Start page

Taras Shevchenko

Encyclopedia of the life and works



Taras Shevchenko

I was extraordinarily intrigued by that mysterious portrait. Its purpose could perhaps be guessed, but however much I wanted to prove my guess correct, I nonetheless had enough courage not to hint to Karl the Great about it. The truth is, I paid a call on Zhukovsky one fine morning under the pretext of admiring the austere outlines of Cornelius and Peter Hesse, while actually I wanted to find out something about that mysterious portrait. I failed, however. Klenze, Walhalla, Pinakothek, and Munich generally dominated the conversation the entire morning, so that even Düsseldorf had not been mentioned by a single word, while the portrait simply did not exist in this world at all.

The enthusiastic praise of German art by the unforgettable Vasily Andreyevich was interrupted by the appearance of Count Vielgorsky.

“Here is the cause and reason of your current troubles,” Vasily Andreyevich said to the count, pointing at me. The count shook my hand with feeling. I had already framed a question in my mind, when the servant entered and announced the name of some notable. I found my unasked question inconvenient, took my leave, and was let out in the cold, as it were.

In the meantime, the health of the young man improved. My pupil was gaining in spirits and strength not by the day but by the hour, like the famous knight in the fairy tale. Within a week or so, after two weeks of fever, he was on his feet, although he had to hold on to his bed. Still, he looked so sad and unhappy that, disregarding the doctor’s instructions not to engage the patient in any conversations impeding his recuperation, I asked him one day: “You are getting better and should be more cheerful, so what makes you sad?”

“I’m not sad, I’m happy, but I don’t know what I want… I’d like to read.”

I asked the doctor whether I could give the patient something to read.

“Don’t, the more so if it’s serious reading.”

What am I to do then? I cannot be his sick-nurse, and there is nothing else I can help him with.

During these agitating reflections there surfaced in my mind the Russian rendition of Albrecht Dürer’s On Perspective, which I had once studied assiduously and then given up, without having understood it. And strange enough, I recalled the muddle of Albrecht Dürer, but had completely forgotten about the clear and wonderful course on linear perspective by our Professor Vorobyov.

The drawings for the course on perspective were in my portfolio (in disarray, to tell the truth). I collected them and, consulting the doctor at first, gave them to my pupil along with compasses and a triangle; then and there I gave him the first lesson in linear perspective. I did not have to explain the second and third lesson to him: he was just as quick in recuperating as in grasping this mathematical science, without knowing, incidentally, the four rules of arithmetic. The lessons in perspective ended. I asked the senior doctor to discharge my patient from hospital, but he gave me an explanation on hygiene to the effect that for a complete recovery the patient had still to be under medical supervision for a month at least. I agreed reluctantly. Throughout this time I frequently met with Karl Pavlovich, and saw Vasily Andreyevich’s portrait about two or three times after the second sitting. During the conversations with Karl Pavlovich I caught unintentional hints about some secret, but without knowing why, I kept myself aloof from his candour. I seemed to be afraid of something, although unwittingly I had almost guessed the secret. The mystery was soon dispelled. On April 22, 1838, in the morning, I received a note by Zhukovsky written in his own hand, with the following message:

Dear Sir,

Come tomorrow to Karl Pavlovich at eleven o’clock and wait for me, wait for me by all means, however late I shall be.

V. Zhukovsky.

P. S. Bring him along with you.

I watered this divine note with my tears and, not trusting it to my pocket, clenched it in my fist and ran off to the hospital. The door keeper, though he had instructions to let me in at any time of the day, did not let me in this time, saying: “It’s too early, sir. The patients are still asleep.” This made me cool down a bit. I unclenched my fist, smoothed out the note, read it almost syllable by syllable, folded it neatly, put it into my pocket, and returned to my quarters at a staid gait, thanking at heart the door keeper for stopping me.

Long, very long ago, when I was still a student at a parish school, I read stealthily from the teacher Ivan Kotlyarevsky’s famous imitation of The Aeneid. Two of its lines

If something you don't have hands,

Don't saying it's already yours…

had deeply imprinted on my memory, and I frequently applied them in practice. Precisely these two lines surfaced in my mind when I was returning to my quarters.

Indeed, did I know for sure whether this blessed note was related to his affair? I did not know, only sensed it, and sensing something is more often than not deceptive. And what if it would have deceived me this time as well? What horrible evil I would have committed and, just think of, to whom? To the person I loved most of all. I got frightened at the very thought.

