On the mornings when I used to walk my daughter to school, years gone by now, we would pass by a little pub called “The Prince Albert,” along a narrow old lane, near the town centre, by the cathedral. On a pole sticking out above the pub’s entrance hung a portrait of the said Prince Consort, Queen Victoria’s husband, painted in 1840 by royal artist John Partridge. On windy days, the prince oscillated, creaked in the breeze, reminding you that he kept watch overhead. Every morning I’d grin, laugh to myself, sometimes laugh out loud. It got a bit boring for my daughter, for she knew what I was laughing at. After all, I’d tell her everyday, “you know, that Prince Albert up there, he’s a dead ringer for Gogol.” She knew, too, that I meant Nikolai Gogol, the great Russian writer, a longtime favourite of mine. The thin prominent nose, the vivid eyes, the little well-groomed moustache, the general affected air, camp despite the military regalia—all that was Gogol to a tee!
I remember seeing an image of Gogol himself, likewise painted in 1840, by a St. Petersburg artist pal of his, Fyodor Möller. It had been on show at London’s National Portrait Gallery, in a special exhibition from 2016 called “Russia and the Arts.” The thought that Gogol had a doppelgänger, that Prince Albert was secretly Gogol, or that Gogol was secretly Prince Albert, sneaking out of Russia, spooked, after the authorities resented his mockery of provincial officialdom in the rollicking drama The Government Inspector, eloping clandestinely into British royalty, struck me as quintessentially Gogolian. Roaming Europe under an assumed identity was as bizarre and surreal as only Gogol could render believable, like the rumour he’d make stick near the close of Part I of Dead Souls, his unfinished novel: that Captain Kopeikin was really Chichikov. How on earth could a war veteran peg leg with a missing arm transfigure into a fully-limbed shyster conman? Only at the touch of Gogol’s satirical quill.
I’d probably read too much Gogol myself to think up such a pairing; even though the Ukrainian-born Gogol (1809-1852) and the German-born Prince Albert (1819-1861) were pretty much contemporaries, and even though both died relatively young, each at forty-two. But it was seeing the portrait of Prince Albert, with his bird-like nose, and glimpsing Gogol’s own image—with his famous beak—that had me recall Gogol’s short story, The Portrait. That alone was enough to put ideas in your head. Prince Albert’s eyes stared out each morning as those eyes had leapt out on Gogol’s poor young artist Chartkov. Gogol has Chartkov rifling through dusty worn paintings one day, at a cheap Petersburg art shop, where he stumbles across a portrait of an old man, with a bronze, gaunt, high-cheek-boned face. Most extraordinary of all were the eyes. After much deliberation, the young artist parts with his last few kopecks and staggers back with the canvas to his draughty garret in the grungiest part of town. Once there, “two terrible eyes fixed directly on him, as if preparing to devour him.”
At nightfall, trying to doze on the sofa, he can’t bare the thought of those eyes, like some terrible phantom, staring at him. He tosses a bedsheet over the portrait. Still, moonlight intensifies its whiteness, the portrait’s ghostly presence. As Chartkov falls asleep, Gogol’s pen springs into action. The sheet is no longer there; the old man has stirred. Suddenly, leaning on the frame with both hands, he thrusts both legs out to free himself of his confinement. Chartkov attempts to scream, only has no voice. The old man steps down, takes out a sack containing packets of fabulous golden roubles. One pack drops to the floor; Chartkov runs over, clutches it, tries to prise it open but can’t. He cries out—and wakes up.
By morning, the room is bleak, gloomy as “an unpleasant dampness drizzled through the air.” It seems to Chartkov “that amidst the dream there had been some terrible fragment of reality.” “My God, if he had at least part of that money,” he sighs. A knock at the door heralds the arrival of the landlord and a police inspector, “whose appearance,” Gogol says, “as everyone knows, is more unpleasant for little people.” The landlord wants the unpaid rent. He’s a retired civil servant, “an efficient man, a fop, and a fool,” quips Gogol, “who had merged all these sharp peculiarities in himself into some indefinite dullness.” Chartkov, dirt broke, offers him his paintings. But the landlord scoffs uninterestedly. Meanwhile, the inspector examines the portrait of the old man, and, clumsily picking it up, its frame splits apart. One side falls to the ground along with a packet, wrapped in blue paper, with the inscription “1,000 Gold Roubles.” Chartkov, like a madman, rushes over, seizes the heavy packet.
His woes are over—or so it would seem. Now, he has a fortune—as he’d foreseen in his dream. He pays off the landlord, installs himself in a swanky bourgie apartment along the Nevsky Prospect, Petersburg’s finest commercial thoroughfare. He has his hair curled, sports fashionable tailored suits, dines at fancy French restaurants, struts along the sidewalk admiring himself, like the most elegant of dandies. Strangely, too, Chartkov’s reputation as a great artist soars. That because he gets a Petersburg newspaper to publish an article he’d written himself, about his own extraordinary talents, a brilliance worthy of any Titian or Van Dyck. Petersburg’s elite become mesmerised by a new genius in town, and flood him with commissions. At first, his portraits glow with subtle brush strokes and masterful shading. But sitters want less, are thrilled by banality, by cliched images, by empty smiles and upper-crust stiffness. The shallower the portrait, the better—and the more he’s in demand. He’s rewarded with everything: money, compliments, handshakes and kisses, invitations to dinners, to glamorous soirées. Soon, says Gogol, “it was quite impossible to recognise in him that modest artist who had once worked inconspicuously in his hovel.” After a while, though, the lustre of riches and finery wears thin. He tires of churning out hundreds of the same portraits, of the same faces, whose poses and attitudes he knows by rote.
