Fame can give no pleasure to him who has stolen it, not won it.
The Portrait (1835) is said to be the least Gogolian of all of Gogol’s works. It follows a more traditional pattern. It’s almost a classic ghost story, in the tradition of Hoffman and Poe. It’s also more autobiographical than you would think.
A mysterious portrait
It’s the story of a young artist, Chartkov, who buys a mysterious portrait in a shop in Saint Petersburg. Curiously, the eyes of the portrait seem to be alive, they have an evil stare. That same night the portrait comes to life and the stranger steps out of the frame. He starts counting money on the terrified Chartkov’s bed. Lots of money. The next day the frame breaks accidentally and it turns out that there was a large amount of golden coins hidden in the frame.
Money and fame
In my previous post I wrote that Gogol’s characters are not subject to personal development. In this story they are. When we first meet Chartkov he is a penniless artist who only cares about his art en developing his artistic skills. But as soon as Chartkov has money, everything changes: before he dressed like someone so preoccupied with his work that he pays no attention to his dress and now he dresses in fine clothes. He rents the first fancy apartment on the Nevski Prospect that he sees, and his shabby assistent Nikita is never heard of again. He buys newspaper reviews to get clients. And he turns into an artist who only paints what his clients want him to paint so that he can make easy money.
Possessed by the devil
This change, Gogol suggests, is the effect of the mysterious portrait, that seems to be inhabited by the devil himself. Gogol was very religious, for him the devil was as real as his neighbour. The devil plays a (main) part in the majority of his work. In his work he tried to make the devil less important by making fun of him. Not in this story. He lived at times in a real fear that his work might be(come) possessed by the devil, and this is what The Portrait is about. By keeping the portrait and by taking the money, Chartkov makes a pact with the devil. Chartkov’s name even sounds like the word for ‘devil’ in Russian, ‘chort’.
Although it takes Chartkov many, many years, he does eventually come to an insight. This happens when he sees a painting by a fellow artist; the work has a device quality to it. Its beauty moves Chartkov to tears. He realises that he has been driven by financial gain instead of aiming for artistic development. He tries to paint again like before, but it’s already too late. Out of jealousy he starts to destroy the most beautiful paintings he can buy at auctions. Luckily for the art world he dies soon. Here is another parallel with Gogol’s own life; he used to burn his own work regularly, for fear of it not being good enough, or, indeed, possessed by the devil.
The painter of the portrait and the portrayed
In the second part of the story it is revealed that the portrait depicted an evil loanshark, the personification of the devil. Every person who loaned money from him changed dramatically for the worse. The portrait was so lifelike, that the evil spirit of the loanshark transferred into the portrait. Because the loanshark dies, the painter is stuck with the portrait and soon starts to feel its’ evil influence. He tries to destroy it, but a friend buys it from him instead. The painter then flees to a monastery to cleanse his soul. There he lives a reclusive life and finally manages to regain himself. He aks his son to find the painting and to destroy it. He has heard that the painting still exists and that people still get under its’ evil influence. The son does find it at an auction. But when he is about to buy it, it suddenly disappears and that’s the end of the story.
The devil in Saint Petersburg
In Gogol’s earlier Ukrainian works the devil is a tangible figure; in Saint Petersburg he is disincarnate, and all the more scarier for it! He now operates in a much less conspicuous manner.
The Portrait is unmistakably from Gogol, and even if it’s not his most Gogolian work, it’s still a devilish good one!
By Authors Possessed: The Demonic Novel in Russia – Adam Weiner
Het Portret – Gogol (the by Gogol revised version from 1842), translated by Karel van het Reve
Text and photo collage © Elisabeth van der Meer