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Nabokov and Dobuzhinsky: Poet and Painter

by John Cobley

Wednesday Nov 15th, 2017


Vladimir Nabokov grew up hoping to be an artist—rather like fellow Russian writer Boris Pasternak, who initially had ambitions as a pianist and composer. Both these writers eventually realised that they lacked fundamental skills. Pasternak lacked perfect pitch and Nabokov was his teacher’s “most hopeless pupil.” (Nabokov, Speak Memory, p. 94)


Mstislav Dobuzhinsky in 1910


This teacher, the famous Russian artist Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, was not Nabokov’s first drawing teacher. When he was nine, an English émigré, Mr. Cummings, was hired as drawing master. Soon a well-known Russian painter, Yaremich, replaced the Englishman. An impressionist, Yaremich advocated a “bold” approach that used “blotches of dull colour, smears of sepia and olive brown.” (Nabokov, p. 92). When the 13-year-old Nabokov rebelled, Yaremich was replaced by an even more famous Russian artist, Mstislav Dobuzhinsky. Nabokov’s third drawing master was a member of the prestigious Mir Iskusstva group of artists. His great contribution to Russian art was his series of paintings of St. Petersburg.


Dobuzhinsky taught Nabokov to draw familiar objects from memory “in the greatest possible detail.” Two years later in 1914, Nabokov was converted to writing poetry and within two years had self-published his first book of poems. It is likely that Dobuzhinsky was instrumental in the change of direction. He told his pupil “You have a talent for painting, but you must write.” (Shapiro, The Sublime Artist’s Studio, p. 113)


Despite his move to poetry, Nabokov did not forget Dobuzhinsky. In 1919, just before he left Russia for good, Nabokov wrote a poem inspired by one of the artist’s most famous paintings: Peter the Great in Holland (1910). For this commissioned work, Dobuzhinsky went to Holland. What survives is a sketch. The completed work was a panel in the St Petersburg School House.


Mstislav Dobuzhinsky:  Peter the Great in Holland


 Peter in Holland


Out of grim Muscovy

He crossed over here.

He grew fond of the roar of the sea

And of our little tiled town,


And roamed the dykes,

Sunburnt, coarse and youthful.

The wind. Ash-grey sand dunes.

The thud of distant axes.


Multi-coloured patches

Of sail on the speckled waters.

A flock of seagulls. The firmament

Like faience, greenish.


The evenings were for contemplation.

Tankards. Drowsy colleagues.

Thoughts with the voice of victory

Beckoned the carpenter—Peter.


He dreamt earnestly at the table.

The clock ticked distinctly.

I remember: the coarse moustache

The severe and resolute gaze,


The shadow of elbows and head,

The shelves in the tiny tavern,

And on the stove, evening’s splendor

And squares of blue. 


It is unlikely that Nabokov had a copy of Dobuzhinsky’s sketch when he wrote this poem. He would have relied on the training of his drawing master to depict detail from memory. And if this was so, he did well. In the first three stanzas especially, the poem connects with Dobuzhinsky’s painting. Nabokov’s speaker, a Dutchman, describes Peter in ways that are evident in Dobuzhinsky’s sketch: he is “sunburnt, coarse and youthful” and he has a “coarse moustache” and prominent “elbows and head.”  Nabokov adds more details that connect his poem with the sketch: an “axe” just behind Peter’s knee, and “ash-grey sand dunes” on the horizon. “Wind” is suggested by the horizontal flags. Perhaps the subtlest reference is “faience.” (See Gavril Shapiro, The Sublime Artist’s Studio, p. 116) Holland was famous for its use of a faience glaze, most notably in the pottery from Delft. This glaze, obtained by using metal at high temperatures, was initially blue but later other colours were obtained—hence the green-tinged clouds in Dobuzhinsky’s painting. Connection with the earthenware industry of Holland is also made with the reference to the “tiled” town.


