Ekphrastic Vision and Nikolai Karamzin’s Letters of a Russian Traveler

Stiliana Milkova, University of California, Berkeley

In this paper I will address Nikolai Karamzin’s Letters of a Russian Traveler (Pis’ma russkogo puteshestvennika) (1797) and its construction of a sentimental viewer through ekphrastic descriptions of works of art. I will contend that Karamzin’s use of ekphrasis, the verbal representation of visual representation, exposes the narrator’s peculiar place as a Europeanized foreigner. But more importantly, it sets up a precedent of the trope, a kind of model ekphrastic representation of the encounter between a Russian/Eastern European traveler and a European work of art.

Loosely based on Karamzin’s grand tour of Europe (1789-1791) and structured as a travel journal, the Letters aspired to create a Russian readership responsive to new literary and aesthetic values. For this purpose, Karamzin’s text blurs a number of genres within its epistolary form. Prose narration, poetry, travelogue, historical sketch, and art historical commentary coexist in a way that allows for a subjective vision to emerge. The narrator’s vision might be construed in terms of Karamzin’s profuse emotional response to the visual arts and the kind of taste he attempts to instill in his reader. For instance, moved to tears by the masterpieces of Western European art and steeped in the values and theories of sensibility, Karamzin’s traveler offers concrete yet emotional renditions of the images he encounters, nevertheless remaining in control of his text and aware of the instructional nature of his writing.

In this sense, Karamzin’s ekphrastic descriptions mean to educate the reader in matters of observing and experiencing art, as well as in matters of the heart – to exemplify and cultivate the various emotional responses to the visual arts. But most importantly, the Letters establish a viewer, whose sentimental sensibility informs many ekphrastic moments in the text. In my paper I will look at ekphrastic vision as a way of seeing sentimentally, and will focus on various topoi of such a vision – from the standard museum visit to the exultant encounters with tombs and graves. In this light, my paper examines how the narrator’s modes of ekphrastic looking posit a highly subjective view of Europe and the Russian’s place within it. Finally, the paper situates Karamzin’s text within the tradition of sentimental and travel writing as well as within the frameworks of visual theory and theories of ekphrasis.