to Karl Pavlovich; he strictly forbade me to take subjects from anything but the Bible and ancient Greek and Roman history. “Everything in it is simplicity and finesse,” he said. “But in medieval history, there is immorality and ugliness.”

So now I have no other books but the Bible at my home. The Travels of Anacharsis and Gillies’ History of Greece I am reading for Karl Pavlovich at his home, and he always listens with equal pleasure.

Oh, if only you could see with what attention, with what deep-rooted love he is finishing his copy! I simply revere him, and it cannot be otherwise.

But still what an enchanting, magical effect of the original! Either it is no more than my prejudice, or time has so charmingly shaded off those colours, or it is Domenichino… But no, that is a sinful thought. Domenichino could never be superior to our divine Karl Pavlovich. At times I want the original to be taken away as fast as possible.

Once during supper the conversation revolved around copies, and he said that neither in painting nor in sculpture does he admit the existence of true copies, that is, re-creations. In verbal poetry he knows but one and only one imitation – that is Zhukovsky’s rendition of The Prisoner of Chillon, which he recited by heart on the spur of the moment. How marvellously he recites poetry. Really and truly, far better than Bryansky and Karatygin.

About Karatygin, by the way. The other day we went to the Mikhailovsky Theater, which staged Thirty Years or the Life of a Gambler – a brackish, briny drama, as he put it. Between the second and the third acts he went backstage and dressed up Karatygin for the part of the beggar. The audience went wild, not knowing why. What a lot a costume means for a good actor.

Taglioni has already arrived in St. Petersburg and will soon sally forth in her magic flights. He, however, does not like her overmuch. Oh, if Sternberg would arrive sooner. Without having seen him, I have come to like him. Karl Pavlov is too enormous for me, and for all his goodness and kindness, it occasionally seems to me that I am alone; Mikhailov is a wonderful and noble comrade, but he is not keen on anything and no beauty seems to fascinate him, or it might be that I do not understand him. Good-bye, my unforgettable benefactor.”

“I am filled with delight! Sternberg whom I had been expecting so long and impatiently has arrived at last. And how unexpectedly! I got afraid and could not believe my eyes for a long time, taking him for something like an apparition. At that time I was working on the composition for the sketch Ezekiel on a Field Strewn with Bones.

It was around two o’clock in the morning. Suddenly the door opened – I was engrossed in the sketch and had forgotten to lock the door – and there appeared a human figure dressed in a fur coat and warm cap. Thrown into fright at first, I did not know how I uttered: “Sternberg!”

“Sternberg,” he replied, and without giving him a chance to take his coat off, I started kissing him and he reciprocated.

After admiring each other at length, he remembered at last that the cabman was waiting for him outdoors; he went to the cabman, while I made off to the janitor to ask his help in taking in Sternberg’s luggage. When all this was done, we had a chance to draw breath. It was strange, but it seemed to me that I had met an old acquaintance or, still better, was seeing you before me. While I plied him with questions and he told me where and how he met you, what you had been talking about, and how you parted, the night had passed. We realized it was dawn, when we saw the candlestick casting a bright-blue shadow. “Well, I think we should have some tea now,” he said.

“I agree,” I said, and we made for the Golden Anchor.

After tea I put him to bed, and then went to Karl Pavlovich to share my joy with him, but he was still sleeping. Since I had nothing to do, I walked along the quay, and no sooner had I made several steps than I met Mikhailov, who must also have stayed up all night; he was walking with a gentleman in spectacles.

“Lev Alexandrovich Elkan,” Mikhailov said, introducing the gentleman in spectacles to me.

I told him my name, and we shook hands. Then I informed Mikhailov of Sternberg’s arrival, and the gentleman in spectacles was glad as if at the arrival of a long expected friend.

“Where is he then?” Mikhailov asked.

“At our quarters,” I replied.



