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Taras Shevchenko

Encyclopedia of the life and works



Taras Shevchenko

“For over a month now I have been living together with the incomparable Sternberg and I’d wish that God grant real brothers to live as we do. What a kind, meek creature he is. A genuine artist. Everything smiles on him just as he smiles on everything. His is a happy, enviable nature! Karl Pavlovich is very fond of him. And knowing him, how can you not like him?

This is how we spend the days and evenings: in the morning, I leave for painting classes at nine o’clock. (I am already doing sketches in oils, and during the past examination I was the third best in class). Sternberg stays at home and makes water colours or little oil paintings from his sketches. At eleven o’clock I either drop in on Karl Pavlovich or arrive at home and have breakfast with Sternberg on what God has sent us. Then it is back to classes where I stay until three o’clock, when we go to Madame Jurgens’ for dinner. Occasionally Karl Pavlovich joins us, because I see him with Sternberg almost every day and frequently he refuses a sumptuous aristocratic dinner in favour of a scanty democratic soup. He is a truly unusual person!

After dinner I leave for classes. At seven o’clock Sternberg arrives at the classes and we go to the theatre, or after a stroll down the quay, we return home and I read something aloud, while he works, or the other way round.

Recently we read Walter Scott’s Woodstock. I was very interested in the scene in which Charles II of the Stuarts, who is hiding under a false name in the castle of the old Baronet Lee, reveals himself to the baronet’s daughter Julia Lee as the King of England and offers her the honourable place of a concubine at his court. A truly regal gratitude for hospitality! I made a sketch and showed it to Karl Pavlovich. He praised my choice and the sketch itself and willed that I study Paul Delaroche.

Sternberg introduced me to the Schmidt family recently. He is some distant relative of his, a wonderful man, while his family is simply God’s grace. We visit them frequently in the evening, and have dinner with them on Sundays. A wonderful family. Whenever I leave them for home I feel purer and kinder. I do not know how to thank Sternberg for this acquaintance.

Не also introduced me to the family of a Little Russian aristocrat, the same one he and you met during last summer in Little Russia. I go there rarely, and if I do, it is, in fact, only for Sternberg’s sake. I dislike that condescending tone and coarse flattery of his uncouth guests whom he treats to sumptuous meals and Little-Russian plum brandy.

For a long time I could not understand how Sternberg could tolerate such scenes. At long last the reason became clear. Once he returned from the Tarnovskys absolutely not his own self, that is, he was angry. After pacing up and down the room at length, he lay down on his bed, got up, and lay down again; he did that for about three times, after which he calmed down and fell asleep. Presently I heard him utter the name of one of Tarnovsky’s nieces in his sleep. I started to realize what the matter was all about. The next day my Vilya was off to the Tarnovskys again and returned late at night, in tears. I pretended not to notice. He dropped on a sofa, covered his face with his hands, and sobbed like a child. He carried on like that for an hour at least. Then he got up, came up to me, embraced me, gave me a kiss, and smiled bitterly; he sat at my side and told me the story of his love. It was an altogether typical story. He fell in love with Tarnovsky’s eldest niece, and although she reciprocated, she preferred some bald physician, Burtsov, in favour of him in the matter of marriage. An absolutely typical story. After this confession he calmed down somewhat, and I put him to bed. I scarcely saw him on the second and third day: he would leave early, return late, and God alone knew where he spent the day. I tried to engage him in conversation, but he barely answered me. I proposed we visit the Schmidts, but he only shook his head in the negative. On Sunday morning I suggested we should go to the conservatory of the Botanical Gardens, and he agreed, though reluctantly, it must be said. The conservatory produced a good effect on him, and he began dreaming of travelling to those magic countries where all these amazing plants are as common as the thistle in our parts.

On leaving the conservatory, I suggested we have dinner at the German tavern on Krestovsky Island, to which he agreed readily. After dinner we listened to the Tyrolese singing, watched people tobogganing down a hill, and went by cab straight to the Schmidts. The Schmidts were dining out at the home of Fitztum (the inspector of the University) that day and stayed there for the evening. When we arrived there, we were met with questions and exclamations: Where had we been all this time? At the Schmidts’ we immensely enjoyed Beethoven’s quintet and Mozart’s sonata, with the famous Behm performing the solo, and returned to our quarters at one o’clock in the morning. Poor Vilya became thoughtful again. I am not comforting him, and what comfort could I bring him anyway?

