Sunday 22 September 2019

What Lies Beneath: Portrait of Leo Tolstoy by Nikolai Ge

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy by Nikolai Ge, Oil on canvas, Tretyakov Gallery Moscow

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy by Nikolai Ge
Portrait of Leo Tolstoy by Nikolai Ge

Niall MacMonagle

What is this serious-looking, concentrating, bushy-bearded, 54-year-old genius writing? Not War and Peace, not Anna Karenina. This portrait was painted in 1882 and by then Leo Tolstoy had written those two great masterworks.

He wrote War and Peace in his thirties; he was 46 when he wrote: "All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," and began working on Anna's doomed love story.

Nikolai Ge, was 51 when he painted Tolstoy. Orphaned young, raised by his nurse, Ge studied physics and mathematics but switched to art and on graduating was awarded a gold medal.

He settled in Rome, painted mainly Biblical images but on returning to Russia chose his country's history for inspiration. Later he bought a small farm, worked the land, believed art should not be for sale but then, believing that everybody had a right to a portrait, agreed to paint people for whatever they could afford.

In the early 1880s he met Tolstoy whose philosophy he admired and who, in old age, dismissed all sophisticated, stylised, detailed writing, including his own novels, as worthless, arguing instead that only simple works, such as Biblical parables, were great art.

Count Tolstoy renounced his aristocratic lifestyle, gave all his material possessions to his wife and lived an ascetic, peasant-like existence under her roof. In October 1910, following yet another domestic quarrel, Tolstoy, now 82, accompanied by his youngest daughter and his physician, secretly left home.

Reality and fiction intertwined: both Anna Karenina and her creator experienced unhappy family life and both find themselves, in the end, by a railroad. Anna, desperate, longing for release, blesses herself and "the familiar gesture of making the sign of the cross called up a whole series of girlish and childish memories, and suddenly the darkness, that obscured everything for her, broke, and life showed itself to her for an instant with all its bright past joys".

What we don't know is if Tolstoy, refusing to see his wife who had followed him, who died of pneumonia in a railway siding at Astapovo at 5.45am on November 20, 1910, blessed himself before he departed forever.

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