Evgeny Zamyatin famously described the extraordinary power of the pen and ink version: ‘This portrait of Akhmatova, or rather, this portrait of Akhmatova’s eyebrows - like clouds, they cast shadows across her face, both heavy and light. What losses they speak of. They are like the key on a sheet of music: once established, you can hear what the eyes are telling you, understand the mourning of her hair, the line of black prayer beads across her crown’ (ibid.). His comments apply equally, if not more so, to the present, more finished work.
Annenkov first properly met Akhmatova at The Stray Dog in St Petersburg in late 1913 or early 1914. In his memoirs he recalls the deep impression she left on him – her hushed, musical voice, along with her natural pose, graceful gestures, striking hairstyle, heavy fringe and unstudied elegance. ‘No question, sadness was the most characteristic expression on Akhmatova’s face, even when she smiled. It was this enchanting sadness that made her face so beautiful. Every time I saw her, heard her reading or spoke with her, I couldn’t tear my eyes from her face – her eyes, her lips, the entire structure of her features was a symbol of her poetry’ (ibid.).
In the present portrait the sitter is clearly overcome by sorrow. Akhmatova’s fifth book of poetry, Podorozhnik, published in 1921 focuses on the privations of contemporary life, and was a book Annenkov confessed to reading over and over again. It was a period of tremendous social turmoil and personal grief for Akhmatova, as the young Soviet state began to tighten its grip and those unwilling or unable to cooperate began either to emigrate or face the consequences. This was the year her first husband Nikolai Gumilev (1886-1921) was arrested by the Cheka and executed. But unlike so many of her contemporaries, Akhmatova never left the Soviet Union and for most of her life remained in Leningrad, a city with which she identified passionately and whose citizens considered her a supreme example of physical and moral courage. This iconic portrait of the poet and of the age can be considered among the most evocative Annenkov ever produced.
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