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Eager for Love
Taras Shevchenko is a towering figure in Ukrainian culture, highly revered (occasionally reviled), with the status of a spiritual leader of the Ukrainian nation, even a prophet. He was born a serf, a slave in other words; later, he was manumitted; his artistic and poetic talents opened a path for him to a painter’s and a poet’s career but years of exile undermined his health and shortened his life.
His stature of a genius often obscures the simple fact that he was a man, all but human. Olha TSURKANYUK invites the readers to join a guided tour of the National Museum of Taras Shevchenko which will be focused on the portraits of women who were poet’s muses.
The museum is located in one of the central streets of Kyiv, not surprisingly called Taras Shevchenko Boulevard. The building that houses the museum used to belong to Mykola Tereshchenko, a sugar magnate, philanthropist and a patron of art. Among the art works created by Shevchenko, one cannot help noticing and wondering who were the women he portrayed. Some of them loved Shevchenko, some of them respected him as a poet and artist or just as a human being; there were others whom he loved.
In a poem, Maryana-chernytsya, Shevchenko wrote, “I’m looking at you, I’m praying before your image…”
Shevchenko knew Maryana whose real name was Oksana Kovalenko since childhood. It was she who in later years became his first love. People who knew them were sure they were going to get married one day. For Shevchenko she must have been what Beatrice was for Dante — she inspired him to write poetry. Oksana was of a short stature, curly-haired, gentle and full of cheer; whenever they met, she shared this cheer with Shevchenko who preserved the memory of this girl for all his life. It is not known for sure why he called her Maryana in his poetry but this name features in many of his poetic works. The image of Oksana was an inspiration for him for many years and served as a sort of benchmark against which he measured other women he met in later life. In one of the poems written many years since they had parted, Shevchenko wrote, “She came, she greeted me,/ She wiped my tears,/ She kissed me…/ It felt as though the sun shone again…”
Among the art works exhibited in the museum, one can see prints with views of the city of Wilno (now Vilnius, capital of Lithuania) where Shevchenko spent three years in his youth. He was taken there by his owner (he was a slave until he was 24, remember?) who allowed the young man to take art lessons. In Wilno, Shevchenko met a girl of a Polish descent, Jadwiga Gusikowska, whom he chose to address as Dunya. The love that flared up and could not last — Shevchenko was not free (literally) to choose what to do with his life. Many years later, he had a dream in which he saw his Dunya, kneeling in a church, deep in prayer. He noted down this dream, writing, “I saw Dunya, the black-browed Gusikowska, in the Church of St Anna in Wilno…” The church is still there — but Dunya is not.
After obtaining his freedom, Shevchenko who lived then in St Petersburg, Russia, made friends among the literati and art cognoscenti, attended literary soirees, tried to dress well, even ostentatiously (a friend of his, Ivan Soshenko wrote that Shevchenko sported a long fur coat, a muffler, and chose to ride in smart likhach sleighs). Shevchenko got enrolled at the Art Academy and did a lot of drawings of models, in the then academic style. Among them, one finds a sketch of a model in bed, her brown hair long, her big eyes dark blue, but the face that of a young girl in contrast to her mature body. She was of German extraction, and it is known that she was more than just a model for him. The girl became a prototype for a character in his autobiographical novel, The Artist, under the name of Pasha. Shevchenko called her “the most wonderful creation of divine nature.”
The portrait of Varvara Repnina in the museum’s collection can hardly fail to draw a lot of attention from the visitors of the museum. Varvara’s mother was the granddaughter of the last Hetman of Ukraine, Kyryl Rozumovsky; her father was the once governor of Malorosiya — (Ukraine) Prince Mykola Repnin-Volkonsky. Varvara Repnina was a woman of excellent education and of various talents, one of which was the gift of creative writing. When she met Shevchenko she was not slow to appreciate his talents. “I know he is great — and I want him to be always great. He is saintly, he is resplendent, I want him to spread truth through the power of his incomparable talent — and I wish he could do it with my help,” she wrote in a letter.
She was 35 and he was 29. She fell in love deeply and she wanted to be his muse — but at the same time she wanted to “put him on a righteous way of living.” Shevchenko fancied another woman, Hanna, at that time. He also resented Varvara’s lecturing him on his “having had too much to drink at a party,” and yet he called her “my angel,” “my protectress”. In a letter to her, he confessed, “Oh my good angel, I pray and weep before you, you have confirmed my belief in the existence of saints on this earth!” In his Poem “Trizna” (Funeral Feast), it was to her that he addressed these words, “It was for you/ That I surrendered my fetters,/ I worked a miracle/ Of turning tears into words…” Varvara and Shevchenko remained friends and he kept corresponding with her until his death.
