Lives of the Artists X

This young man belonged to a class of people so rare in our country as to be looked upon as phenomenal. These people are no more citizens of St. Petersburg than the people we see in a dream are part of the world of reality. This quite exceptional class of people is particularly uncommon in a city where the inhabitants are either Civil Servants, shopkeepers, or German artisans. He was an artist. A strange phenomenon, is it not? A St. Petersburg artist! An artist in the land of snows! An artist in the land of the Finns, where everything is wet, flat, monotonous, pale, grey, misty! . . . These artists are not at all like the Italian artists, proud and fiery, like Italy and her skies; on the contrary, they are mostly inoffensive, meek men, shy and easy-going, devoted to their art in an unassuming way, drinking their tea with a couple of friends in a small room, modestly discussing their favourite subject, and satisfied with the minimum of food and comfort. They employ some old beggar woman for their model, keeping her posing for six full hours just to transfer her impassive, numb and miserable expression on the canvas. They like to paint interiors of their rooms with every kind of litter lying about: plaster-of-Paris hands and feet, coffee-coloured with dust and age, a broken easel, a discarded palette, a friend playing the guitar, walls covered with paint, and an open window through which you can catch a glimpse of the pale Neva and poor fishermen in red shirts. Everything they paint has a greyish, muddy tint—the indelible imprint of the north. But for all that they labour over their pictures with real enjoyment They are very often men of talent, and if they were breathing the air of Italy their talent would probably have opened up as freely, as widely, and as splendidly as a plant that has been taken out into the open air after being kept indoors for a long time.

From “Nevsky Prospect”, by Nikolai Gogol, in The Overcoat and Other Tales of Good and Evil, translated by David Magarshack, W. W. Norton & Co., 1957.

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