A Minor Moon of a Minor Planet
July 23, 1879
My dear Violet:
Thank you for the news of the first round of submissions to the Paris Salon. I am not surprised that there are so many. Year after year Beaux Arts and the other schools churn out more and more graduates, and we all must compete for space on the same walls.
I do no think my portrait of the Tsar will ever grace those walls, however. It seems doomed from the start. Following hard on my last letter, you will find my mood in this one much deflated. As Mark Twain would say, I have at last been to see the elephant, and it was a disappointment. I should not have allowed my expectations to rise so high.
After wasting a day looking for a studio, I learned from the Tsar’s Chamberlain that I will be required to paint in the Palace atelier, a large, crowded room he showed me this morning. It is a sort of gymnasium or factory for artists, with lockers, work stations, and a small staff of painters and sculptors turning out royal portraits and busts like carpenters hammering together tables and chairs. I have been assigned an easel, workbench, and a taboret in a corner, away from the best light. I have a locker to store my supplies, and one fellow painter told me to be sure to lock up all my paints and brushes or they will be stolen. He is a fat, nervous type with a persistent cough, which he blames on the sculptors’ dust that gets into everything. Naturally, the sculptors blame the pervasive smell of turpentine. Are you experiencing déjà vu? It is art school all over again, with the same bickering, the same maneuvering for advantage, and the same petty jealousies.
The Chamberlain showed me a portrait of Tsar Nicholai in oils on a large canvas, competently done, but nothing special. “This is what we want,” he said, “Same size, same pose, but in this costume.” He handed me a photograph of the Tsar in a turban, a shirt with billowing sleeves, and an elaborately embroidered vest or doublet—very middle eastern.
“This one will go to a Kazak Baron in Montana,” the Chamberlain said.
“When will the Tsar pose for me?” I asked.
“Oh, not till the very end. Meanwhile, you have Ivan the Terrible.”
Ivan is a dressmaker’s dummy who will wear the Tsar’s costume and pose for me. I am to work on the costume and the background first, bringing them to a high degree of finish. The hands will be my own in a mirror—the Chamberlain says they are close enough to Nicholai’s. I am to block in the head from the photograph. Then the Tsar will come in for an hour at most, probably posing for several artists at once.
It is a dreadful way to work. I had imagined leisurely hours in a private studio, laboring at a masterpiece of sensitive, bravura brushwork while trading witticisms and state secrets with the Tsar, almost as equals. In reality, he is the sun and I am no more than a minor moon of a minor planet.
But all is not darkness. My fee for the portrait is 1,500 roubles, a very decent wage hereabouts. As an advance for materials, I have received a draft on the exchequer—don’t you love the sound of that?—that any bank will honor with gold. And I have saved the best for last. As a hint that all may not be as cut and dried as the Chamberlain says, Tsar Nicholai himself paid a visit to the atelier while I was there. He made a special point of speaking to me.
“Ah, my dear friend John Sargent,” he said, placing a hand on my shoulder, “I am looking forward to posing for you.” He gave my arm a squeeze and laughed, indicating the Chamberlain with a nod of his head. “This man has many rules for artists, but do not be discouraged. You and I will make a beautiful picture together. Baron Druschek will hang it in his dining hall, and everyone will be happy.”
The Tsar then told the Chamberlain to put me on the list for an invitation to a royal ball! I stammered my thanks. Maybe my expectations of intimate têtes-à-têtes with the Tsar are not pure fantasy. When Nicholai left the room, it was like the sun going behind a cloud—everything seemed a little darker and dimmer. That is the effect of true nobility.
The Chamberlain explained that the paintings and busts were an important part of government here. He said, “It is a mark of favor and distinction to receive an official portrait of Tsar Nicholai. It sends a silent message of loyalty, support, and certain expectations. Your painting will help ensure that the Baron will not fall short of his full levy of wheat for the winter, mounts for the cavalry and conscripts for the army.”
So it seems that in my small, carpenter’s way, I am helping to rule the empire.
© Patrick Fanning, 2012