“Well, let’s go to Kapernaum then; they’re not sleeping there, I suppose,” Mikhailov said. The gentleman in the spectacles gave a nod of agreement, and they went off arm in arm, with me following. Walking past Karl Pavlovich’s house, I saw Lukyan’s head in the window, from which I concluded that the maestro was up. I took leave of Mikhailov and Elkan and went to him. In the corridor I met him carrying a palette with clean brushes, greeted him, and retraced my steps. Now I was in no condition to read aloud for him, let alone to myself. Walking for some time along the quay, I returned to my quarters. Sternberg was still asleep; I silently sat down on a chair opposite his bed and admired his childishly virginal face. Then I picked up a pencil and paper and took to drawing your and, consequently, my sleeping friend. His likeness and expression came out fairly well for a sketch, but no sooner had I outlined his entire figure and marked the folds on the blanket than Sternberg awoke and caught me red-handed. I got confused, he noticed it and burst into the heartiest laughter.

“Show me what you have done,” he said, getting up.

I showed him the sketch; he laughed again and praised my sketch to the skies.

“I will repay you in kind some day,” he said, and laughed. Jumping out of the bed, he washed himself, and after having unpacked his suitcase, he dressed. Out of the suitcase, from under his clothes, he produced a portfolio, and handing it to me, said: “Here is everything I did during the past summer in Little Russia, apart from several pictures in oils and water colours. Have a look if time permits, while I have to pay some calls. Goodbye,” he said, extending me his hand.

“I don’t know what’s at the theatre, I have missed it terribly. Let’s go to the theatre together.”

“With great pleasure,” I said. “But please drop in to nature class for me.

“All right, I will,” he said, over the threshold already.

Had not Lukyan come for me from Karl Pavlovich, dinner would have been the last thing on my mind and I was disappointed having left Sternberg’s portfolio uninspected for the sake of Lukyan’s roast-beef. During dinner I told Karl Pavlovich of my happiness, and he wished to see him. I told him that we had agreed to meet each other at the theatre. He desired to join us if something worthwhile was staged. Fortunately, The Enchanted House was on at the Alexandrinsky Theatre that day. When the lesson was over, Karl Pavlovich came into the classroom, took Sternberg and me, sat us in his carriage, and we drove off to see Louis XI. Thus ended the first day.

The following day, in the morning, Sternberg took his thick portfolio and we went to Karl Pavlovich’s place. He was delighted with your monotonously diverse country, as he put it, as well as with your pensive countrymen, whom Sternberg had re-created so remarkably true to life.

What a multitude of drawings, and how beautiful all of them were. On a little scrap of grey wrapping paper a horizontal line was drawn, with a windmill and a pair of oxen standing near a wagon loaded with sacks in the foreground.

All of this had not been drawn but only suggested – yet what a beauty! I could not tear my eyes away. Or there was another picture, in which a white straw-thatched cottage standing in the shade of a branchy willow tree right by the water’s edge was reflected in the water as in a mirror. By the cottage stood an old granny, and a flock of ducks was swimming on the pond. That’s all there was in the picture, but how complete and lifelike it was!

Sternberg’s portfolio was full of such pictures or, it would be still better to say, stirring essays. The remarkable, splendid Sternberg! No wonder Karl Pavlovich kissed him.

Unwittingly I recalled the Chernetsov brothers who had recently returned from a voyage down the Volga and brought Karl Pavlovich their drawings: a huge heap of Whatman paper with pen drawings, done with Germanic precision. Karl Pavlovich looked at several drawings, and closing the portfolio, said (understandably, not in the presence of the Chernetsov brothers): “I can’t hope seeing here not the Mother Volga, but a decent big puddle.”

In a sketch by Sternberg, however, he sees the whole of Little Russia. He liked your country and the doleful faces of your countrymen so much that today during dinner he built himself a croft on the bank of the Dnieper near Kiev in his imagination, with adjoining lands and the most charming scenery. There is one thing, however, which he is afraid of and cannot remove from his mind – that is the landowners or, as he calls them, the feudal dog lovers. He is a complete child, a child in all his charm.

Today, too, we ended up going to a theatre; they staged Schiller’s The Robbers. Operas almost do not exist, and rarely is there Robert or Fenella staged. Ballet, or more exactly, Taglioni, has destroyed everything. Goodbye, my unforgettable benefactor.”