Why did Nikolai Ge’s Last Supper disappoint Dostoevsky and, on the contrary, please Tolstoy? Why isn’t there the original painting in the Tretyakov Gallery, only a small author’s copy instead, although Pavel Tretyakov liked The Last Supper very much? Why is it impossible to see the face of Judas in the picture? Why is Christ depicted not sitting, but lying? Why didn’t Nikolai Ge take his brushes for more than a year before starting his work on The Last Supper, and how did the painting help him return to painting? Which of the apostles Ge painted from himself, and whose model was his adored wife Anna Petrovna? Why was the picture nicknamed “The split in the nihilists”? Arthive collected interesting facts about the most famous interpretation of the last Christ’s supper in Russian art.
The Last Supper as a way out of the creative impasse The biography of Nikolai Ge says that The Last Supper appeared in the early 1860s after a rather difficult period of silence. “For more than a year, Ge almost never took his brush,” an art historian Natalya Zograf says. If you look at this fact from the heights of religious painting, such “abstinence” of Ge is somewhat akin to prolonged fasting and prayer, without which the icon painters would not undertake an important work. However, Ge’s crisis had more mundane reasons. He almost fanatically worshipped the genius of Karl Bryullov. In the late 1850s — early 1860s, he lived in the Italian capital among the artists who were called “the Russian colony in Rome” (whereas Ivan Turgenev, in his letter to Leo Tolstoy from Rome, called them much more rude: “...fools infected with Bryullovism”). There Ge gradually began to understand that this Bryullov-like romanticist detachment and the antiquating tradition could no longer give him anything creative. But where to move and how to work further? Ge had no idea. And since he was a hot and impulsive person, he decided that it was time to abandon art. He decided, so he did it. In a depressed state of mind, Ge left Rome for Florence as life there was much cheaper at that time (and Ge, who almost did not receive any income from his paintings then, had to feed his wife and two little sons). In Florence, Ge avidly read books in the absence of work. He met the Life of Jesus by the German historian and theologian David Friedrich Strauss, who sought to show the authentically historical Christ and doubted the supernatural moments of His earthly life — the immaculate conception, transfiguration, resurrection, ascension, and even His divine nature. Nikolai Ge, who had previously been listening enthusiastically to the materialistic statements of Herzen and Belinsky and who was completely alien to mysticism in his soul, was impressed by how Strauss “breaks the whole mythological side of the Christ’s biography”. “On my arrival from Rome to Florence,” Ge wrote, “I ... read the works of Strauss and began to understand the Holy Scripture in its modern sense.” What was this “modern sense”? Most likely, in Ge’s language, it means understanding the Gospel not abstractly, not mystically, but purely psychologically, and thus bringing the events of almost two thousand years ago closer, making them emotionally understandable. When Ge reached the chapter on the Last Supper in the Strauss’s book, he suddenly realized that he saw its characters as living and clearly understood their feelings and their motives. He had not painted anything for more than a year, and now he had a finished painting in front of his eyes: “The images of Christ, John, Peter and Judas became completely definitive, alive for me,” Ge confessed, “I saw those scenes when Judas left the Last Supper, and there was a complete break between Judas and Christ ... There I saw the grief of the Saviour who lost his human disciple forever. John was lying near Him: he understood everything, but he did not believe the possibility of such a break; I saw Peter jump up, because he also understood everything and became indignant, he was an ardent man; I finally saw Judas: he would certainly leave... Here is the picture! A week later, the picture was painted in real size, without a sketch.” In a word, the artist was overtaken by a paradox, which is very common in art history, when the artist could not get rid of Revelation. He wanted to avoid any kind of mysticism, but got a completely mystical in its essence birth of a masterpiece. He deliberately avoided everything supernatural, but the power of his art involuntarily convinced of the reality of Revelation.
It’s just a traditional painting subject, what is original about the Ge’s concept? In the traditional iconography of the Last Supper, the sacred centre of the picture has always been the table (1, 2), where the breaking of bread took place, with the apostles sitting around it at an almost equal distance from each other. Ge essentially dynamised and broke this balanced composition. For the viewer, everything looks approximately as if one accidentally entered the room and right at the entrance, saw the leaving Judas putting on his cloak face to face. “A face is blurred seen eye to eye,” as we know, so we cannot see the face of Judas clearly. He moves into darkness (both literally and figuratively), the source of light remains behind his back, and therefore the large and sharp features of Judas are only visible in the most generalized way. There is also a certain stereoscopic effect: if we focus our gaze on the “circle of light” with Christ and the apostles, then Judas appears to us as if “out of focus”. Another poet and critic Apollon Grigoryev noticed immediately after the appearance of The Last Supper: “Stand directly in front of the picture — and Judas will disappear”. Placed on the floor, the lamp brightly illuminates the table and the faces of the two apostles, young John on the left and elderly Peter on the right. Ge seeks to endow them with expressive emotions: John is naive and cannot believe that Judas treated the Teacher like this, and Peter is more experienced, it is difficult to surprise him, but he is indignant to the depths of his being. The Saviour, in contrast to them, does not express emotions and is immersed in himself and in the experience of the fact of betrayal, which, as we remember from the Gospel, was known to Him in advance. By the way, Christ does not sit here, like in the version of Leonardo da Vinci, for example, and He does not stand, towering over the table, like in Tintoretto's painting (Ge visited Milan and Venice and could see those frescoes and paintings), but, in accordance with the original Gospels, He “reclines”. Strauss mentioned the “Oriental custom of reclining to table”, which is often met in the biblical texts.
