Academic journal article Canadian Slavonic Papers

Anna Akhmatova's "An Old Portrait" and the Ballets Russes

Academic journal article Canadian Slavonic Papers

Anna Akhmatova's "An Old Portrait" and the Ballets Russes

Article excerpt


In the fall of 1910, at the age of twenty-one, Anna Andreevna Gumileva (née Gorenko) wrote the poem "An Old Portrait" (Staryi portret) and then sent it, along with three others, to the poet and critic, Valerii Briusov (1873-1924). It was Akhmatova's hope that Briusov would agree to publish some of her poems, for he had recently assumed charge of the literary section of the journal, Russian Thought (Russkaia mysl', 1880-1918). In a brief letter accompanying the poems, Akhmatova asks for his verdict on her future as a poet: "I would be endlessly grateful to you if you would write and tell me whether I should occupy myself with poetry. Forgive me for troubling you."1 For the first time, she signs her work with a pseudonym, Anna Akhmatova, reflecting ancestral roots traced through her maternal great-grandmother to the last khan of the Golden Horde, Akhmat.2 Viewed in light of her marriage to the young poet, Nikolai Gumilev (1886-1921), in April 1910, Akhmatova's adoption of the pseudonym in the fall of that year appears as a deliberate attempt to begin Grafting her own distinctive public image.

Marked by her marriage, her first trip abroad, her first poetry reading, and her first productive period of writing, 1910 proved to be a momentous year in Akhmatova's life. Following their wedding, Akhmatova and Gumilev traveled in May to Paris for a month-long honeymoon. Already well-acquainted with the French capital, Gumilev was able to serve as his new bride's guide to the city and its cultural life. Akhmatova's impressions of the city, recorded in her autobiographical prose, ranged from observations on politics and fashion to the status of poetry ("Parisian painting had devoured French poetry"). She noted, among other things, her encounters with writers and artists, including the Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920).4 Following their return from Europe, Akhmatova and Gumilev attended Viacheslav Ivanov's Petersburg literary salon, the Tower (Bashnia), where Akhmatova read several of her poems publicly for the first time. In the fall, she studied literature at Raev's Higher Historical-Literary Courses (Vysshie istoriko-literaturnye kursy Raeva) in Petersburg and began composing the poems that would eventually comprise her first book of poetry, Evening (Vecher, 1912). Akhmatova wrote: "Poems came at a steady pace-nothing like this had happened before. I searched, I found, I lost. I sensed (rather dimly) that I was beginning to succeed."5 1910 was also the year of the posthumous publication of Innokentii Annenskii's Cypress Chest (Kiparisovyi larets) and the abandonment of symbolism by the rising generation of Russian poets.6 Written in the productive fall of 1910, "An Old Portrait" contains mysteries that can only be uncovered if read within the context of this transformative year in Akhmatova's life and the culture to which she belonged.


Akhmatova spent the fall of 1910 almost entirely in St. Petersburg, with the exception of a visit to her mother in Kyiv (Kiev). In September, her husband had departed for Africa, where he would spend the next four months. As her letter to Briusov suggests, Akhmatova appears to have used this time alone to write. "An Old Portrait" was Akhmatova's first poem to be published in Russia; it appeared in February 1911, in the illustrated Petersburg monthly, Common Journal of Literature, Art, Science and Social Life (Vseobshchii zhurnal literatury, iskusstva, nauki i obshchestvennoi zhizni). 7 It was not republished in Akhmatova's lifetime.

The poem begins with a reference to the frame that encloses the portrait and continues with a brief description of the figures in the painting-a black servant and a white woman-and various objects present in the scene-tall candles, a bronze table, a zither, and roses in a crystal goblet. At the close of the second stanza, the poet wonders over the identity of the artist who created the portrait, and, in the concluding lines, she alludes to an intrigue that ended in the death of the woman's lover, a death the woman presumably brought about herself. …

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