Back to home page

TITLE: 'The historical painter Ivanov (1) (A Letter to Count M. Iu. V...skii)' (2) (1846)
AUTHOR: N.V. Gogol'
THIS VERSION: Copyright © 2003 Robert Russell; all rights reserved. Redistribution, or republication of this text in any medium requires the consent of the translator(s).

Introduction to the text

I am writing to you about Ivanov. (3) How incomprehensible is the fate of this man! At last the matter of Ivanov is beginning to become clear to people. Everyone has come to see that the painting (4) that he is working on is an unprecedented phenomenon. People have become concerned for Ivanov; everywhere they are anxious that he should be given the means to finish it, they do not want him to die of starvation working on this painting, and I mean that literally - die of starvation - and still there is not a word from St Petersburg. For God's sake, find out what is going on. Crazy rumours are reaching us here that the artists and all the professors in the Academy of Arts are afraid that Ivanov's painting will slaughter everything else that has been produced by Russian art, and out of envy they are trying to ensure that he does not receive the funds to finish it. I am sure this is a lie. Our artists are noble, and if they knew just what poor Ivanov has gone through because of his matchless self-sacrifice and hard work, really risking death from starvation, then far from urging such cruelty, they would share their own money with him as a brother. Anyway, why should they be afraid of Ivanov? He goes his own way and is no trouble to anyone. Not only is he not looking for a professorship and material benefit, he is not looking for anything, because everything in the world except his work has long since ceased to exist for him. He begs for a miserly allowance, the sort of allowance that only a pupil who is just starting out should expect, not a master like him, who is working on something colossal, the like of which no one has ever undertaken before. And yet he just cannot get that miserly allowance that everyone is so concerned about, in spite of everyone's efforts. I see in all this the will of Providence, which has already determined that Ivanov should suffer and endure everything... I cannot ascribe it to anything else.

Ivanov has hitherto been widely reproached for being slow. Everyone said, 'What! He's been sitting over one painting for eight years and he hasn't finished it yet!' But now this reproach has died down as people have come to see that the artist has not wasted the tiniest drop of that time; that the preparatory sketches alone would fill a hall and could constitute a complete exhibition; and that the extraordinary size of the painting itself, which is unprecedented (it is bigger than the works by Briullov and Bruni), (5) meant that a great deal of time was required for the work, especially given the severe financial constraints that meant that he could not have several models at the same time, nor could he have the kind of models he wanted. In a word, everyone can now see how absurd it was to level an accusation of slowness and laziness against an artist who, like a labourer, has spent his whole life on his work, even forgetting that there could be any pleasure in life apart from work. Those who accused him of being slow will have even greater cause for shame when they discover another hidden reason for the slowness. The creation of this painting was bound up with the artist's own spiritual development, a phenomenon that is all too rare and that is not subject to the arbitrary will of man, but to the will of One who is greater than man. Thus it was determined that this painting should result in the education of the artist both in terms of artistic craft and in terms of the thoughts that direct art to its rightful higher purpose. The subject of the painting, as you already know, is extremely significant. Of all the episodes in the Gospels, the artist has chosen the one that is most difficult to execute, one that had not hitherto been attempted, even in former centuries when art was devotional: the first appearance of Christ to the people. The painting depicts a desert on the banks of the River Jordan. The most prominent figure is John the Baptist, preaching and baptising in the name of the One whom none among the people has yet seen. He is surrounded by a crowd who are naked, undressing, dressing, fully clothed, coming out of the water and preparing to plunge into it. In the crowd are the future disciples of the saviour. Through their various body movements they are all striving to hear the words of the prophet, as it were to catch each word from his mouth, and expressing their various thoughts on their very different faces: on some there is complete faith, on others there is still doubt; some are wavering, others are hanging their heads in grief and repentance; there are also some faces still bearing a hard crust of insensitivity and heartlessness. And at the same time as all this is going on, in the distance can be seen the One in whose name the baptism has just taken place, and here is the present moment of the painting. John the Baptist is depicted at the precise second when he points to the Saviour and says: 'Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world'. (6) And, without changing their expressions, everyone in the crowd directs their eyes or thoughts to the One being pointed out by the prophet. Along with the first impressions that have not yet had time to fade, new impressions now pass across all the faces. A wonderful light illuminates the faces of the chosen ones at the front; others are still trying to make sense of the incomprehensible words, trying to understand how one person could take upon Himself the sins of the world; and a third group are shaking their heads doubtfully, saying, 'The prophet will not come from Nazareth'. (7) And He, with heavenly calm and a marvellous distance, approaches the people with a quiet yet firm stride.