Who were the prototypes of the figures in The Last Supper? Wanting to achieve the best possible authenticity, Ge began to look for the figures and faces he needed for the picture. He went to Livorno. where Alexander Ivanov had already been there before him, when he painted The Appearance of Christ; he considered the Livorno Jews very suitable types for biblical scenes. However, for the main figures of The Last Supper, Ge found models even closer: literally at home, in Florence. In the early 1860s, the writer and publicist Alexander Herzen, the second (after Bryullov) idol of Nikolai Ge’s youth, moved there with his family. The artist shared Herzen’s liberal ideas so ardently that he even presented his article to his bride (who also had a soft spot for Herzen) as a wedding present. It was a shock for Ge to find out that Herzen lived with him in the same city. He asked his friends to introduce him to the Kolokol publisher and persuaded Herzen to sit for the portrait. This portrait, objectively one of his best works, was very valuable for Ge. When he decided to return to Russia, he carried the image of Herzen to the country practically smuggled: since the publicist remained outlaw here, his portrait could be seized at the border. Ge took it out of the frame, pasted an image of Moses on top and rolled it up (traces of this rolling up are still visible in the portrait in the Tretyakov Gallery). Moreover, Herzen became a prototype of Christ in The Last Supper. His face, of course, is only guessed in general outlines and greatly ennobled, but the very pose with his hand propping up his head was borrowed by Ge from the photograph of Herzen that has survived to this day, taken by the Russian court photographer Sergei Levitsky. This gave conservative critics a reason to say that Ge made Herzen the Messiah, and instead of the Last Supper he depicted some kind of “split in the nihilists”. Ge painted John, the youngest of the apostles, “from his beloved, deeply appreciated and worthy wife, Anna Petrovna," as the famous critic Stasov put it. There was no contradiction in it: long before Ge, traditional iconography endowed John with a feminine appearance — this way his youth and purity were emphasized. Nikolai Ge served as a model for the Apostle Peter. Ge, as we remember, called Peter “an ardent man”; he saw his own undoubted similarity with the personality of Peter in his own temperament, as well as in his ability to burn of certain idea, in his decisiveness, but also in his tendency to be disappointed quickly. When the painting was finished, the artist was 31 or 32 years old (Repin in his Far Close wrote about Ge as “then still a young beautiful brunette”), and he had to deliberately age himself on the canvas. But if you look at the late portrait of Ge by Nikolai Yaroshenko or at the Ge's last self portrait that was executed almost 30 years after The Last Supper, one cannot help but be amazed at how Ge over the years has become similar to his own Apostle Peter from The Last Supper. The artist Grigoriy Myasoyedov also joked about Ge’s “apostolic bald head”.
What did Nikolai Ge’s contemporaries think of The Last Supper? As usual with masterpieces, they scolded and passionately extolled it. Repin, Kramskoy (he even made a copy), Tretyakov, Tolstoy, Saltykov-Shchedrin praised it; Dostoevsky, Stasov and many others scolded the painting. Dostoevsky did not accept its “ordinariness” and offensive mundane earthiness: “Look closely, this is an ordinary quarrel of very ordinary people, where are the 18 centuries of Christianity that followed, what do they have to do with it?” Dostoevsky wondered. “How is it possible that something colossal happened out of this ordinary quarrel of such ordinary people as those of Mr. Ge, who are just about for supper?” Tolstoy, like Strauss, sought to free the Gospel from the miraculous and supernatural; on the contrary, he accepted the picture almost enthusiastically, he confessed that “a strange thing happened: my own idea of the last evening of Christ with His disciples coincided with what Ge showed in his picture”. Another kind of public reaction was described by Stasov. Count Stroganov, a well-known philanthropist, came to see the exhibition, where The Last Supper was shown for the first time. He peered at the picture with terrible indignation and finally asked: “How old is this artist?!” “About thirty,” they replied. “A dangerous man!” Stroganov said weightily. The unrecognised “Italian” Nikolai Ge stood in the crowd at that time and did not dare to reveal himself. And after a couple of years, Stroganov would come to Ge’s studio in Florence and persuade him: “Make a copy of your amazing picture for me too!..”
Why is there no original of Ge’s The Last Supper in the Tretyakov Gallery? Because the original painting is in the Mikhailovsky Palace, it’s a branch of the Russian Museum now: Alexander II liked the Ge’s painting very much and he bought it for 10 thousand silver roubles. Pavel Tretyakov, who saw the painting at the exhibition in the 2nd Antique Hall of the Academy of Arts, was terribly sorry that he could not get The Last Supper for his gallery. He wrote to Ivan Kramskoy in February 1881: “Among everything that was exhibited at the Academy, Ge’s painting stands out and reigns (alongwith Ivanov’s sketches). It’s a pity that it is at the Academy, it does not fit the picture! A wonderful picture!” Much later (and in a very intricate way!) the Tretyakov Gallery would nevertheless acquire an author’s version of The Last Supper. It is significantly smaller than the original and Ge painted it not for the gallery, but by commission of the entrepreneur collector Kuzma Soldatenkov: unlike Tretyakov, who always bargained with artists and lowered the price, the textile manufacturer Soldatenkov was ready to pay much for art. His generosity was so well-known that after the manifesto on the abolition of serfdom in 1861, many peasants did not doubt: it was not the tsar who freed them, but simply a broad-minded man Kuzma Terentyevich Soldatenkov bought and released them. When he died in 1901, the painting was transferred to the Rumyantsev Museum, the first publicly available collection of books, coins, manuscripts and works of art in Moscow. Under Soviet rule, it was disbanded in 1924: foreign paintings went to Pushkin Museum; the Russian pictures, including the author’s copy of Ge’s Last Supper, were sent to the Tretyakov Gallery.