The Mysterious Portrait by Nikolai Gogol
Author: Nikolai Gogol
Genre: Short Story
“The Portrait“(Портрет, translit. Portret), also known as “The Mysterious Portrait,” is a short story by Nikolai Gogol. It was first published in 1835 in Gogol’s short story collection Arabesques. The story relates the tale of an impoverished artist who acquires a demonic painting that allows him to become rich and famous through magic.
Andrey Petrovich Chartkov is a poor young artist who comes across a mysterious portrait in a picture shop. Impressed by the incredibly lifelike quality of the subject’s eyes, which seem to stare out of the frame, he buys the portrait and takes it home. However, the portrait possesses demonic powers, and Chartkov is soon confronted with a choice: struggle to make ends meet with his talents or attain fame and fortune using the portrait’s magic.
2. Story Summary
Andrey Petrovich Chartkov is a struggling young artist who has yet to achieve commercial success despite his talent and drive. One day, he passes by an art shop selling paintings that he considers formulaic and inartistic. Nevertheless, he looks through the paintings in the shop, thinking that he might unexpectedly find something worth buying. Chartkov finds a mysterious portrait of an old man in an Asiatic costume. Struck by the unusually lifelike quality of the old man’s eyes, Chartkov buys the portrait and takes it home.
Chartkov hangs up the portrait in his run-down apartment but becomes so perturbed by the old man’s lifelike eyes that he hides the portrait with a bed sheet before going to sleep. In his dream, he sees the old man step out of the portrait and take out a purse full of money. A packet filled with gold ducats falls out of the purse and lands at the foot of Chartkov’s bed. When he wakes, he realizes that he had imagined it all as the money is not beside him.
Chartkov’s landlord arrives with a police inspector demanding the rent. With no money to spare, Chartkov panics, and the police inspector accidentally cracks open the frame of the old man’s portrait, revealing a roll of 1000 ducats hidden behind it. Dumbfounded, Chartkov pays the rent and resolves to advance his career using his newfound wealth. He desires to nurture his originality and talent while avoiding the fashionable styles of the time.
However, Chartkov starts spending on extravagant items and places an ad in the papers. He rents an expensive apartment on the Nevsky Prospect to serve as his art studio. Initially, he tries to stay true to his style, but he succumbs to the wishes of his customers and resorts to fashionable styles instead. Chartkov quickly becomes a popular artist and neglects his artistry to keep up with the constant flow of customers.
Years later, Charkov became an established artist and was invited by the Academy of Arts to judge a painting produced by another artist. Chartkov is greatly affected by the beauty and purity of the other artist’s work and realizes what he has lost. He is so distraught that he bursts into tears and flees the art gallery. At home, Chartkov attempts to revive his former talent but fails. Enraged, he gets rid of the old man’s portrait and buys up all the best paintings he can find to destroy them. Eventually, Chartkov’s mental health deteriorates, and he falls ill and dies, haunted by memories of the demonic portrait.
Several years after the events of part one, an art auction is held where the mysterious portrait of the old man is put up for sale. A young man steps forward, claiming he has more right to the portrait than anyone else, and he starts to tell his story.
The young man’s father was an artist who lived in Kolomna, an impoverished and drab neighborhood in St. Petersburg. One of the neighborhood’s inhabitants was a moneylender who could provide any sum to anyone, but the people who borrowed from him all ended up suffering a terrible fate.
This moneylender approached the young man’s father for a portrait of himself. The artist agreed, keen to paint such a unique subject. However, when he painted the moneylender’s eyes, he became troubled and refused to continue painting. Although the moneylender urged him to complete the portrait, the artist refused. The moneylender died shortly after, and his unfinished portrait was left in the artist’s possession.
The artist’s behavior became increasingly strange. He grew envious of a talented pupil who had entered a competition to produce a painting for a recently built and wealthy church. Not wanting to lose to his pupil, he also joined the competition. When the pupil’s artwork is chosen over his, the artist loses his temper, almost kills his wife, and drives away his children. He is about to burn the portrait of the moneylender when his friend enters and dissuades him, saying that the portrait is one of his best works. This friend takes the portrait home, and the artist feels relieved without it in his house.
The friend realizes the sinister nature of the portrait and gives it away to his nephew. His nephew sells it to an art collector, who sells it to someone else, and the portrait’s trail is lost. The artist who painted it feels immense guilt over creating the evil work and makes his son promise to find and destroy it.
This promise was what brought the young man to the art auction. Once the young man concludes his tale, the audience turns to look at the portrait and finds it gone. Someone must have stolen it while the other bidders were listening to the young man. They wonder if they had seen the portrait at all.
Andrey Petrovich Chartkov
A young and impoverished artist.
The Police Inspector
He accompanies Chartkov’s landlord to demand rent from the artist.
The Old Man in the portrait
A mysterious moneylender who brings ruin to anyone who borrows from him.
The young man at the art auction
He wants to acquire the mysterious portrait of the old man.
The young man’s father
The artist who painted the portrait.
4.1. Money and art
“The Mysterious Portrait” depicts the corrupting influence of money on art as artists sacrifice their vision to cater to popular tastes. This corrupting influence was of great concern to artists in Gogol’s time, when the market economy was supplanting the aristocratic patronage system. Chartkov is an idealistic young artist at the start of the story who wishes to make it in the world by staying true to his talent and heeding the advice of his mentor.
However, once he magically acquires great wealth from the mysterious portrait, he becomes tempted by money and attached to luxury. He then sacrifices his unique style to cater to his customers’ tastes so that he can maintain his luxurious lifestyle. Ultimately, Chartkov realizes that his relentless pursuit of money and fame has caused him to lose his talent and fall into despair, eventually going insane and succumbing to illness. Ironically, the inartistic paintings Chartkov comes to produce as a fashionable artist resemble the low-quality works in the art shop that he criticizes at the start of the story.
4.2. The supernatural and reality
There are two versions of “The Mysterious Portrait.” The first was published in 1835 in the collection, Arabesques. The second was published in 1842 when Gogol was living in Rome. The second version toned down the supernatural elements in the first version. It provides a psychological and realistic explanation for the events in the first part and is the more well-known of the two versions.
In the second version, the ‘demonic’ attributes of the portrait could be explained by Chartkov’s preoccupation with money. Poor and worried about finances, it is not inconceivable that he would dream of the old man stepping out of the painting and dropping rolls of gold coins from a purse. For the gold ducats found in the portrait frame, Chartkov thinks they are a gift left by a grandfather for his descendants. The social pressure exerted on artists like Chartkov to conform to popular taste could have led them to project their anxieties onto the portrait, which led them down the path of materialism.
Nevertheless, both versions call into question the nature of reality, showing that psychological and sociological explanations are insufficient to explain the story’s strange events. Moreover, the realistic tone of the second version makes the remaining supernatural elements stand out more, becoming even more disconcerting.
Basom (1994) observes that at the end of the second version, “Not only is evil not vanquished, but we are even sure what form it takes, whether the devil is incarnate in the portrait, or psychological, societal and economic forces are responsible for Chartkov’s misfortune.”