Thursday, May 1, 2008

Gogol's The Portrait - Was this also a dream?

Nikolai Gogol's The Portrait (1842, though there’s an earlier version as well) is about the mysyterious effect of a portrait on two artists. In one case, talent is corrupted, in the other, exalted. Whenever I come across a story about a painter, or composer, or whatnot, I assume that the author is really working out his ideas about writing. It's what Gogol is doing here, anyway.

A young, brilliant, impoverished painter buys a strange, compelling portrait. Through an obscure circumstance - a ghost? a prophetic dream? - the portrait leads the artist to a great sum of money. Will it surprise anyone to learn that this leads to new problems?

So goes part one. The sequel, or prequel, returns to the beginning but pushes the same ideas to an entirely different conclusion.

Gogol's prose sparkles. At the picture shop:

"A winter scene with white trees, an absolutely red sunset that looked like the glow of a conflagration, a Flemish peasant with a pipe and a broken arm, more like a turkey cock in frills than a human being – such were usually their subjects." (252)

And here's the same sunset again, but real this time:

"The red glow of sunset still lingered over half the sky; the houses which faced the sunset were faintly illuminated by its warm light, while the cold blue light of the moon grew more powerful. More and more the artist began to glance at the sky, which was shimmering in a faint, translucent, uncertain light, and almost at the same moment there burst from his mouth the words, 'What a delicate tone!' and the words, 'Damn it! How upsetting!'” (256)

And that moon returns in the great dream scene. The man in the portrait come to life and reveal a secret. Then that the dream is followed by another dream, and then another - a vertiginous scene.

Gogol is writing at a high level here. Was anyone else writing with as sure a hand at this time (early 1840s)? And this isn’t even Gogol at his best – see tomorrow for that.

References are to the University of Chicago Press Complete Tales of Nikolai Gogol.

Also posted at the Russian Reading Challenge.


  1. Your comment about a writer writing about painting has me very curious - I'd love to hear you write more about why you think this is the writer working out his ideas about writing.

  2. Very briefly - this is certainly worth thinking about more: a writer may want to displace an investigation of creativity onto another art form. Creates some distance, some objectivity. Seems less narcissistic.

    In the case of the Gogol story, the subject is really the ethics of the ends to which the creative impulse is directed: towards money, fame, God, some internal compulsion. Problems that apply across the arts.

    Backpedal: a writer can be genuinely interested in painting or composing or whatnot, and want to write about it for its own sake. Sure, why not. For example, there's, um - examples welcome!