Rare B-Sides: Gogol’s “The Portrait”

[This post is part of a series on literary works that deserve a wider audience.]

Wow! It’s been a long time since I’ve done one of these…But, we return once again to a Rare B-Side of world literature. This time, it’s Nikolai Gogol‘s “The Portrait.”

The Portrait

I love me some Gogol. I’ve raved about him in other places (like my Twitter feed, some cafes and a few bars). He’s a too-often neglected 19th century Russian writer, a sort of Russian Edgar Allan Poe. But that is a gross oversimplification!

Let’s put it this way: What kind of crazy genius do you have to be to have mastered three completely different genres? The novel, the play and the short story? For novels there’s his Dead Souls. Brilliant! For plays, there’s his hilarious and ingenious “The Government Inspector.” And for the short story there’s the absurdist “The Nose.” What kind of genius do you have to be? Well, a Gogolian genius, that’s what!

But we won’t be talking about any of those pieces today. No. Because this is about a rare work. So, today, we’ll be talking about his story, “The Portrait.” I think it’s an important one, because I think it’s a coded warning to painters, writers and artists of any stripe about some basic pitfalls we all should look out for.

So, what’s it about? Well, there’s this young starving artist (a painter), by the name of Chartkov. He’s sort of a talented hack. His portraits are fine enough, but nothing special. One day, perusing the local “picture stall” in St. Petersburg, he comes upon a portrait of an old man wearing an “Asiatic costume.” He buys the painting for a measly 20 kopeks and takes it back home.

And what do you know? Later that night he observes the eyes of the portrait seeming to follow him around the room. So, he covers up the portrait and retires to another room. Later, he hears the sounds of footsteps and sees the man in the portrait has come alive. He gives chase, the man drops something and he disappears back into the painting. He runs up to gather the thing that fell and realizes it is gold, but then he wakes up! It was a dream.

The next day the police visit, planning to ask for his back rent on behalf of the landlord. One of the policemen accidentally cracks the frame of the portrait and actual gold falls out. Without them noticing, Chartkov grabs it. The police eventually leave and Chartkov discovers that more gold is hidden in the frame. He can pay his rent and not only that—he’s essentially set for life!

Chartkov goes on a spending spree. He buys new clothes, moves to a new apartment. And then finally starts paying money for ads and good press to praise his mediocre drawings and paintings. The arts-hungry town of St. Pete takes the bait and soon the aspiring class is beating a path to his studio to have their portraits done. He becomes more and more in demand and is soon a well-known, established and wealthy artist. As Gogol puts it:

“Chartkov became a fashionable painter in all respects. He started to dine out, to accompany ladies to galleries and even on promenades, to dress foppishly, and assert loudly that the artist must belong to the beau monde…In other words, it was soon quite impossible to recognize in him the modest artist who had once toiled, unremarked by the world, in his little garret in Vasilyevsky Island.”

Chartkov’s ascent (Or is it descent? Clever, that Gogol!) gathers pace… His opinions begin to change and he is no longer shy about sharing them.

“‘Something I cannot understand,’ he would say. ‘Is how people can force themselves to sit and slog at their work. The fellow who toils away for months at a single picture is, in my view, a plodder and not an artist. I do not consider him to have any talent. A genius creates swiftly and boldly.'”

His social commitments start to command more and more of his time and energy.

His mind grew weary of the constant effort of conjuring new ideas. He lacked both the energy and time for it: the social whirl into which he had been swept and in which he tried to play the role of a man of fashion carried him further and further away from work and thought.

And in contrast to his earlier commitment to his work, money becomes the measure of success.

Gold became his passion, his ideal, his fear, his pleasure, his purpose. The bundles of banknotes grew in his coffers…he became dull and unreceptive to everything save gold.

Then, one day he receives a letter from the Academy of Arts inviting him to attend the unveiling of a new painting from a Russian painter who has been living in exile in Italy. Being a stylish painter, he goes to the event. But his encounter with the painting does not go as planned. Entering the hall, he finds a great crowd huddled silently in front of the painting, “a rare phenomena with such crowds.”

“Before him hung a painting as pure, beautiful and chaste as a bride. The artist’s creation soared above all else with the humility, divinity, innocence and simplicity of pure genius.”

Ok. Well, that might be a biiiiit much…But we get Gogol’s point. So, what had this artist been doing in Italy? We he a part of the same smart international artistic scene as Chartkov? Nope, not at all. In Rome, this artist had…

“….immersed himself in toil, like a hermit, and allowed nothing to distract him. It mattered nothing to him what people thought of his character, of his gaucherie, his ignorance of social etiquette, or the disrepute into which he brought the artistic profession by his wretched and shabby dress. It mattered nothing to him that his colleagues might be annoyed with him. He gave himself up entirely to art, spurning all else.”

So, what was Chartkov’s reaction to the painting? He is stunned.

“…words failed him, and in lieu of an answer he started sobbing uncontrollably and hurtled from the room like a mad man.”

What happens next? Well, you’ll just have to read the story to find out. For me, it doesn’t really matter. We’ve already seen the meat of what Gogol wants to say. I think it’s rather obvious, but if he were to time travel to the modern day I think what he’d want to say to all the creators out there would be:

“Forget social media. Forget Twitter and Facebook. Forget your brand and your Web presence. Focus on what you’re creating. And focus on making it the best it can be. Don’t worry if it won’t make money or won’t sell. Or if your agent or a publisher won’t like it. Carve out and dedicate time to your craft, study it unceasingly. And when you are creating, do it whole-heartedly and entirely the way you want to…Everything else is bullshit.”

At least, that’s what I got out of this Rare B-Side from the old, wry Russian Master. I hope you get something out of it too.

Until next time.


What’s a Rare B-Side without an actual rare B-side? Here’s the exquisite “Jalfrezi” by the Verve. As rare, and as good, as it gets.

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