Throughout that interminably long day I walked up to Karl Pavlovich’s door about twenty times and backed away with some inexplicable fear. What I was afraid of I did not know myself. On the twenty-first attempt I plucked up enough courage to ring the bell, and Lukyan, looking out of the window, said: “He is not at home.” It took a load off my shoulders, as if I had performed a tremendous feat and regained my breath at long last. I walked quickly out of the Academy onto the Third Line, when I saw Karl Pavlovich coming my way. I was at a complete loss and was about to run from him, but he stopped me with a question:

“Did you get Zhukovsky’s note?”

“I did,” I muttered.

“See me tomorrow at eleven o’clock. Oh yes… if he can, ask him to come over, too,” he added, retreating. Well, thought I, there was not the slightest doubt now, but still

If something you don't have hands,

Don't saying it's already yours…

Several minutes passed and this wise maxim fled from my rather unpractical mind. I had an unconquerable urge to bring him to Karl Pavlovich the very next day. But would the doctor permit it? That was the question. To solve it, I went to the doctor’s home and told him the reason for my unexpected call. He told me a number of cases of mental derangement caused by incidents of sudden joy or grief. “It is the more relevant to bear this in mind,” he concluded, “since your protégé has not fully recovered from the fever.” Such an argument could not be countered by anything, so I, thanking the doctor for his kind advice, took my leave.

I beat the pavement for a long time; I wanted to go to old Venetsianov to hear him say something definite, but it was already past midnight, he was no bachelor like us – so such a visit was out of the question. Why not go to the Troitsky Bridge and watch the sunrise? I thought. The Troitsky Bridge was, however, a long way off and I was beginning to feel tired. Should I not just limit myself to sitting serenely by these huge sphinxes? It would be the Neva just the same. The same, but not the same. After some thought I made for the sphinxes. Sitting down on the granite bench and leaning against a bronze griffin, I admired for a long time the quietly flowing beauty Neva. At sunrise the Academy’s door keeper came to the Neva for water and roused me with what sounded like an admonition:

“Good thing there are no people around, because otherwise you’d be taken for a reveller.” Rewarding the door keeper with ten kopecks for his services, I went to my quarters and fell asleep like a real master of the situation, as it were.

At eleven o’clock, on the hour, I was at Karl Pavlovich’s home. Lukyan opened the door, and said: “He asked you to wait.” In the studio my eye caught Zampieri’s famous painting St. John the Divine, which I knew from hearsay and from Müller’s print. Here was another puzzle! Was the painting the reason Vasily Andreyevich had written me the note? Why did he write “Bring him along with you” then? I took the note out of my pocket, reread the post-scriptum several times, calmed down a bit, and came closer to the painting, but cursed doubts prevented me from beholding this supremely refined work of art with full delight. Beset with doubts, I did not notice Karl Pavlovich entering the studio in the company of Count Vielgorsky and Zhukovsky. I backed away from the painting with a bow and walked over to the portrait of Zhukovsky. They admired the great work of the poor martyr Zampieri at length, while I was dying from expectation. At long last Zhukovsky produced a formally folded paper from his pocket, and handing it to me, said: “Pass it on to your pupil.” I unfolded the paper. It was a leave of manumission certified by Count Vielgorsky, Zhukovsky and Brüllow. I piously crossed myself and kissed these famous signatures three times. Thanking the great and philanthropic trio in whatever way I could, I took leave of them awkwardly, and rushed away straight to Venetsianov. The old man met me with a joyous question:

“What’s new?”

I took the treasured document out of my pocket, without saying a word, and handed it to him.

“I know, I know,” he said, returning me the paper.

“But I do not know anything. For God’s sake, tell me how it all happened?” “Thank God that it did happen, but we will have dinner first, and then I will get down to the story. It is a long and, the main thing, a remarkable story.”

He raised his voice and read a line from Zhukovsky’s translation:

Children, the oat pap is on the table, so offer your prayer.

“We are doing it, daddy,” came a female voice, as Venetsianov’s daughters, accompanied by Mokritsky, came out of the drawing room; we sat at the table. Dinner was noisier and merrier than usual. The old man became animated and told the story of Zhukovsky’s portrait. He hardly mentioned his personal part in this noble event, only adding in conclusion: “I was no more than a simple broker in this magnanimous act.” This is how it evolved. Karl Brüllow painted a portrait of Zhukovsky; the latter and Count Vielgorsky offered it to the August family for 2,500 rubles in cash, for which money my pupil was freed from serfdom. Venetsianov, as he himself had put it, played the part of a diligent and noble broker in this kind deed.

What was I to do now? When and how was I to inform my pupil of this happiness? Venetsianov repeated the same thing the doctor had said, and I was absolutely convinced in the necessity of precaution. But I would not be able to help myself breaking the news! Should I terminate my visits for a time? I could not, because he would think I had fallen ill as well or forsaken him, and it would make him suffer. After much thought I summoned all my will power and went to the St. Mary Magdalene Hospital. I stood the test of the first visit with flying colours; during the second and third visits I started preparing him. I asked the doctor when the patient could be discharged from hospital. He advised caution, and again I was in the tormenting grip of impatience.

