A few days ago I read a story by Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) called Nevsky Prospekt (or Nevsky Avenue), first published in 1835. It was very interesting all together, not merely because I love Russian literature and Gogol’s other stories, but because the main character is an artist! The story begins and ends with a description of Nevsky Prospekt; firstly, readers get acquainted with the sorts of people who can be seen there, and lastly, lies and superficiality of all those ‘creatures’ are revealed. Gogol himself wrote: ‘But strangest of all are the incidents that take place of Nevsky Avenue. Oh, do not trust that Nevsky Avenue! (…) For all is a deceit, all is a dream, all is not what it seems. (…) It lies at all times, does Nevsky Avenue, but most of all when night hovers over it in a thick mass, picking out the white from the dun-coloured houses, and all the town thunders and blazes with lights and thousands of carriages come driving from the bridges, the outriders shouting and jogging up and down on their horses, and when the devil himself lights all the street lamps to show everything in anything but its true colours.‘
The story evokes the mood of the 18th century Sentimental novels, so it’s filled with irony, and mocks the pathetic and romantic main character and his final disillusionment. I highly recommend you to read it, and if you don’t, it’s your loss. And now the part of the story which describes Russian artists at the time:
‘This young man belonged to a class of people so rare in our country as to be looked upon as phenomenon. 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, pale, monotonous, 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 easygoing, 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 around: 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 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 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. They are generally rather timid folk…‘
I couldn’t really decide which painting should accompany the text, so I put both. The first painting, The Last Day of Pompeii, was painted by Karl Bryullov, at the same time the story was published, and it was much appreciated by both Gogol and Pushkin. And the other evokes the sentence ‘Everything they paint has a greyish, muddy tint – the indelible imprint of the north‘, which makes it relevant as well.