Is it a mere trifle to depict on the faces of the crowd this entire process of man's conversion to Christ? There are people who are convinced that a great artist can do anything. The earth, the sea, a person, a frog, a brawl or a carousal, a game of cards and a prayer, in a word everything comes easily to him if he is a talented artist and if he has studied at the Academy An artist can depict only what he has felt, only those things that have formed fully in his consciousness. Otherwise he will produce a dead, academic painting. Ivanov has done everything that another artist would consider sufficient for the completion of the painting. The entire material part, everything relating to the sensible and precise disposition of the figures in the painting has been carried out to perfection. The faces have a typicality that comes from the Gospels, and at the same time they are Jewish. Looking at the faces you suddenly understand which country this is. Ivanov travelled all over, studying Jewish faces for this purpose. Everything relating to the harmonious use of colour, to clothing and the carefully considered way it hangs on the body has been so thoroughly studied that every fold attracts the attention of the connoisseur. Finally, everything to do with the landscape (something that the historical painter rarely concerns himself with), the picturesque view of the desert surrounding the group, has been done in such a way that the landscape painters living in Rome are astonished by it. For this Ivanov spent several months at a time in the unhealthy Pontine Marshes (8) and the wilderness places of Italy; he conveyed in his sketches all the wild, remote spots around Rome; he studied every pebble and every leaf - in a word he did everything that he could, he depicted everything for which he had a model. But how was he to represent that for which no artist had yet found a model? Where was he to find a model for how to represent on the faces of his figures the full process of the conversion of humanity to Christ? Where was that to be found? From inside his own head? Was he to create it from his imagination? Was he to capture it with his intellect? No, nonsense! The intellect is too cold and the imagination too insignificant for such a task. Ivanov strained his imagination to the limit. Looking at the faces of everyone he met, he tried to capture their loftiest spiritual impulses. He lingered in churches in order to observe the poor at prayer, and he saw that everything was weak and inadequate and that it failed to create in his soul the full sense of what was needed. This caused him much spiritual suffering and a feeling of guilt at how the painting was dragging on so long. Until full conversion to Christ took place within the artist himself, he could not depict it with his brush. Ivanov prayed that God would grant him this complete conversion, he poured out his tears in silence, begging Him for the strength to carry out the task that He had inspired. And meanwhile people were reproaching him for being slow and were trying to hurry him up! Ivanov was asking God to use the fire of His grace to destroy that coldness and hardness from which he suffered and from which many of the best and kindest people suffer nowadays. He was asking God to inspire him in his representation of the conversion so that even a non-Christian looking at the painting would be moved. And meanwhile he was being reproached even by people who knew him, even by his friends who thought he was simply being lazy and who seriously contemplated the notion that he could be forced to finish the painting by starvation and the removal of all funds. The most compassionate of them said, 'It's his own fault. All right, perhaps the big painting will proceed at its own pace, but he could do some small pictures in the intervals, he could get money for them and prevent himself from dying of starvation.' They said that without knowing that for the artist whose work had turned by God's will into a matter of his spiritual development, no other work was possible, there were no intervals, his thoughts could not turn to anything else, however much he might try to force them. Thus a faithful wife who truly loves her husband will not fall in love with another man, she will not sell her caresses to anyone for money, even if she could thereby save her husband and herself from poverty. Such were Ivanov's spiritual circumstances. 'Why did he not set all this down on paper?', you will ask. 'Why did he not clearly describe his real situation? If he had, then money would have been sent to him straight away.' Nothing of the sort. How easy is it for any of us who has not yet demonstrated his powers, who has not yet learnt to express himself, to explain himself to people from different walks of life who, quite naturally, are unable even to grasp that his art could reach the highest level, a level higher than in our fashionable times? Can he say to these people, 'I will produce something that will astonish you but which I can't tell you about now because there is a lot that I don't quite understand myself yet. So, while I am working on it, please wait patiently and keep giving me money for my maintenance.' If that were to happen, there would soon be any number of people coming forward and saying the same thing. After all, some madman is going to give them money! Let us even suppose that at that period when things were not clear for him Ivanov could have expressed himself clearly and said, 'I have been inspired by One greater than me with an all-consuming idea: to express on canvas man's conversion to Christ. I feel that I can do it, even though I myself have not been truly converted. So please wait until my conversion takes place, and until it does please give me money for my maintenance and my work.' Why, we would all shout out in unison. 'What rubbish is this you are speaking? Do you take us for fools? What does the soul have to do with a painting? The soul is one thing and a painting is something entirely different. Why should we wait for your conversion? You should be a Christian without that. After all, we are all true Christians.' That is what we would all say to Ivanov, and we would all be nearly right. If it had not been for his most difficult circumstances and the inner spiritual turmoil that forced him to turn more ardently to God than others did and that made it possible for him to resort to God and to live in Him in a way that today's worldly artist does not, to reach through floods of tears those feelings that he was unable to reach through thought alone, then he would never have depicted what he has now started to depict on canvas, and he really would have deceived himself and others, however much he might have wanted not to deceive.