In the second half, the poem moves away from the painting toward the creative aspect of Peter’s time in Holland. The speaker describes Peter’s personality and attitudes more clearly than is possible in the painting. Of course, Dobuzhinsky does convey some of the “severe and resolute gaze” of Peter. But what Nabokov is interested in is the dreaming aspect of Peter’s mind, liberated by the liquor of the tavern.


Émigrés Both

The political situation in the USSR led to the emigration of  both Nabokov and Dobuzhinsky, the former to Germany in 1919 and the latter to Lithuania in 1924. In 1926 the two men met again at an exhibition of Dobuzhinsky’s work in Berlin. This reunion moved Nabokov to write a poem dedicated to his former drawing master. In “Ut Pictura Poesis” Nabokov uses paintings of St. Petersburg by Dobuzhinsky (“this fluent painter”) to relive vicariously his beloved city.


Ut Pictura Poesis                       

to  M.V. Dobuzhinsky


Memory, you piercing ray,

Transform my exile.

Penetrate me with the remembrance

Of barge-like Petersburg clouds

In the heavenly windy spaces,

Of back-street fences,

Of the kind-faced street lamps…

I remember dusk falling

Above my Neva like the rustle

Of shading pencils.


All this, the fluent painter

Displayed before me,

So that it seemed this wind

Had just blown in my face,

Depicted by him in the airborne

Autumn leaves, in the swirling clouds.

And a hum was flowing along the embankment,

The drone of a bell in the mist--

The bronze swings of the cathedral…


There’s a familiar courtyard,

There’s a bollard! If only I could

Step in, get through,

And stand there, where snowdrifts

And neatly stacked firewood slumber,

Or where in the stone oval

Under the arch on the canal,

The fortress and the Neva shimmer a delicate blue.


As in “Peter in Holland,” Nabokov is not precise with his details. Not all his images of St. Petersburg appear in Dobuzhinsky’s paintings. For example I found no “barges of Petersburg clouds” and no “flying leaves.” These two images work well for the poem, so Nabokov is taking poetic license in using them, despite the dedication to Dobuzhinsky. On the other hand there are enough images that clearly connect the poem with Dobuzhinsky’s work: “back street fences” in An Old Loghouse; “kind-faced street lamps” in Hairdresser’s Windows; and “Neatly stacked firewood” in A City. The final climactic image (“where in the stone oval/Under the arch on the canal,\The fortress and the Neva shimmer a delicate blue”) doesn’t appear to refer to a particular Dobuzhinsky work. There is one black and white arch drawing where the Neva, but not the fortress, appears through an arch. (Zimniaia Kanavka Embankment, See Shapiro, p. 121)


“Ut Pictura Poesis” is a fine poem. Beyond the allusions to Dobuzhinsky, there are some deft poetic touches: the first image of the beam as memory that penetrates; the daring synaesthetic connection between dusk falling and shading pencils (pencils that Dobuzhinsky must have used when teaching Nabokov); the concrete effect of the imaginary wind, and the magical possibility of “stepping through” into St. Petersburg. No wonder Dobuzhinsky himself thought highly of the poem, later on writing to Nabokov in 1943,  “Once you wrote a small-size poem dedicated to me. I do not have it, and I much value it as a badge of distinction…. If you find it or remember, send me this regalia.” (quoted in Shapiro, p. 121)


The later lives of these two Russians had some amazing parallels. Both were in Paris in 1937, when Dobuzhinsky painted Nabokov’s portrait. Both escaped the Second World War by moving to the USA. Both spent ten years working on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Nabokov as a translator and Dobuzhinsky as an illustrator.


Dobuzhinsky's Portrait of Nabokov. 1937


Translations from the Russian of Nabokov's "Peter the Great in Holland" and "Ut Pictura Poesis" by John Cobley.


See Gavril Shapiro’s The Sublime Artist’s Studio for a more detailed examination of the relationship between Nabokov and Dobuzhinsky. 

See Mstislav Dobuzhinsky: Painting and Graphic Art Stage Design for a good selection of Dobuzhinsky’s work. 

See Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Poems, ed. Thomas Karshan for some of Nabokov’s Russian poems translated by Dmitri Nabokov.


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