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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

The contours of truth

Who is pictured in Taras Shevchenko’s watercolor <I>Portrait of an Unknown Woman Seated at a Piano</I>?
18 March, 2008 - 00:00

Ten years ago the newspaper Literaturna Ukraina published an article entitled “A Half-solved Mystery: Theory” (27 Sept. 1997), which was written by Hlafira Palamarchuk, an art historian and member of the Artists’ Union of Ukraine. In her article the author argues that the famous French singer Pauline (Garcia) Viardot is the woman Shevchenko depicted in his watercolor of an unknown woman sitting at a piano. Viardot was giving a concert tour in Russia’s capital of St. Petersburg in 1843.

This unidentified woman is not just posing for the artist at the piano; she is singing and accompanying herself. This prompted Palamarchuk, a research associate at the Taras Shevchenko National Museum in Kyiv, to start looking for the model in the artistic world of St. Petersburg of that period. She did painstaking research, even examining images on icons. She concluded that “...the people depicted in portrait engravings of Viardot and Shevchenko’s watercolor are identical...the same thick, elongated eyebrows; the same nose with its sculpted nostrils; gypsy-like eyes, and full lips. The similarity is unmistakable.”

Palamarchuk’s absolute certainty rests on existing literary sources, Viardot’s epistolary legacy, and Shevchenko’s creative heritage. The researcher is scrupulous about details: for her, the concert piano and the elegant vase are evidence that Viardot was painted in her St. Petersburg apartment. Palamarchuk mentions Hulak-Artemovsky among the possible customers who commissioned and paid for this picture. She also tried to find out why Shevchenko, a passionate opera devotee, never commented on Viardot’s performances in St. Petersburg.

Palamarchuk discovered and made many correct guesses in her research. But she was stonewalled by Shevchenko’s date on his watercolor, which he signed in his own hand: 1842 — one year prior to Viardot’s concert tour. Unfortunately, we only have a reproduction of a photocopy stored at the Tars Shevchenko National Museum. No one knows the background or location of the original art work. This complicates authentication. Two things, however, are beyond dispute: the artist’s inscription and the date.

Palamarchuk’s intriguing article did not pass unnoticed. Eventually concerned scholars joined the debate, among them Prof. Mykola Lifintsev, rector of the Advertising Institute; associate professors Nadia Levytska and Liudmyla Khomchenko; Halyna Mednikova, the head of the Department of Cultural Studies at Drahomanov National Pedagogical University and her colleagues, associate professors Oleh Maheria and Yulia Yukhymyk; Taras Shevchenko National Museum research associates Natalia Lysenko, Hanna Ponomarenko, Tetiana Chuiko, Yulia Shypenko, and other enthusiasts.

Let us assume — unfortunately, without the input of the late lamented Hlafira Palamarchuk, but proceeding from what seems to be an indisputable fact — that so many years ago Taras Shevchenko painted a portrait of Pauline-Garcia Viardot (1821-1910).

Viardot made her spectacular debut at the St. Petersburg Opera in Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville, together with the famous tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini and the “Italian opera company” that was formed especially for his concerts in St. Petersburg. Its cast included the Ukrainian baritone Semen Hulak-Artemovsky, who was Shevchenko’s fellow countryman and close friend.

Hulak-Artemovsky, the future composer and author of the famous opera A Zaporozhian Cossack beyond the Danube, was discovered in Ukraine by Mikhail Glinka, who was then the choirmaster of Russia’s Court Choir and Orchestra. With his broad and captivating vocal range, the young Ukrainian attended Glinka’s vocal classes. Later, with Glinka’s help, he spent three years studying vocal art in Italy, performing operatic parts in Florence. Before Viardot’s arrival, Hulak-Artemovsky had already made his name in the elite world of Italian opera. This noted singer from Rubini’s opera company was destined to perform with Viardot in Paris and London. That is when the two got to know each other better.

Most likely, it was Hulak- Artemovsky’s idea to have a portrait of Viardot painted and his suggestion that Shevchenko be commissioned for this work. The planned meeting between the renowned author of the Kobzar and freelance artist and the European opera star look like an extremely generous gift from one friend to another.

Hulak-Artemovsky’s plan probably met with Viardot’s complete approval — not so much because she wanted to have her portrait done (she was accustomed to artists’ persistent offers), as because she was interested in meeting the artist, who was marked by a special destiny that was in some way similar to hers. Hulak-Artemovsky’s story about the former serf could have served as the singer’s introduction to the young artist.

Viardot’s interest in Hulak-Artemovsky’s project is confirmed by subsequent events connected with another name and creative destiny. In February 1850 the singer wrote to George Sand, praising Charles Gounod’s great musical talent: “In addition to his brilliance, this man is very pleasant to deal with; he is inherently decent, cultured, and uncomplicated.” For Viardot it was important to single out such traits alongside brilliant talent. She knew how to recognize an elevated human spirit and moral decency, and she held them in great esteem. For as long as Viardot lived — from her early years, through the zenith of her fame, right into her old age, her understanding of human nature never waned.

Viardot saw Shevchenko this way: the young and talented author of the Kobzar with his high forehead, the sign of a genius; a handsome young man with flawless manners, immaculately dressed, and at the same time so easy to understand and communicate with. She saw him as a man with a dramatic background, who had made a dizzying ascent from the depths of serfdom to the summits of culture. With his stilted French, gentle shyness, and trusting eyes, Shevchenko must have touched a special chord in the heart of this refined and perspicacious woman.

