Hathaway Brown School
Instructor: Scott Parsons
The Dangers of Selective Portrayal of Reality through Chartkov's Art in "The Portrait"
The Dangers of Selective Portrayal of Reality through Chartkov's Art in "The Portrait"
Nikolai Gogol's short story, "The Portrait," is often viewed by readers as a cautionary tale about the dangerous, almost supernatural powers of great wealth. However, Gogol also tries to convey the message that only portraying what one wants to see through art is dangerous and misleading. The main character, an artist named Chartkov, struggles to profit from his work until he finds a bag of money within the frame of a mysterious painting. Chartkov abandons his usual depictions of ordinary subjects such as his servant Nikita or his messy room and transitions to a much more lucrative style. He chooses to paint only elite members of his society and, instead of portraying them accurately, Chartkov listens to his subjects' demands for their flaws to be excluded and their positions to be highly staged. In the end, he realizes he wasted his talent on creating deceiving images of people who don't even exist because of all the modifications he made to his portraits by request of their subjects. Chartkov's former paintings of peasant life and average homes were true to nature and a more accurate depiction of the majority of society. Unfortunately, Chartkov fell into the trap of only representing what is deemed "worthy" by the highest members of society. Gogol shows this in a variety of events throughout the story including the landlord's refusal to buy Chartkov's ordinary art and a certain client of Chartkov's insisting that he exclude her daughter's flaws in painting her. Art should be an accurate representation of subjects varying in class and appearance, however, societies like Chartkov's only choose to portray the most ideal and pleasant scenes which can lead to the censoring of real issues within society and a false perception of what beauty can actually look like. "The Portrait" conveys the message that nature should be depicted exactly as it exists in reality through art in order to avoid creating false realities in the minds of its viewers.
When the landlord refuses to buy Chartkov's paintings of his messy room or his servant, Nikita, Gogol is sending the message that society only wants to portray its wealthiest and cleanest members. Unlike the art work one imagines being displayed in Buckingham Palace, Chartkov's work depicts ordinary scenes of poverty in his daily life such as his small flat or his poor servant. Chartkov often references "the fashionable painter." The fashionable painter is the painter who depicts grand scenes such as ballrooms or beautiful, rich ladies rather than "the antique, or, from life class, or my unfinished Love of Psyche, or a perspective of my room, or the portrait of my Nikita" (Gogol 347). Oftentimes, the fashionable painter brightens his colors or adds pleasing details, so his art is more pleasant to look at even though those colors or details don't actually appear in the subject or scene. Early Chartkov depicts reality. He doesn't choose what to and what not to include because he simply paints what is present in the nature of his subject. He knows that his works are technically better than many great painters, but no one wants to look at a portrait of a servant such as Nikita because he represents the vast disparities and poverty present in their own societies. Poverty is deemed as ugly and unpleasant, so people choose to ignore the issues it presents even though a significant percent of any society's population is poor. Many people lead lives similar to Chartkov's and Nikita's money wise, but they aren't depicted in great works of art because they are deemed unworthy. The majority of people would much rather gaze upon a portrait of a lady in an elegant dress or a castle than a portrait of a servant or a small, untidy room. The "fashionable painter" creates beautiful works of art, but they can deceive people into believing their subjects represent the whole of society causing the struggles of living in poverty and in a lower social class to go unnoticed.
One person that Gogol uses to demonstrate society turning a blind eye towards the poverty and struggle present in it is the landlord. When Chartkov gets in trouble for not paying his rent, his landlord and a policeman come into his home. The policeman suggests paying the rent with some of Chartkov's works, but the landlord refuses to take them saying "It would be fine if they were pictures with some noble content, something that could be hung on the wall, maybe a general with a star, or a portrait of Prince Kutuzov, but no, he painted a peasant, a peasant in a shirt, the servant who grinds paints for him" (Gogol 353-4). The landlord believes that in order to be the subject of a work of art the person or scene must be "noble" even though most people aren't. He thinks works of art can only be "hung on a wall" if they depict the rich, powerful, and elite members of society. Most of the art the landlord probably sees in places like museums portrays empowering and regal content which is comforting and familiar. The landlord doesn't like Chartkov's work because it is uncomfortable. The art he usually observes represents the small portion of people who live without everyday struggles regarding social status and wealth. However, Chartkov's work deals with the real world and recognizes the struggles of ordinary life, not just a select few who society deems as "successful" and "noble." Most people only want to see the best in their societies, so people like the landlord reject Chartkov's paintings because they don't depict the glamorized version of life most people want to live. The landlord doesn't want to address the issue that most members of his society are not powerful generals or wealthy princes and that serious struggles do exist all around him .
