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Taras Shevchenko

Encyclopedia of the life and works



Taras Shevchenko

An unfathomable sadness seized me on reading this simple friendly letter. I saw the brilliant future of my favourite and friend as something that had come to an end at the very height of his radiant fame. But it was already impossible to relieve his distress. As a man he acted imprudently, although in a grandly noble way. If he were simply a hack painter, this event would not have had any effect on his occupation. But for a truly ardent artist that he is, it can have a wholly disastrous effect. To lose the hope of being sent abroad on a state grant – this alone would be enough to destroy a man’s most vigorous energy. Going abroad at his own expense is absolutely out of the question now. If intense efforts do provide him with the means, his wife and children will take away these paltry means before he will have the opportunity to think of Rome and its immortal wonders. And so

Italy, the happy country,

Whither in magic rapture flies

The inspiration of the young

To see its visionary paradise…

this happy, charming country is closed to my friend forever. Maybe an unusual opportunity may open to him the door to this visionary paradise. But such opportunities are incredibly rare. We have no genuine patrons willing to give an artist money so that he go abroad and study. If one of our moneybags does risk such a luxury nowadays, he does it only out of childish vanity.

Не takes the artist abroad with him, pays him a salary like to a hired lackey, and treats him no better than a lackey, making him draw the hotel he stays in, the seashore where his wife takes her sea baths, and similar other unartistic objects. A simpleton drums away in this case: “That’s a genuine lover and connoisseur of the fine arts; see, he took an artist abroad with him!” Poor artist, just to think what goes on in your meek heart when you hear these vociferous foolish exclamations. I do not envy you, poor worshipper of the beautiful both in nature and in art. You, as they say, were in Rome and did not see the Pope. The reputation that attends you for having been abroad must seem the crudest reproach to you. No, it is better to go abroad on foot with a knapsack over your shoulder rather than ride with a lord in a carriage, or to give up altogether the hope of seeing the visionary paradise and seek a secluded refuge in your prosaic homeland and worship the divine idol Apollo on the quiet. Stupidly, how amazingly stupidly did my friend deal with his future. I have been rereading Mikhailov’s candid letter every day for two weeks now, and still I cannot believe in my protégé’s unforgivable stupidity. I do not believe it so much that at times I want to go to St. Petersburg and see this disgusting truth with my own eyes. If it was the vacation, I would not hesitate. But, unfortunately, the academic year is in progress. Consequently, if it were possible to leave, it would be only for twenty-eight days. What could I do for him in half those days? Absolutely nothing, except for seeing what I would not want to see in a nightmare. After giving it serious thought and recovering from the first emotional upset, I decided to wait what old Saturn would tell me. In the meantime, I would keep up a constant correspondence with Mikhailov.

I had lost all hope of receiving any letters from my protégé. The hope of receiving Mikhailov’s letters, though, was blasted. Counting on Mikhailov, I failed to realize that this man was the least capable of maintaining a constant correspondence. If I did receive his reply to my letter much faster than I had expected, I should have considered it as an eighth wonder. One swallow should not have made me expect a summer. There was nothing I could do; I had erred. Who does not make mistakes, after all? In the heat of the moment, I wrote him several letters. I did not receive a single reply, though this did not stop me. I kept on writing, each letter more persistent than the last. I did not receive a single word in reply. In the end, I lost my temper and wrote him a rude letter with the briefest message. It produced the hoped for effect on Mikhailov, and he sent me the following reply:

“It makes me surprised how you find the patience, time, and finally, paper for your tedious, if not to say silly, letters. Whom do you write about? About a fool. Is he really worth thinking about, let alone to be written about in such tedious letters as yours? Don’t care a rap about him – he’s finished, and that’s all there is to it. To comfort you, I’ll tell you something else. In league with his wife and mummy, as he calls her, he began crooking the elbow, that is, drinking. At first he copied his Vestal Virgin and kept up his pursuit to a point when they stopped buying his copies even on the flea market. Then he took to colouring lithographs for stores, and now 1 don’t know what he is doing. Probably he paints portraits for one ruble a mug. Nobody sees him. He hid himself somewhere around the Twentieth Line. To please you, I went to find him the other week. I located his home with some difficulty right by the Smolenskoye Cemetery. He was out that day. His wife told me that he had left for a sitting at some clerk’s home. I had a chance to admire his unfinished Madonna. You know, I grew sad for some reason. Just to think of it – what for did the man go to waste? Since he did not turn up, I left and did not say goodbye to his wife – she looked disgusting to me.

