Mikhailov sold Vronsky his little painting and agreed to do Anna’s portrait. On the appointed day he came and set to work.
From the fifth sitting the portrait struck everyone, especially Vronsky, not only by its likeness but by its special beauty. It was strange how Mikhailov was able to find this special beauty in her. ‘One would have to know her and love her as I do to find that sweetest inner expression of hers,’ thought Vronsky, though he had learned of that sweetest inner expression of hers only from this portrait. But the expression was so true that he and others thought they had always known it.
‘I’ve been struggling for so long and have done nothing,’ he said of his own portrait, ‘and he just looked and started painting. That’s what technique means.’
‘It will come,’ Golenishchev comforted him. To his mind, Vronsky had talent and, above all, education, which gives one an exalted view of art. Golenishchev’s conviction of Vronsky’s talent was also supported by the fact that he needed Vronsky’s sympathy and praise for his articles and thoughts, and felt that praise and support ought to be mutual.
In other people’s houses, and especially in Vronsky’s palazzo, Mikhailov was quite a different man than he was at home in his studio. He showed an unfriendly deference, as if wary of getting close to people he did not respect. He called Vronsky ‘your highness’ and, despite Anna’s and Vronsky’s invitations, never stayed for dinner, but came only for the sittings. Anna was nicer to him than to others, and was grateful for her portrait. Vronsky was more than polite, and was obviously interested in the artist’s opinion of his painting. Golenishchev never missed an opportunity to instil true notions of art into Mikhailov. But Mikhailov remained equally cold to them all. Anna felt from his eyes that he liked looking at her; but he avoided talking with her. To Vronsky’s talk about his art he remained stubbornly silent, and he remained as stubbornly silent when he was shown Vronsky’s picture and, obviously burdened by Golenishchev’s talk, did not contradict him.
Generally, once they got to know him better, they very much disliked Mikhailov, with his reserved and unpleasant, as if hostile, attitude. And they were glad when the sittings were over, the wonderful portrait was left with them and he stopped coming.
Golenishchev was the first to voice a thought they all had – namely, that Mikhailov was simply envious of Vronsky.
‘Or let’s say, not envious, because he has talent; but it vexes him that a courtier and a wealthy man, who is also a count (they do hate all that), without much effort does the same, if not better, as he who has devoted his life to it. Above all, it’s education that he lacks.’
Vronsky defended Mikhailov, but in the depths of his soul he believed it, because to his mind a man of a different, inferior world had to be envious.
Anna’s portrait, the same subject painted from nature by himself and by Mikhailov, ought to have shown Vronsky the difference between himself and Mikhailov. But he did not see it. He merely stopped painting Anna’s portrait after Mikhailov finished, deciding that it was now superfluous. However, he went on with his painting from medieval life. And he himself, and Golenishchev, and especially Anna, found it very good because it looked much more like famous pictures than Mikhailov’s picture did.
Mikhailov, meanwhile, though he had been much taken up with the portrait of Anna, was even more glad than they were when the sittings ended and he did not have to listen to Golenishchev’s talk about art any more and could forget about Vronsky’s painting. He knew it was impossible to forbid Vronsky to toy with painting; he knew that he and all the dilettantes had every right to paint whatever they liked, but he found it unpleasant. It was impossible to forbid a man to make a big wax doll and kiss it. But if this man with the doll came and sat in front of a man in love and began to caress his doll the way the man in love caressed his beloved, the man in love would find it unpleasant. Mikhailov experienced the same unpleasant feeling at the sight of Vronsky’s painting; he felt it ridiculous, vexing, pathetic and offensive.
Vronsky’s enthusiasm for painting and the Middle Ages did not last long. He had enough taste for painting to be unable to finish his picture. The picture came to a stop. He vaguely felt that its defects, little noticeable in the beginning, would become striking if he went on. The same thing happened with him as with Golenishchev, who felt he had nothing to say and kept deceiving himself by saying that his thought had not ripened, that he was nurturing it and preparing his materials. But Golenishchev was embittered and tormented by it, while Vronsky could not deceive and torment himself, still less become embittered. With his peculiar resoluteness of character, without explaining anything or justifying himself, he ceased to occupy himself with painting.
But without this occupation his life and Anna’s, who was surprised by his disappointment, seemed so boring to him in this Italian town, the palazzo suddenly became so obviously old and dirty, so unpleasant the sight of the stains on the curtains, the cracks in the floors, the chipped stucco of the cornices, and so boring became this ever–the–same Golenishchev, the Italian professor, and the German traveller, that a change of life was necessary. They decided to go to Russia, to the country. In Petersburg Vronsky intended to make a division of property with his brother, and Anna to see her son. The summer they planned to spend on Vronsky’s big family estate.
—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, p. 327