The Portrait


The Portrait (Russian: Портрет) is a short story by Nikolai Gogol, originally published in the short story collection Arabesques in 1835 and is one of Gogols’ most demonic of tales, hinting at some of his earlier works such as "St. John's Eve".

It is the story of a young and penniless artist, Andrey Petrovich Chartkov, who stumbles upon a terrifyingly lifelike portrait in an art shop and is compelled to buy it. The painting is magical and offers him a dilemma — to struggle to make his own way in the world on the basis of his own talents or to accept the assistance of the magic painting to guaranteed riches and fame. He chooses to become rich and famous, but when he comes upon a portrait from another artist which is "pure, faultless, beautiful as a bride" he comes to realize that he has made the wrong choice. Eventually, he falls ill and dies from a fever:

"The sick man understood nothing, felt nothing, save his own tortures, and gave utterance only to frightful yells and unintelligible gibberish. At last his life ended in a final attack of unutterable suffering. Nothing could be found of all his great wealth; but when they beheld the mutilated fragments of grand works of art, the value of which exceeded a million, they understood the terrible use which had been made of it."[1]

The Academic American Encyclopedia cited the work as an example of the "conflict between Gogol's idealistic strivings and his sad, cynical view of human propensities".[2] First published in Arabesques, the story was received unfavourably by critics, and Gogol returned to the story, reworking it for the 1842 publication. Simon Karlinsky believes that the second version of the story, with its differing epilogue, works better within the context of the story, but writes that the work, while "a serious treatment of an important social problem", is "too slender a theme" to support the central thrust of the work, an attempt to portray "the great mystical concept of the Antichrist".[3]

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