Karl Pavlovich, despite his illness, started to work in St. Isaac’s Cathedral. The doctor advised him to drop the work until next year and go abroad for the summer. But he does not want to terminate what he has begun. Why don’t you come to St. Petersburg for a brief stay at least to have a look at the wonders our miracle worker Karl Pavlovich is performing? At the same time you could also admire your fool. It seems you got married as well but don’t confess it. Don’t write to me anymore; I won’t answer your letters. Farewell.

Yours M.”

Oh, dear God! Could just one reason, that unfortunate marriage, have destroyed the young man of genius so quickly? There is no other reason. An ill-starred marriage indeed!

I looked forward impatiently to the vacation. The examinations were over at last. I went on vacation, and left for St. Petersburg poste-haste. Karl Pavlovich had already left. On the advice of the doctors he abandoned his work and left for Madeira Island. I located the whereabouts of Mikhailov with great difficulty. This eccentric man never had permanent quarters and lived like a bird soaring in the sky. I met him on the street arm in arm with the heady midshipman, who was now a lieutenant. I don’t know in what sort of way he found himself in St. Petersburg again. I could not stand his sight. After exchanging greetings with Mikhailov, I took him aside and began inquiring about the address of my friend. At first Mikhailov exploded in laughter, but then, barely checking it, he turned to the midshipman, and said: “Do you know whose quarters he is asking about? His favorite’s N. N.” Mikhailov burst into laughter again. The midshipman followed suit, but hollowly. Mikhailov made me mad with his inappropriate roaring. In the end, he came to his senses, and said: “Your friend lives now in the warmest quarters imaginable. It’s on the Seventh Verst. You see, he was not admitted to take part in the competition, so without thinking much, he went balmy, and was bundled off to warm quarters. I don’t know whether he is alive or not.”

Without saying goodbye to Mikhailov, I took a cab and went to the Hospital of All Who Sorrow. I was not admitted to the patient, because he was in a fit of madness then. I saw him the next day, and if the keeper had not told me that patient Number So-and-So was the artist N. N., I would have never recognized him myself. Insanity had so terribly altered him. It goes without saying, he did not recognize me either. He took me for some Roman from Pinelli’s drawing, burst into laughter, and walked away from the grilled door. Oh, dear God, what a sad sight – a man crippled by insanity! I could not look on the sad image anymore, said goodbye to the keeper, and returned to town.

But my hapless friend did not give me peace anywhere, neither while I was at the Academy, nor at the Hermitage, or at the theatre – in a word, anywhere. His horrible image haunted me wherever I went. Only my daily visits to the Hospital of All Who Sorrow softened the dreadful initial shock little by little. His violence declined with every day, yet his physical strength spent itself rapidly as well.

In the end, he was unable to get up from bed, and I could freely enter his ward. At times he seemed to be coming to, but still he did not recognize me. Once I arrived at the hospital early in the morning, during which time he felt better. I found him to be completely serene, but he was so weak he could not stir his hand.

Не looked at me at length, as if recalling something. After a long thoughtful, intelligent look he uttered my name in a faint whisper. The next moment tears spilled from his lucid eyes. His quiet weeping turned into sobbing, into such a heart-rending sobbing I had never seen before, and may God preserve me from ever seeing a man sobbing as violently as he did.

I wanted to leave him alone, but he stopped me with signs. I remained in the ward. He stretched out his hand, I took it into mine, and sat down at his bedside. His sobs ebbed little by little, and only large tears rolled down from under his half-closed eyelids. Several minutes later he had calmed down completely and sank into slumber. I quietly freed my hand and left the ward, fully hopeful of his recovery. The next day, also early in the morning, I arrived at the hospital and asked his keeper whom I came across:

“How is my patient?” To which he replied: “Your patient, sir, is in the mortuary already. Yesterday he fell asleep in the morning, and did not wake up.” After the funeral I stayed for another few days in St. Petersburg, not knowing myself the reason why. During one of these days I came across Mikhailov. After he told me how he had seen off the midshipman to Nikolayev the day before and had a drinking bout on the occasion at the Srednyaia Rogatka, the conversation turned to the deceased, his widow, and, finally, to his unfinished Madonna. I asked him to see me to the widow’s home, to which he agreed eagerly, since he, too, wanted to have a last look at the unfinished Madonna. At the home of the deceased we did not see anything to indicate that an artist had lived here, except for a palette with dried paints on it, which was now a substitute for a broken windowpane. I asked about the Madonna. The widow did not understand what I had in mind. Mikhailov explained that we wanted her to show us the painting he had once seen at their home. She took us to another room, and we saw the Madonna, which served for a patch on an old screen.

I offered her ten rubles for the painting. She agreed readily. I rolled up my precious acquisition into a tube, and we left the widow comforted by the ten rubles. The next day I bid farewell to my acquaintances, and left Northern Palmyra forever, I believe. The unforgettable Karl the Great was already passing away in Rome.

October 4, 1856