Chartkov's later works don't portray the simple scenes of poverty or struggle, but rather the ideal beauty standard. In representing only what is ideal, Chartkov strays from the actual nature of his subjects by only painting what his subjects want to see. An example of this is when he paints the portrait of his first client, a young girl, by request of her mother. As Chartkov paints, "He picked up every nuance, a slight yellowness, a barely noticeable blue under her eyes, and was even about to catch a small pimple that had broken out on her forehead, when suddenly he heard the mother's voice at his ear. 'Ah, why that? There's no need for it'" (Gogol 362). The mother doesn't want her daughter's flaws to be represented because they aren't pleasing to look at. She feels pressure from society that her daughter must embody everything that has come to be known as beautiful. This is dangerous because it doesn't represent what most people actually look like. Youth can get a false impression of what they should look like through art like Chartkov's which leads to the development of the "beauty standard." This standard is dangerous because, in reality, imperfections and different types of people can be beautiful, and those people should be represented.
When the girl's portrait is almost finished, her mother gets confused and thinks an old portrait of the goddess Psyche is actually the depiction of her daughter. Chartkov, not wanting to offend the mother by saying that her daughter doesn't look like a goddess, chooses to just touch up the image to at least show some resemblance between Psyche and the twelve year old girl. As he paints, "the features of the young girl did finally begin to show more clearly through the image of Psyche" (Gogol 364). It is highly unlikely that a twelve year old girl looks as sophisticated and developed as a goddess, however, her mother wants to see her in this light which is why she is tricked that the portrait of Psyche is actually her daughter. In reality, Psyche is the beauty standard she wants her daughter to live up to in order to be popular in society. Embodying a goddess is literally impossible which is why I think Gogol chose Psyche to represent the beauty standard. The mother should be content with the reality of her daughter's looks, but she is so used to seeing the most beautiful and ideal women portrayed in high art that she deems her daughter's flaws as unacceptable and feels the need to hide them through showing her daughter as a goddess.
In the end, Chartkov realizes the superficiality in his art and suffers knowing he failed in staying true to the nature of his subjects creating false realities. I believe he ultimately died of guilt. He regrets wasting his talent becoming "the fashionable painter" because he realizes he never dared depict anything unusual or uncomfortable even if that meant sacrificing the accuracy of the image. He wishes he had shown his society the realities of poverty and the simplicity of his servant Nikita while he had the chance. He was swayed by society into painting only what they wanted to see for a profit after his encounter with the landlord who wouldn't buy his honest art. These paintings failed to demonstrate the larger issues within Charkov's society like his former ones did. Instead, they depict society as elite members only turning a blind eye on greater issues. The elite represent a relatively small number of people in most societies, so only letting them be represented in areas such as art is unfair. If societies choose to neglect issues such as poverty in their cultures then the problems will never be addressed and could possibly worsen. In painting a young girl, Chartkov captures the ideal beauty standard paying the price of disregarding nature and reality. He excludes certain tones and small blemishes in order for the mother to see her daughter in the light she wishes to see her in. Creating an ideal beauty standard though art leads to a false perception of what beautiful can actually be. This can result in ordinary people feeling the need to change themselves because their features may not be portrayed in high art portraits. Chartkov is just one example of a "fashionable painter." Throughout the entire history of art, kings, castles, and beautiful women have dominated paintings. Art like this is a major contributor to the issues around poverty and beauty standards we have in our own societies.