When the Academy of Art invites Chartkov to judge a new work by a young Russian artist, already hailed a great genius, he’s sceptical. After seeing the canvas in the gallery, surrounded by hoards of visitors, he’s stunned: the purest, most immaculate conception hangs on the wall, a painting so modest, so divine that tears flow down the cheeks of onlookers. He’s blown away, stands motionless, “open-mouthed before the picture.” Chartkov’s whole being, says Gogol, “is reawakened in one instant, as if youth returned to him, as if the extinguished sparks of talent blazed up again.” The blindfold suddenly falls from his eyes, and he realises he’d not heeded his professor’s advice, that he’d ruined his best years, neglected the long, arduous lesson of gradual learning. He’d become that dreaded species: a fashionable painter. (One wonders whether John Partridge, Prince’s Albert’s depicter, ever felt the same way, ever regretted his life as a court artist, whipping off fawning portraits of royalty, nobles and society people?)
Chartkov can no longer bear those lifeless pictures, the portraits of buttoned-up hussars and state councillors, of eternally tidied ladies; he orders them out of his studio. Then he remembers the strange portrait he’d purchased, which had somehow kindled all his vainest impulses, and heralded his demise. A rage bursts into Chartkov’s soul. Bile rises up in him whenever he sees a work marked with the stamp of greatness. He begins to buy up great masterpieces, hauling them back to his room, where he tears them apart, shreds them, cuts them to pieces in a savage orgy of destruction that portends Chartkov’s auto-destruction, bizarrely mimicking Gogol’s own fate. A cruel fever, compounded by galloping consumption, soon sees off our artist. “His corpse was frightful,” says Gogol. “Nothing could be found of his enormous wealth; but seeing the slashed remains of lofty works of art whose worth went beyond millions, its terrible use became clear.”
Gogol worked over The Portrait many times over many years, adding and revising, chopping and changing, shaping it up into one of his finest stories. He’d first published a version in 1835, in Arabesques—“a mishmash” collection, he’d called it—of historical essays on art and architecture, on the Middle Ages, and on Pushkin, alongside two other brilliant stories, The Nevsky Prospect and Diary of a Madman. The Portrait Take-2 appeared seven-years on, longer and better honed, and it’s the one I’ve been citing here. The well-known critic and liberal spokesman, Vissarion Berlinsky, Gogol’s most trenchant interlocutor as well as most ardent champion, thought the supernatural in Take-1 too clumsy. It wasn’t leavened by the story’s brilliant realism, a feature, Berlinsky said, that made Gogol’s most unbelievable and incredible moments believable and credible. As ever, Gogol took only part of Berlinsky’s critique to heart; he would never abandon his torquing of reality, never expunge the surrealist flourishes that made his ordinary so extraordinary, his satire so biting, his creations so idiosyncratic and original. He was too subtle an artist to capitulate to either the dullest social realism or most contrived surrealism. He’d forever work against his predictability, often turning his own inventiveness against itself, sometimes even against himself, just when we’d least expect it. He has us, the readers, twist and turn as his characters twist and turn, as he himself twists and turns, gyrating to some weird cosmic force.
It turns out, Gogol tells us in an annex second section to The Portrait Take-2, that the old man with terrible eyes had been a dreadful moneylender, a loan shark who extorted Petersburg’s poor, sometimes even extorting Petersburg’s rich. Calamity befell on everybody who took money from him. He possessed some strange, dark curse, which damned him and anyone he touched. Even the artist who painted his portrait was struck down by demons, yet managed to cast them off by becoming a repentant hermit monk. The painting similarly imparted devilish forces, and tragedy afflicted everyone who owned it, who felt its burning eyes. At the close of The Portrait, as the painting is about to be auctioned off, the painter’s son suddenly appears, demanding the thing be burned, destroyed at all costs—or else.
So warns Gogol’s story, which tells us plenty about the role of the artist in our society, about the dichotomy between artistic integrity and everyday materialism, between the art of pure creation and the act of earning a living. It tells us plenty, too, about Gogol’s own plight in the world, about his allegiances with “little people,” and about how art for him ought to make the highest service to the moral good. He knew, as we know, in a society dictated by money values, and governed by shallow, buttoned-up people, that genuine artistic passion will always be up against it. Artists like Chartkov are there, isolated and destitute, dedicated to their creation, yet fair game to be bought off, commissioned as hired hands, seduced by all the trappings of a high society that, in Gogol eyes, is really pretty low down.
In 1844, two-years on from Gogol’s Portrait, a young Karl Marx, probably not much older than Chartkov, pilloried, with Gogolian irony, “The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society.” Money, said Marx, “is the universal whore, the universal pimp of men and peoples,” the “inversion of all human and natural qualities.” Marx called money a “divine power,” indicting it on the same plane as religion, “as the estranged and alienating species-essence of man which alienates itself by selling itself.” Money turns one thing into another, inverts everything it touches, converts people and objects into their opposites, into “contradictory qualities” antagonistic to their own qualities. As such, money “transforms loyalty into treason, love into hate, hate into love, virtue into vice, vice into virtue, servant into master, master into servant, nonsense into reason and reason into nonsense.” With its implicit disdain for how money corrupts, The Portrait exhibits more than a hint of young Marx’s romanticism, helping us recognise something I suspect I knew when I was laughing each morning at Prince Albert: that Gogol’s Portrait is really a picture of ourselves.