Do not think it is easy to explain yourself to people during a period of spiritual transition when, by God's will, a change in the very nature of man begins to take place. I know this and to some extent have even experienced it myself. My works are also, in a strange way, connected to my soul and my inner education. For a period of more than six years I was unable to produce any work for the world. My entire work was produced within me and specifically for me. And please remember that until that time I had lived exclusively on the income from my works. Almost everyone knew that I was short of money, but they were sure that it was because of my own obstinacy and that all I had to do was sit down and dash off some little thing in order to get a lot of money. But I was incapable of writing a single line and when, having heeded the advice of a foolish man, I tried to force myself to write some little magazine articles, I found it so difficult that my head throbbed, all my feelings ached, and I kept crossing things out and tearing up pages. After two or three months of this torture I had so damaged my health, which had been bad anyway, that I took to my bed, and the additional nervous ailments together with the ailment of being unable to explain my situation to a single soul were so debilitating that I was virtually in my coffin. And the same thing, or almost, happened twice. One time, on top of everything else, I was in a city where I had almost no friends, I had no money and I was at risk of death not only from illness and spiritual suffering, but simply from starvation. That was a long time ago. I was saved by the Emperor. (9) Help from him came unexpectedly. Either he felt in his heart that his poor subject, working in an unofficial and unremarkable area, dreamt of rendering him as honest a service as did those who worked in official and remarkable areas; or else it was simply his customary act of charity. But his aid quickly restored me. At that moment I was pleased to be indebted to him and no one else. Among the reasons impelling me to begin work again with renewed energy was now the following thought: 'If God should favour me by making me a man who is close to many people and who is worthy of the love of all those I love, then I will say to them, "Do not forget that I would, perhaps, not be alive were it not for the Emperor".' That is the kind of situation that can arise. I would just add one thing: at that time I had to listen to accusations of egoism. Many people could not forgive the fact that I did not take part in their various plans undertaken, so they believed, for the common good. When I said that I could not write and that I must not work for any magazines or literary miscellanies, they thought I was making it up. (10) The life I led abroad was attributed to a sybaritic desire to enjoy the beauties of Italy. I could not even explain to any of my closest friends that, aside from my ill health, I needed some time away from them precisely so as not to develop false relations with them and be unpleasant to them. Even this I could not explain. I was aware myself that my spiritual condition had become so strange that I could not talk about it comprehensibly to anyone. When I tried to open up just a part of myself, I could immediately see that my words were confusing my listener and making his head spin, and I bitterly regretted even wanting to be frank. I swear there are situations that are so difficult that they can only be compared to the situation of a person in a deep sleep who can see himself being buried alive and who cannot move a finger or give a sign that he is alive. No, at those moments of spiritual transition heaven help us from having to explain ourselves to other people. The only thing to do is to run to God, not to anyone else. Many people, even some of those close to me, were unfair to me and were in no way to blame for that. In their position I would have done the same thing.

