From the Letters of Count Leo Tolstoy, May 14, 1887

It’s late, and almost early. The semester is over and I’ve been receiving finals all day from students. I was about to go to bed and I thought, there’s something for me in these Tolstoy letters. Look and see if there’s something for this day.

I found this, and it seemed like a suitable message to leave here for my students in Fiction 2, who read Anna Karenina with me this semester:

313. To N. N. GAY senior

Yasnaya Polyana, 14 May 1887

[4 lines omitted] P.I. Biryukov came to see me a week ago, and has been staying until our amily arrived, but now they have arrived, and he wants to leave soon—tomorrow. I thought about him and introduced him because he and I said something about you which is very important, namely: all real artists are only artists because they have something to write, know how to write, and have the ability to write, while at the same time reading and looking at and criticising themselves most severely. I fear you have too much of this ability, and it prevents you from doing for people what they need. I’m talking about the Gospel Pictures*. Nobody except you knows the content of the pictures which are in your heart; nobody except you can express them so sincerely, and nobody can paint them like you. Suppose some of them will be on a lower level than the best. Suppose they won’t be finished to perfection. Nevertheless, those on the very lowest level will be a great and important acquisition for true art and for the one and only true business of life. I imagined all of this particularly vividly when I received the beautiful print of The Last Supper, made for Marya Alexandrovna. (Sofya Andreyevna had 10 of them done without your permission. You will surely give it.) I know it’s impossible to advise and explain to an artist what to do. They have their own private way of working. But I was terribly sorry to think that the wonderful job you have begun won’t be completed. I was dragged off to the exhibition;** I think there is nothing to compare with pictures as works, not of the hands, but of the human soul. How did your talks with Tretyakov end. I’ll be glad when your pictures are there. I’m still picking over my article***; I think it’s necessary, but God knows. I want to finish it as soon as possible, to free myself for other work which is crowding in…

*[a footnote here explains that Gay, known to us now as Nikolai Ge, was working at the time on Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane and The Last Supper]

** [something wonderful called “The XIV Wanderer’s Exhibition”]

***[Tolstoy refers to his article, On Life]


  1. There is something beautiful and heartbreaking about how he holds high even the work that fails. You don’t hear people talk about art that way anymore. Thanks for posting.

  2. Thanks. You’re welcome. I agree about that, and also, I like how he takes aim at perfectionism, which haunts many student writers. Which is why I sent it to them.

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