One of more festively decorated halls of the museum — white and gold, displays the portrait of Hanna Zakrevska, the wife of Platon Zakrevsky, a squire, owner of the village of Berezova Rudka in the Land of Poltavshchyna. Shevchenko was enchanted by the beauty of Hanna and he got himself invited to come on a visit to the Zakrevskys’ estate. He bitterly complained in a letter that his visit had been delayed for a week by a snowstorm and the absence of an overcoat warm enough to protect him from the freezing temperatures. The Zakrevskys’ house and its wing, where Shevchenko stayed, survive (incidentally, one of the British vice premiers had the Zakrevskys among his ancestors). Shevchenko not only painted a portrait, he wrote verses dedicated to Hanna: “You are like the glow/ That rises from the mist/ Above the sea/ At dawn…
The years spent in very harsh conditions in exile, aged Shevchenko physically but his soul remained young and eager for love. He hankered for beauty and was overjoyed when he met one.
Shevchenko painted several portraits of Agata Uskova, the wife of the commandant of a fort — a beautiful woman of great civility and charm, mother of three children. Shevchenko portrayed her, her children and her husband. His love for her seems to have remained unrequited. Shevchenko insisted that he loved her “with all his heart…and there was absolutely nothing sinful in that love, my love was chaste and pure.”
The portrait of Kateryna Piunova that can be seen in another hall of the museum, was painted when Kateryna was seventeen and Shevchenko was forty four years of age. In the portrait, Kateryna, whom Shevchenko happened to befriend, is wearing a blue dress and a red flower in the luxuriant dark hair. Kateryna was an actress of a theater in the town of Nizhny Novgorod. Friendship on his part developed into a fully-fledged love. He proposed — but was turned down, the difference in age probably being the main reason for rejection.
“If I had a wife like that, I’d be ready to die in peace,” said Shevchenko of Mariya Maksymovych, the wife of Mykhailo Maksymovych, the first president of the newly opened University of St Volodymyr in Kyiv.
Mariya was half the age of her husband. Her looks charmed both the poet and the artist in Shevchenko. Her portrait done by Shevchenko in pencil, seems to have been created at one sitting by a greatly inspired Shevchenko. He emphasized the nobility of her appearance, but made her wear a traditional Ukrainian dress, with a necklace around her neck and a translucent veil over her elaborately done hair.
One of Shevchenko’s poems is called “Mariya” but it is difficult to say whether it was Mariya Maksymovych who was the source of inspiration for it.
There was a woman in Shevchenko’s life though who accepted Shevchenko’s proposal to be his wife. Her name was Lykera Polusmak, and she was of the Ukrainian descent. Lykera, a former serf and housemaid at the household of a friend, was much younger than Shevchenko, and there is evidence that suggests that had they married, it would not have been a happy marriage. Lykera admitted to her friends that she did not love the poet who was “too old and not good looking, and too serious” for her liking. She was light-headed and frivolous but very good-looking.
The engagement was broken several months before Shevchenko’s death. It is not known for sure what caused the split but it is known that Shevchenko was very much upset by this — the last in his life — failed attempt to have a family. At the early stages of the romance Shevchenko expressed his feelings for Lykera in a portrait of her that he painted and in poems that he wrote inspired by her person. In one of the poems, “Lykeriyi” (“To Lykeriya”) he wrote: “I’ll build a house,/ I’ll plant a garden I’ll take a nap in the garden… /And in my dreams you’ll come to me…”
Lykera married a hairdresser and lived for some time in the village of Tsarskoye Selo near St Petersburg. In 1904 she moved to Kaniv in Ukraine, a town on the outskirts of which Shevchenko had been buried, and was seen regularly visiting his grave.
Taras Shevchenko never built a house, never married and his quest for romantic love failed. But what if it was this frustration that fed his poetic spirit?
Portrait of Hanna Zakrevska. Oil on canvas, 1843.
Woman in bed. Watercolor on paper, 1839–1840.
Portrait of Agata Uskova. Sepia on paper, 1853–1854.
Self-portrait. Ink on paper, 1843.
Portrait of Mariya Maksymovych.
Portrait of Lykera Polusmak.