On Karl Pavlovich’s request I went to the bookstore of Smirdin the next day, and apart from other books, picked up the two issues of Library for Reading which contained Dickens’ novel Nicholas Nickleby. I intend arranging literary soirees at the Schmidts, to which I will invite Sternberg. I did as I had planned. That same day after evening classes we went to the Schmidts, the books under our arms. My idea was received with a great deal of enthusiasm, and after tea the reading commenced.

The first evening I read, the second Sternberg, then me again, then he, and thus we continued until the novel was read to the end. It had a wonderful effect on Sternberg. After Nicholas Nickleby we read Kenilworth in the same manner, then Fair Maid of Perth and several other novels by Walter Scott. We frequently sat late past midnight and did not notice how the Christmas holidays had commenced. Sternberg has become his own self, at least he works and is less sad than before. With God’s help, he’ll get over that, too.

Goodbye, my dear father. I do not promise to write to you soon, because the holidays are beginning and thanks to Sternberg I have, apart from the Schmidts, made several other acquaintances which must be maintained. For the holidays I had myself a new costume made and an overcoat of English wool, exactly like the one Sternberg has – the Schmidts won’t call us Castor and Pollux for nothing. For spring we intend to have ourselves overcoats of camelot made on order. I have come by some money now. I started painting water-colour portraits, at first as a favour and then for money, but I do not show them to Karl Pavlovich yet – I am afraid to do it. In my work I adhere more to Sokolov, Gau is not to my liking – he is sickly sweet. Also, I am thinking of studying French – that is necessary. One elderly widow offered me her services in this respect, for which I would have to teach her son to draw. It is a reciprocal favour, but I don’t like it: firstly, because it’s far to go to her home (to Ertelev Lane), and secondly, two hours of fussing with a spoiled child is pretty much for a commission. These two hours can be used to better advantage by painting watercolour portraits and then paying for a tutor. I think you believe it to be better as well. Karl Pavlovich has Gibbon in French, and I cannot look at him indifferently. I do not know whether you have seen his sketch or, still better, small painting Genseric Visits Rome. Now it is in his studio. Wonderful, just as wonderful as everything that has been created by his brush. If you have not seen it, I will make a little drawing and send it to you. I will also send you his Bakhchisarai Fountain. It was started when you were still around, wasn’t it?

Oh yes, I almost forgot! There is an unusual event to be: Karl Pavlovich is getting married, the wedding will be held after the holidays. His fiancée is the daughter of Timm, an honorary citizen of Riga. I have not seen her, but they say that she is an amazing beauty. Occasionally I meet her brother at classes: he is a student of Sauerweid and an extraordinarily beautiful young man. After it all happens, I will describe it to you in the minutest details, but for the time being, goodbye, my unforgettable benefactor!”

“It is two months now since I have written to you. Such a protracted silence is unpardonable. But I seemed to have been waiting until an interesting episode in Karl Pavlovich’s life would come to an end. In the last letter I wrote you about a probable marriage. Now I will describe to you in detail how it happened and how it came to naught. On the day of the wedding Karl Pavlovich dressed in the way he usually did, put on his hat, and walking through the studio, stopped before the copy of Domenichino which he had already completed. He stood there silently for a long time, and then sat in an armchair. Apart from him and me, there was nobody else in the studio. The silence hung for another several minutes. Then, turning to me, he said: “Zampieri seems to be telling me, ‘Don’t get married, it’ll be the ruin of you.’”

I was at a loss for words, while he took his hat and went to his fiancée. He did not return to his home that day. There were no preparations for the holiday whatsoever. Lukyan did not even make the roast beef that day. In a word, there was nothing resembling a holiday. In class I learned that he would be wed at eight o’clock in the evening at the Lutheran Church of St. Anne at Kirochnaya. After classes Sternberg and I took a cab and went there. The church was already flooded with light, and Karl Pavlovich together with Sauerweid and the fiancée’s brother were inside. On seeing us, he came up, extended us his hand, and said, “I am getting married.” At that instant the fiancée entered the church, and he went to meet her.

In my lifetime I have not and will not ever see such a beauty. During the ritual, Karl Pavlovich stood there deep in thought. He did not glance at his beautiful bride a single time. The ritual was over, we congratulated the happy husband and wife, saw them to the carriage, and dropped in on Kley’s on the way, where we had supper and drank a bottle of Clicquot to the health of the newly weds. All this occurred on January 8, 1839. At Karl Pavlovich’s home the wedding also ended with a bottle of Clicquot. There were no other celebrations that day or during the subsequent days.

A week after this event I met him in the corridor, across from Count Tolstoy’s quarters. Karl Pavlovich invited me to his apartment and made me stay for dinner. While waiting for the dinner to be served, he sketched something in his album and made me read Quentin Durward.

