Taras Bulba and Other Tales HTML version
The Mysterious Portrait
Nowhere did so many people pause as before the little picture-shop in the Shtchukinui
Dvor. This little shop contained, indeed, the most varied collection of curiosities. The
pictures were chiefly oil-paintings covered with dark varnish, in frames of dingy yellow.
Winter scenes with white trees; very red sunsets, like raging conflagrations, a Flemish
boor, more like a turkey-cock in cuffs than a human being, were the prevailing subjects.
To these must be added a few engravings, such as a portrait of Khozreff-Mirza in a
sheepskin cap, and some generals with three-cornered hats and hooked noses. Moreover,
the doors of such shops are usually festooned with bundles of those publications, printed
on large sheets of bark, and then coloured by hand, which bear witness to the native talent
of the Russian.
On one was the Tzarevna Miliktrisa Kirbitievna; on another the city of Jerusalem. There
are usually but few purchasers of these productions, but gazers are many. Some truant
lackey probably yawns in front of them, holding in his hand the dishes containing dinner
from the cook-shop for his master, who will not get his soup very hot. Before them, too,
will most likely be standing a soldier wrapped in his cloak, a dealer from the old-clothes
mart, with a couple of penknives for sale, and a huckstress, with a basketful of shoes.
Each expresses admiration in his own way. The muzhiks generally touch them with their
fingers; the dealers gaze seriously at them; serving boys and apprentices laugh, and tease
each other with the coloured caricatures; old lackeys in frieze cloaks look at them merely
for the sake of yawning away their time somewhere; and the hucksters, young Russian
women, halt by instinct to hear what people are gossiping about, and to see what they are
At the time our story opens, the young painter, Tchartkoff, paused involuntarily as he
passed the shop. His old cloak and plain attire showed him to be a man who was devoted
to his art with self-denying zeal, and who had no time to trouble himself about his
clothes. He halted in front of the little shop, and at first enjoyed an inward laugh over the
monstrosities in the shape of pictures.
At length he sank unconsciously into a reverie, and began to ponder as to what sort of
people wanted these productions? It did not seem remarkable to him that the Russian
populace should gaze with rapture upon "Eruslanoff Lazarevitch," on "The Glutton" and
"The Carouser," on "Thoma and Erema." The delineations of these subjects were easily
intelligible to the masses. But where were there purchases for those streaky, dirty oil-
paintings? Who needed those Flemish boors, those red and blue landscapes, which put
forth some claims to a higher stage of art, but which really expressed the depths of its
degradation? They did not appear the works of a self-taught child. In that case, in spite of
the caricature of drawing, a sharp distinction would have manifested itself. But here were
visible only simple dullness, steady-going incapacity, which stood, through self-will, in
the ranks of art, while its true place was among the lowest trades. The same colours, the