One morning I was visited by his former employer who, without beating around the bush, began to reproach me for having plundered him in the most barbaric way and stolen his best worker, which incurred losses running into thousands of rubles. For a long time I could not understand what he was talking about. In what manner had I landed in the category of plunderers? In the end, he told me that the day before he had been summoned by my protégé’s master who informed him on the entire course of events, and demanded that the contract be annulated. In the evening he had been at the hospital and learned that the young man did not know anything about the whole affair.

My precaution had been all for naught! I thought.

“So what do you want from me now?” I asked him.

“Nothing, I was just curious whether it’s true or not?”

“It’s true,” I replied, and we parted.

I was satisfied at such a turn of events. My pupil was now prepared to accept the news more calmly than before.

“Is it true? Can I believe in what I heard?” he asked on meeting me in the door of his ward.

“But I don’t know what you heard.”

“My taskmaster told me yesterday that I..“ he stopped as if afraid to end the phrase. After a moment’s pause he uttered barely audible: “…that I am free… that you…” and he burst into tears.

“Calm down,” I told him. “It only looks like the truth.” But he did not hear anything and continued to weep. Several days later he was discharged from hospital and moved to my quarters, a completely happy man. There is a vast immensity of the beautiful in divine immortal nature, but the triumph and crown of immortal beauty is the face of a man enlivened by happiness. I do not know anything loftier and more beautiful in nature. I had my fill of delight in seeing this beauty once in my lifetime. For several days he was so happy, so beautiful I could not look at him without tender emotion. He transfused his boundless happiness into my soul.

His raptures were alternated by quiet, smiling happiness. Throughout all these days he tried and failed to work. He would put down his drawing, take the leave of manumission out of his pocket, read it almost syllable by syllable, cross himself, kiss it, and burst out crying. To distract him from the object of his happiness, I took the document from him on the pretext of having to register it at the Chamber of Civil Affairs, and every day I took him to the Academy Gallery. When his new suit was ready, I dressed him as if I were a nanny, and we went to the gubernial office. After registering the treasured document, I took him to the Stroganov Gallery and showed him the original of Velasquez. And that was the end of our adventures that day.

This self-portrait represents the poet in the prime of his creative energy, full of noble inspiration. It combines the ingenious manifestation of human emotions peculiar for Romanticism with deep penetration into man’s inner world, characteristic of the Russian and Ukrainian realistic portrait of the 1830s-1840s.

At about ten o’clock the next day I dressed him again and took him to Karl Pavlovich; like a father giving his beloved son to the care of a teacher, I handed him over to Karl Pavlovich Brüllow. From that day on he attended classes at the Academy and became a pensioner of the Society for the Encouragement of Artists.

For a long time I had intended leaving our Northern Palmyra for some modest nook in the hospitable provinces. That year such a desirable place appeared at one of the provincial universities, and I did not fail to avail myself of this opportunity. Had anyone offered me the place of a teacher of drawing at a university back at the time I attended the plaster class and dreamed of a fairyland, of a world capital crowned by the dome created by Buonarotti, I would have flung my pencil aside and exclaimed: “Is it worthwhile studying divine art then!” But now, after imagination and common sense reached a balance, when I looked simply at the future and not through a rosy prism, a proverb came unwittingly to my mind: “A sparrow in hand is better than the pigeon in the sky.”

I should have left during the winter, but personal affairs, especially those related to what was now not mine but Brüllow’s pupil, delayed me in the capital; then there was his illness and lengthy recovery, and, finally, my financial problems. When all that came to an adequate end, and, as I said, I put my protégé under the wing of Karl the Great, I left the capital for a long time, early in May.

On leaving my dear charge, I passed on to him my quarters with the easel, scanty furniture, and all the plaster casts which I could not take along with me as well. I advised him to invite a friend to share the quarters with him until next winter. In winter he would be joined by Sternberg who was in Little Russia at that time and with whom I had agreed to meet at the home of a common acquaintance in Priluky District, where I intended to ask that kindly Vilya settle in my quarters on his return to the capital. That is exactly what happened, to my great joy. I also advised my protégé that he visit Karl Pavlovich, but do it unobtrusively lest he bother him with frequent visits; also, not to shirk classes and read as much as possible. In conclusion, I asked him to write me letters as frequently as he would to his dear father.

Thus leaving him to the protection of Our Lady, I parted with him – alas! forever.