No sooner had I started to read than he stopped me and cried out rather loudly: “Emilia!” A minute later a dazzling beauty, his wife, entered the room. I made an awkward bow, and he said:

“Emilia! Where did we stop reading? But no, sit down and read yourself. Listen how skilfully she reads in Russian.” At first she did not want to, but then she opened the book, read several phrases with a thick German accent, burst into laughter, threw the book aside, and ran out of the room. He called her again and, with the tenderness of a man in love, asked her to sit at the grand piano and sing the famous cavatina from Norma. She sat at the instrument without the least affectedness and, following a number of preludes, started to sing. Hers was neither a powerful nor effective voice, but it was so sweet and charming that I could not believe I was hearing the singing of a mortal, earthly creature rather than some ethereal fairy. Whether it was the magical effect of beauty or she was really singing well I cannot say definitely, but I seem to hear her magic voice to this day. Karl Pavlovich was also enchanted by her singing, because he sat over his album with crossed arms and did not hear how Lukyan entered and announced twice:

“The meal is served.” After dinner Lukyan served fruit and a bottle of Lachryma Christi on the same board. It struck five. I left them at the table and went to classes. On parting, Karl Pavlovich shook my hand and asked me to come every day for dinner. I was delighted by such an invitation.

After classes I met them on the quay and joined their company. Soon they made for home, to which they invited me. During tea Karl Pavlovich recited Angelo by Pushkin and told us how the late Alexander Sergeyevich asked him to paint the portrait of his wife; Karl Pavlovich refused him without ceremony, because the wife was cross-eyed. He suggested Pushkin to paint his portrait, but Pushkin refused him spitefully. Shortly after the poet died and left us without his portrait. Kiprensky represented him as a sort of dandy, not a poet.

After tea the young charming hostess taught us to play Halbe-Zwölf and lost twenty kopecks to me and the cavatina from Norma to her husband, which she repaid right then and there at the grand piano. After such a magnificent finale I thanked the charming host and hostess and set off to my quarters. It was already long past midnight; Sternberg was still up, waiting for me. Without taking my hat off, I told him about my adventures, and he called me a happy man.

“You might as well envy me, too,” he said. “I am invited by the governor-general of the Orenburg Territory to visit him in Orenburg in the summer. I was at Vladimir Ivanovich Dahl’s today and we agreed upon the journey. Next week it’ll be goodbye.”

The news stunned me, I could not speak for a long time, and when I was my former self, I asked him:

“But when did you manage to arrange all that so quickly?”

“Today,” he replied. “At about ten o’clock Grigorovich sent for me, I showed up at his office. He offered me this journey. I agreed, I went to Dahl – and the matter was settled.”

“What shall I do without you? How shall I live without you?” I asked him through tears.

“It’s the same with me. We’ll study, work – and thus drive away loneliness. Now listen,” he said, “tomorrow we will dine at Joachim’s. He knows you and asked me to bring you along. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” I replied, and we retired to bed.

The next day we had dinner at Joachim’s. He is the son of a famous coach builder, a merry, simple, and wonderfully educated German. After dinner he showed us his collection of prints and also several quires of the most superb lithographs of the Dresden Gallery paintings. Since it was Saturday, we stayed for the evening. During tea the conversation drifted to love and sweethearts. Poor Sternberg seemed to be sitting on needles. I tried to divert the conversation, but Joachim, as if intentionally, was nurturing it.

In the end he told the following funny story about himself: “When I was in love with my Adelheida and she did not reciprocate, I decided to commit suicide by suffocation. I prepared everything to this end, such as messages to several friends and, by the way, one to her (he pointed at his wife), produced a bottle of rum, and ordered a brazier with dead coals, chips of kindling wood, and a candle to be brought. When all this was ready, I locked the door, poured myself a glass of rum, drained it, and then Martin’s Belshazzar’s Feast began haunting my mind. I repeated the measure of rum, after which nothing haunted me anymore. Informed about my untimely and tragic death, my friends came running, beat down the door, and found me dead drunk: the thing is that I forgot to kindle the coals, for otherwise I would have died by all means. After this incident she became more favourably disposed toward me and, in the end, decided to make me her husband.”

Не concluded his story with a good draught of punch. Joachim was to my great liking for his manners, and I imposed on myself the duty of visiting him as often as I could.

Sunday was spent at the Schmidts, by eleven o’clock we were back at our quarters and began to undress when Sternberg, who had to have a handkerchief for some reason, put his hand into his pocket, and instead of a handkerchief pulled out a billboard. “Oh, I forgot! Today there is a masked ball at the Bolshoi Theatre,” Sternberg said, unfolding the billboard. “Let’s go there!”

