The Devil’s in the Portrait

I have been enjoying — very much — reading a variety of works about portraiture (but who has time with a newborn baby?!).  My intention has been to write a series of posts about this theme in literature.

While reading, however, I wanted to pause and address a thread from a past series of mine: the devil in literature.  I find, not surprisingly, that there are many intersections between the portrait and the devil in the texts I have read.

One of these, in particular, feels most fundamental to a study of the devil in portrait: Nikolai Gogol’s “The Mysterious Portrait.”  Gogol hinges his short story upon many almost-universal topoi, found in related works such as Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Balzac’s “The Unfinished Masterpiece,” Poe’s “The Oval Portrait,” Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, Stevenson’s “Markheim,” and even Faulkner’s “Evangeline” (to only name a small handful that come to mind).

The first topic that struck me in reading about the portrait in literature is that the beauty of the portrait is that an author/artist can project how the subject wants to look or how he views the subject, and not necessarily how that subject did look. (That has always been why one of my favorite rooms at the Museum of Fine Arts is the early American portraits.) This adds layers to a tale, complicating the status of reality, opening the door, of course, to the supernatural.

Gogol easily invokes the supernatural in the opening scene of “The Mysterious Portrait” as the young “artist of talent” Tchartkoff finds a rare work among other “monstrosities in the shape of pictures” in a shop that “belongs rather to a manufacturing automaton than to a man.”  Already, the stage is set.  Tchartkoff finds himself attracted to a dirty portrait of:

an old man, with a thin, bronzed face and high cheek-bones; the features seemingly depicted in a moment of convulsive agitation. He wore a flowing Asiatic costume. Dusty and defaced as the portrait was, Tchartkoff saw, when he had succeeded in removing the dirt from the face, traces of the work of a great artist. The portrait appeared to be unfinished, but the power of the handling was striking. The eyes were the most remarkable picture of all: it seemed as though the full power of the artist’s brush had been lavished upon them. They fairly gazed out of the portrait, destroying its harmony with their strange liveliness.

We all know, without further ado, exactly what this means.  It means that, like the poor weapon expert Cosmo von Wehrstahl in MacDonald’s Phantastes who is drawn to buy an old mirror that he can’t afford and finds the soul of a woman trapped inside it, Gogol’s protagonist comes face to face with the temptation of what he wants most.  For Tchartkoff, this is money and fame.  He buys the wayward painting because he falls in love with it, its undeniable expression of talent and of something else: its evocation of the feminine diabolical. What makes this devil — like so many devils before and after it in literature — “feminine” is its Asiatic garb: an aesthetic that Gogol does not want his readers to overlook.  Edward Said would have a lot to say about that.  And so do I, but that is for a longer piece.

Gogol’s portrait of the Asiatic devil has eyes like those in the portrait of John Melmoth’s namesake in Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer.  They are alive. Burn the portrait as he may, Melmoth cannot rid himself of that ubiquitous traveler and his temptations. Similarly, despite the artist’s nephew’s attempt to purchase the portrait and burn it after Tchartkoff dies, someone steals it from the auction; the devil lives on. His soul has been captured in the painting of his eyes.

Just as Culwin is haunted by the eyes of Alice Newell in Wharton’s short story “The Eyes,” Tchartkoff is haunted by “the two terrible eyes” which fix upon his face; “‘It looks with human eyes!'” he exclaims.  The eyes torment the young artist to such an extent that he suffers from a series of dreams-within-dreams in which he is never sure if he is awake or sleeping.  (Again, Gogol’s story could serve as the prototype for nineteenth-century topoi — this time, the “dream-within-a-dream” fascination exemplified by authors such as Poe,  Mallarme, Baudelaire, Shelley, or Grillparzer.)

Tchartkoff’s dream becomes reality as the dead man rises from the grave, jumps out from the painting, and fondles his roll of gold which, of course, makes the poor artist salivate.  The artist fantasizes about his life with that gold.  Lo! and Behold! the roll falls to the floor as the distracted devil finds his way back into the frame.  With the money from the devil Tchartkoff buys and writes himself an advertisement in the newspaper boasting of his talents (Geoffrey Tempest contemplates doing a similar thing in Corelli’s The Sorrows of Satan). An aristocratic woman appears on his doorstep with her sallow, sickly daughter.  For the first time, Tchartkoff is asked to used his brush to lie.  The mother wants her daughter portrayed as robust and healthy: a very Psyche.  Tchartkoff weighs the options.

He lies with his art.  The devil has won.

Tchartkoff goes on to live a life of wealth and unhappiness.  Unhappiness leads to paranoia.  Paranoia leads to madness.  Madness leads to death when he makes a final, futile attempt to reclaim his forgotten real talents.  He dies while milking his last drop of blood to create a genuine piece of art.

In Part II of the tale Gogol reveals how the portrait came to be.  A talented artist was petitioned to paint a strange dying man’s portrait in the days before drawing his last breath.  The artist developed reservations when coming to terms with his subject’s eyes.  After painting them, he realized their supernatural powers — he refused to paint more.  No problem; the damage was already done.  The devil had been immortalized.  The poor artist was haunted by demons until he finally, many years later, created an angelic work inspired by Jesus and redeemed himself.  To save the rest of his family, the portrait must be found and burned.  No, never!

The portrait, like the devil, lives on.

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