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Amber Paulen

The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol

Nikolai Gogol

The Portrait

When I pick up Gogol’s Collected Tales and read, it is in sumptuous awe each time. The Portrait was like a perfect meal, perfectly balanced, perfectly satisfying; one that expands in the belly, its deliciousness remembered even after digestion.

Dived into two parts, the first concerns itself with the plight of the poor painter Chartkov. Like many artists, he doesn’t take up the task of making money, being so dedicated to the proliferation of his work; on his talent he must focus for it to fully blossom. By means of a mysterious portrait (of which I will write of after), he acquires 10,000 roubles. In his heart he knows he must use this money for rent and brushes and paint, that the sum would last at least three years.

Instead Chartkov squanders. He sets himself up in a fancy apartment and begins to paint portraits of rich people. Any original impulse is extinguished in a few short years, but he’s rich and can do as he wishes: buy himself the title of a master. When eventually he comes across a truly beautiful and inspiring painting, the fallacies with which he had been supporting himself shatter. He attempts to paint: nothing comes but rote, rote eyes, rote noses, rote mouths.

In part The Portrait is about selling out, or the influence of money on the creative impulse (which unfortunately can’t live and survive without it). The motive for money, for a Name, for recognition as an end, disintegrates the lofty sentiments that keeps the gears turning. By producing what is fashionable for the fashionable, the work gains the falsity that fashion is. And then it goes deeper, down to the well that keeps creation’s good flow going: poisoned at the roots.

The second half of The Portrait and Gogol’s main point has something to do with the meaning behind the work, independent of its creator. The title has nothing to do with the portraits Chartkov painted but with a single portrait Chartkov acquired. It is a portrait of a perfect likeness, so lifelike that the eyes simply stared, stared even out of the portrait itself. The artist of the second half managed what artists wish, to replicate elements of life itself on paper or canvas.

“What force!” he repeated to himself. “If I depict him even half the way he is now, he’ll kill all my saints and angels; they’ll pale beside him. What diabolical force! He’ll simply leap out of my canvas if I’m the least bit faithful to nature.”

But the effect is unexpected, for himself and all who come in contact with the portrait. By giving such a perfect extension of life to such a perfect devil, what can that say of the artist?

For man, art contains a hint of the divine, heavenly paradise, and this alone makes it higher than all else… Give all in sacrifice to it and love it with all your passion… For artistic creation comes down to earth to pacify and reconcile all people… But there are moments, dark moments…


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