“I think we should; it’s too early to retire,” 1 said and, putting on tailcoats instead frockcoats, we went by cab first to the Police Bridge to a store selling costumes, bought ourselves cowls and black demi-masks, and then went to the Bolshoi Theatre. The bright hall was quickly filling with masked people, the music was blaring, and little Capuchins were squealing in the noise of the general chatter. Soon it became hot, and I got terribly tired of the mask; I took it off, Sternberg did the same. To others it probably seemed strange, but what did we care?

We went to the upper halls in the wings for a breath of air, away from the crush and heat. Not a single mask pursued us, at least for the fun of it. It was only on the stairway that we were met by Elkan, the very same gentleman in spectacles I had once met with Mikhailov. He recognized me and Sternberg, and laughing, boisterously embraced us. At that moment a young midshipman came up to him, and he introduced him to us, calling him his sincerest of friends, Sasha Obolonsky. It was already past two o’clock when we reached the upper floor. In one of the side halls there was a laden table and the chewing public animated my appetite. I whispered to Sternberg about it, and he concurred out loud. Elkan and Obolonsky, however, protested, suggesting we go to the reliable Kley and have a proper meal. “You know,” Elkan added, “they won’t give you a satisfying meal here and charge ten times the price.” We were unanimous and departed for Kley’s. I liked the midshipman for his heady manners. Previously I had met only with humble comrades, and here I was seeing a young man of the world for the first time. He let the quips fall where they may and was tossing off vaudeville couplets without end – simply a fascinating young man. We stayed at Kley’s till dawn, and since the heady midshipman had had one drink too many, we took him to our quarters, and parted with Elkan at the tavern. That is how I live now! Gadding about at masked balls, supping in taverns, and squandering money. How long is it since that unforgettable morning surging over the Neva, when you saw me for the first time in the Summer Garden in front of the statue of Saturn. It was an unforgettable morning, my unforgettable benefactor. With what and how can I worthily repay my gratitude? I have nothing to offer besides a pure tear and a heartfelt prayer.

At nine o’clock I went to classes as usual, while Sternberg remained at home with the guest who was still sleeping. At eleven o’clock I visited Karl Pavlovich and was subjected to the sweetest reprimand from the sweetest Emilia Karlovna.

We played Halbe-Zwölf until two o’clock. She wished that I stay for dinner with them. I was about to agree but Karl Pavlovich noted that I should not shirk my duties, and blushing with confusion up to my ears, I went to classes. I reappeared at three o’clock, left them at the table at five, and went to classes again. All these days, apart from Saturday and Sunday, I spent at their home in the manner described above. Saturday was devoted to Joachim, and Sunday to Schmidt and Fitztum. You must have noticed that all my acquaintances are Germans. But what remarkable Germans! I am simply in love with them. Sternberg was busy about his travel arrangements throughout the week, and he will surely forget something, which is in his nature. On Saturday we went to Joachim’s where we met the old Kohlmann, a distinguished water-colourist and Joachim’s teacher.

After dinner Kohlmann made his pupil show us some sketches with trees, which the pupil agreed to do reluctantly. The sketches were made with black and white pencils on grey paper. They were done so superbly, so clearly, that I could not have my fill admiring them. He received a second silver medal for one of the sketches. The kindly Kohlmann praised the sketch to the skies as a triumph of his pupil, and swore by all the saints that he himself could not draw anything as beautiful.

Since Sternberg had only two days and no more to stay with us, Joachim and I asked him how he intended to use these days. Sternberg, it seemed, did not even think about it. So Joachim proposed that the next day, that is, Sunday, we go to the Stroganov and Yusupov galleries, and on Monday to the Hermitage. The proposition was accepted. The next day we called on Joachim on the way and drove to the Yusupov Gallery. The prince was informed that some artists were asking permission to see his gallery, to which the polite host ordered that we be told that it was Sunday and wonderful weather outdoors, advising us to delight in the wonderful weather instead of in works of art. We, of course, had nothing left to do but thank the obliging host. Lest we’d have to hear out a similar advice at Stroganov’s, we went to the Hermitage and enjoyed it for about three hours like genuine admirers of the fine arts. We dined at Joachim’s and spent the evening at the theatre.

