“The Portrait” is a short story by Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. This narrative was initially published in 1835 by the author in Part I of his collection Arabesques. After significant revising, it was republished in 1842 in a magazine called The Contemporary. The revised version is notable for reducing the impact of the unexplained and supernatural elements in the story. Nevertheless, “The Portrait” is often considered an illuminating example of that aspect of Gogol’s literature referred to as “demonic.”
“The Portrait” is also notable for its structural complexity in that it is actually more like two different stories connected by the common bond of the title object. Part I focuses on a struggling young artist who is drawn to purchase a painting of an old man; the kind of painting that seem to look at your and follow your every move with its unnerving stare. The bulk of the narrative is given to the events which result from the discovery of a hidden caches of money inside the frame which saves him from eviction at the last second and sends him into a world of success at the cost of his artistic soul. Part II begins after the events of Part I in which the portrait is up for auction, but becomes a flashback to the origin of the actual creation of the painting itself by the son of the artist. This backstory is highly suggestive of demonic elements at work. Ultimately, the painting mysterious disappears before it can be auctioned off.
Themes touched upon by the short story range from questioning whether the role of the artist in society is to merely reproduce what already exists in nature or to penetrate deeper for some subjective meaning as well as the existence of evil in universe and whether it can be identified as such and, if so, defeated. The story had been adapted into various other media including a silent film, an opera and a radio drama. A number of films since the silent version have been inspired by the story and adapted with varying degrees of faithfulness.