It is the same in the case of Ivanov. If he were by chance to die of poverty and lack of means, then suddenly everyone without exception would rail indignantly against those who allowed it to happen. Other artists would be accused of being insensitive and envious of him. Some dramatic poet would compose a sentimental drama about it which would move the audience and rouse their anger against Ivanov's enemies. And all of that would be false because, in fact, no one would be truly guilty of his death. Only one person would be dishonoured and guilty, and that is I. I experienced practically the same condition, and I did not explain it to other people! And that is why I am now writing to you. Put this matter right. If you do not, then the sin will be on your soul. I have lifted it from my soul with this letter, and now it weighs on you. Arrange things so that Ivanov receives not only the miserly allowance that he is seeking but also a lump sum in recognition of the fact that he has worked for a long time on his painting and has not been prepared to undertake any other work, however much other people and his own needy circumstances have urged him to do so. Do not skimp! The money will bring its full reward. Everyone is now beginning to discover the worth of the painting. All Rome is starting to voice the opinion - even with the painting in its present state, in which the artist's ideas are as yet far from fully realised - that there has been nothing like this since the age of Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. When the painting is finished then even the poorest court in Europe would willingly buy it for the same money that is now paid for newly rediscovered paintings by Old Masters, that is, not less than one or two hundred thousand. Arrange it so that the award is not for the painting, but for the selflessness and the boundless love of art. In that way it should serve as a lesson to artists. A lesson like that is needed, so that everyone else can see how art should be loved; so that they can see that, like Ivanov, one must be dead to all of life's enticements; like Ivanov, one must study and consider oneself to be forever a student; like Ivanov, one must refuse oneself everything, even an extra dish on a festival day; like Ivanov, one must put on a simple velveteen jacket when all resources have been exhausted, and one must scorn empty niceties; like Ivanov, one must endure everything, even with a lofty and delicate spirit, and in spite of a great sensitivity one must bear all wounding defeats - even when certain people chose to declare that he was mad and to spread this rumour so that he himself constantly heard it. Valour like this needs to be rewarded. It is especially necessary that young artists setting out on their career should not think about neckties and frockcoats and should not run into debt so as to cut a dashing figure in society. They should know in advance that support and aid from the government will only go to those who have no thoughts of frockcoats or of carousing with friends, and who have given themselves up to their work as a monk does to his monastery. It would even be good if the sum given to Ivanov were so large that others involuntarily scratched their heads. Have no fear! He will not take this sum for himself, perhaps not even a copeck of it. The sum will be used entirely for the benefit of those who toil truly for art. The artist knows who they are better than any official and will disburse the funds better than an official could. With an official, anything could happen. He might have a fashion-conscious wife and friends with large appetites whom he has to treat to dinner. An official is interested in career and glory. He will even maintain that for the honour of the Russian nation it is necessary to show off to foreigners, and will demand money for that purpose. But a person who has worked in the same field as those he has to assist, who has heard the wail of real, unfeigned need, who has himself suffered, seen others suffer and sympathised with them, and has shared his last shirt with a poor worker when he himself had nothing to eat and nothing to wear: someone who has done all this, as Ivanov has, is an entirely different matter. One may boldly entrust such a person with a million roubles and sleep easily. He will not waste a single copeck of that million roubles. Act justly, and show my letter to many of your friends and mine, especially those with some administrative responsibility, because toilers like Ivanov could exist in all fields, and they must not be allowed to die of hunger. If it happens that one, isolated from the rest, becomes more devoted to his work than the others, even if it is his own personal work, and if he says that this work of his that appears to be his own private business will be needed by everyone, then consider him - as it were - as a civil servant and give him enough to live on. And in order to ensure that there is no deception going on (because some lazy idler could get in under false pretences), check on his way of life. His way of life will reveal all. If, like Ivanov, he has turned his back on all wordly decorum and conditions, has put on a simple jacket and banished all thoughts not just of pleasures but also of marriage, family, and some sort of business; if he lives a truly monastic life, toiling day and night over his work and praying constantly, then there is no need to ponder the matter at length: he must simply be given the means to enable him to work. Neither is there any need to hurry him and urge him. Leave him in peace. God will urge him without you. Your business is to ensure that he does not die of hunger. Do not give him a large grant. Give him a frugal sum, even a miserly one and do not place worldly temptation in his path. There are people who must forever remain beggars. Being a beggar is a blessing that the world has not yet fathomed. But whosoever is permitted by God to taste its sweetness and has come truly to love his beggar's bag will not sell it for all the treasures of this world.