Demidov, a St. Petersburg merchant, provided furnished rooms to touring companies in a house on Nevsky Prospekt. Among the tenants was the Italian businessman F. Moricci, who invited the Viardot couple to live in his apartments, which the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev described as “merry little rooms.”

The Demidov hotel where Louis and Pauline Viardot stayed was in plain view of not only the city residents but the Winter Palace. Everyone was excited about the famous singer’s upcoming benefit concert, which was discussed on the crowded streets and in theatrical circles. The hotel, the theater, and Nevsky Prospekt were placed under the care of both the gendarmerie and the secret police, ranging from policemen manning the city’s entry checkpoints to the chief of the Third Directorate. Tsar Nicholas I had the habit of introducing imperial law and order into all spontaneous movements, and the slightest deviation from the rules was decisively stopped.

In the thickening atmosphere charged with anticipation surrounding Viardot’s concert appearances, a misunderstanding involving the journalist V. Sorokin occurred. Confident in the brilliant success of her performance, Sorokin published a review full of praise in the newspaper Russkii invalid. The issue was published but the concert never took place (Rubini had fallen ill). As a result, rumors spread throughout the city and the journalist was briefly imprisoned. Needless to say, such harsh measures could not have been applied unless they were approved by the tsar.

The painting of Viardot’s portrait during her concert tour in the Russian empire can by no means be described as a private project, a free choice made by the man who commissioned the portrait or the singer. In the early 1850s, when Russia was under the harsh rule of Nicholas I, such actions required government approval. The time and place of the sittings were designated in the Winter Palace, where the artist, above all, was designated. Any actions contrary to the established procedure would have been regarded as a challenge to the government, and such arrogance would be punished.

Having spent some time with the Court Choir and having closely observed the ways of the court, Hulak-Artemovsky was perfectly aware that trying to obtain the tsar’s permission for a recent serf to make a portrait would be a naive venture at the very least. Nor did he harbor any illusions as to the consequences of his independent actions. Clearly, his actions, from beginning to end, were fraught with risks — to his own life and that of his artist friend. But the goal was too alluring to think about the possible risks.

He may have received unexpected support from Viardot. Her fiery nature — the Spanish gypsy blood running in her veins — cried out for acute feelings, the intoxicating scent of danger. The idea of skirting the government’s bans and doing something in contravention of the tsar’s will could very well have intrigued Viardot’s passionate temperament and tempted her to play a secret game near the frosty windows of the Winter Palace. Hulak-Artemovsky’s ambitious plan faced another hurdle: most reputable artists in St. Petersburg were eager to paint Viardot’s portrait. There were a number of good portraitists at St. Petersburg’s Art Academy, with Karl Briullov topping the list. Their standing, prestige, social status, and connections could have crushed his plan. This did not happen, however, and it must be assumed that his eventual success was not accidental.

Hulak-Artemovsky shared his plans with Briullov whom he knew well. Shevchenko was the favorite pupil of Briullov, who nurtured the young Ukrainian artist’s talent. It is common knowledge that Briullov sold his painting The Last Day of Pompeii and used the proceeds to purchase Shevchenko’s freedom. Thus, Briullov had every reason to be proud of his role in the fate of the talented youth and his growth as a poet and artist.

It is logical to assume that Briullov quashed his own desire to paint Viardot and handed over this honor to his gifted pupil. He probably turned for support to the foremost Russian poet Vasily Zhukovsky, Shevchenko’s other “godfather” in the fine arts, urging him to block other artists’ official applications, and possibly to make it easier for Hulak-Artemovsky and Shevchenko to gain entrance to the Demidov house with easel and paintbrushes. Zhukovsky’s prestige and status in the Winter Palace were key factors that helped bring the project to fruition.

There is hardly any doubt that the poet was ready to help Briullov and once again offer a helping hand to Shevchenko. Judging by everything, Zhukovsky masterfully accomplished all the agreements. Shevchenko and Hulak-Artemovsky passed all the police cordons and were given free access to Viardot’s quarters. Briullov did her portrait during the singer’s fall-winter season in St. Petersburg (1844-45), when she was performing the role of Amina in Bellini’s The Somnambulist. The artist Petr Sokolov painted two watercolor portraits of her at this time.

This is why the history of Shevchenko’s watercolor is still wrapped in mystery. The name of the model is unknown, and the date of the portrait may have been deliberately changed, a necessary measure in a country where human rights and liberties were neglected. However, all the details pertaining to the story of Viardot’s portrait have finally been resolved into one version, which was heard during this year’s Turgenev Readings in the writer’s homeland. The participants, among them experts on Turgenev, his biography, and relationship with Viardot, agreed that this version is convincing, and that the anonymous woman seated at a piano in Taras Shevchenko’s watercolor is definitely Pauline Viardot.

A discussion of this topic was also held at Taras Shevchenko National Museum. Here opinions differed. Besides those who believe the woman in Shevchenko’s portrait is Viardot, opponents of this theory and skeptics also took part in the discussions.

Natalia Lysenko advanced a noteworthy opinion. She believes that Shevchenko painted Viardot’s portrait in his teacher’s studio during her second concert tour; Sokolov did his watercolors there, too. Shevchenko must have dated his picture later, relying on his memory. Of course, this assumption must be carefully verified.

In order to solve the mystery of Shevchenko’s watercolor, the original must be located. The efforts of enthusiasts are not adequate to this task, which requires efforts on the part of prestigious civic organizations as well as state institutions, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, Ukraine’s embassy in France, and the Ukrainian consulate in St. Petersburg. Shevchenko’s portrait may surface in the private collections of Pauline Viardot or Semen Hulak-Artemovsky’s descendants. I hope this article will prove instrumental.