On Monday morning Sternberg received a note from Dahl. Vladimir Ivanovich wrote him to be ready for departure by three o’clock. Sternberg left to say goodbye to his friends, while I took to packing his suitcase. By three o’clock we were already at Dahl’s home, at four I kissed Sternberg goodbye at the Srednyaia Rogatka, and then returned alone to St. Petersburg on the verge of tears. I was of a mind to visit Joachim’s but I longed for solitude and did not want to go home: I was afraid of the emptiness that would strike me there. Paying off the cabman at the city gates, I walked the rest of the distance. The walk did not tire me as I had expected, and I strolled along the quay opposite the Academy for a long time. In the home of Karl Pavlovich a light was on; soon it went off; and after a minute he and his wife came out onto the quay. Rather than meet them, I went home, and without lighting a candle, undressed and went to bed.

I practically never stay at home now: there is boredom and emptiness without Sternberg. Mikhailov moved in again and is away most of the time as previously. He, too, made the acquaintance of Obolonsky, probably at Elkan’s. The midshipman comes to our quarters frequently at night, and when Mikhailov is not at home, he sleeps in his bed. I am beginning to like that young man less than I used to before: either he is really a bore or it seems so to me, because I am not my own self. Indeed, I attend classes diligently, but I work listlessly. Karl Pavlovich has noticed it; I am annoyed, but I do not know how to make a new start.

Emilia Karlovna is polite to me as ever and plays Halbe-Zwölf with me as before. Soon after the departure of Sternberg, Karl Pavlovich orderded that I prepare pencils and paper. He wants to draw twelve heads of his wife from different angles for a painting based on a scene from Zhukovsky’s ballad Twelve Sleeping Maidens. The paper and pencils are ready, without having been used, however.

One day at the end of February I had dinner with them as usual. That fateful day she seemed to look especially charming: during dinner she treated me to wine and was so kind that when five o’clock struck I prepared to forget classes, but she herself reminded me about it. I had nothing left to do but stand up from the table and leave, without saying goodbye. I promised to call after classes and outplay her in Halbe-Zwölf by all means. Classes were over.

I came to their home as I had promised, Lukyan met me at the door and said that the master had ordered not to let anyone in. I was tremendously surprised at such a change in my hosts and went to my quarters. Contrary to his ways, Mikhailov was at home together with the heady midshipman. The evening flew by in merry chatter. At about past eleven they left to have supper, while I went to bed.

The next day in the morning I went to Karl Pavlovich’s after classes, entered the studio, and he met me merrily with such words: “Congratulate me; I am a single man!” At first I did not understand what he was talking about, so he repeated what he had said. I still did not believe him, and he added, depressed, “My wife went to Madame Sauerweid’s yesterday after dinner and did not return.” Then he willed that Lukyan tell Lipin to bring him a palette and brushes. All that was brought in a minute, and he sat down to work. On the easel stood the unfinished portrait of the Count Musin-Pushkin. He started working on it. However much he tried to seem indifferent, the work betrayed him completely. In the end, he threw the palette and brushes aside, and said to himself: “Does it really distress me that much? I cannot work.” Then he went upstairs to his apartment. When it was past one I went to classes, still unsure of what had happened. At three o’clock I walked out of the classroom and did not know what to do: see him or leave him in peace? Lukyan met me in the corridor and relieved my perplexity by saying: “The master asks you for dinner.” However, it was to be only me eating, while Karl Pavlovich did not touch the food; he did not even sit down at the table, complaining of a headache and smoking a cigar. On the next day he took to bed and was laid up for two weeks; I did not leave his bedside all that time. He was seized with delirium occasionally, but he did not utter the name of his wife a single time.

At long last he started to recover, and one evening invited his brother Alexander and sought his advice on a lawyer for the formal divorce arrangements. He is going out of his apartment now and ordered a large canvas from Dovizielli’s, intending to begin work on the painting The Ascension of the Virgin Mary for the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan. Pending the canvas and summer, he began painting a full-length portrait of the Prince Alexander Nikolayevich Golitsyn for Fyodor Ivanovich Pryanishnikov. The old man will be represented in a sitting position, dressed in a grey tailcoat with a St. Andrew ribbon.

I am not writing you of the rumours about Karl Pavlovich that are making their rounds in town and in the Academy itself; the rumours are the most absurd and disgusting, which it would be a sin to repeat. In the Academy it is generally believed that it is Sauerweid who is manufacturing these scurrilous things, and I have reasons to be of the same opinion. Let all of this be worn away by time, and then I will inform you about my suspicions. While the material is accumulating and being arranged, goodbye, my unforgettable benefactor.

P. S. I received Sternberg’s letter from Moscow. The kindly Vilya does not forget you either. He sends you his greetings and asks that if you happen to meet Tarnovsky’s niece, Madame Burtsova, in Little Russia to pass on his profoundest respects to her. Poor Vilya, he still thinks of her.”