Monday, March 23, 2015

Botticelli to Braque: Scotland's Secret Treasure

Who knew that a small country like Scotland had such an important art collection? In order to let the art world in on their secret, The National Galleries of Art in Edinburgh, which comprises three museums that cover different periods in art, sent out a special exhibit of 55 masterpieces called "Botticelli to Braque," which is running at the de Young Museum from now through May 31, 2015.

The collection includes work from almost every art movement from the early Renaissance to the early twentieth century, which makes it instructive for the novice, but many of the works are somewhat atypical for the artist, which gives them special interest for experienced viewers.

The Botticelli of the exhibition's title is a fairly typical madonna and child for the early Renaissance; the madonna adoring the Christ child asleep on the ground has a particular symbolism, but instead of the usual dusty old manger, Botticelli gives us a gorgeously realized garden. It is also noteworthy that this artist was much more likely to depict subjects from Greek mythology than from Christian stories. While you may not be able to relate to this myth, it expresses the basic value that mothers tend to adore their infant children, and perhaps to see them as a gift from God.

Sandro Botticelli, 1444-1510
The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child, c. 1485

The show's example by Braque is much less imposing, and much less appealing, but it is an excellent example of a style that was important in the early twentieth century called Cubism. Cubism was basically an analytical approach to painting; cubes were a result of artists like Braque and Picasso deconstructing painting and deconstructing content. They looked hard at traditional painting techniques, and then said, "How can we make something new? How can we make art that reflects the crazy world of the twentieth century?" They looked at traditional content and said, "How can we shake it up so that people get a fresh viewpoint?" The longer I look at the painting below—and it requires a lot of study— the more it seems like a look inside a mind before a coherent image is formed. Digging around in this murky landscape, you can pick out a candlestick, bits of a newspaper, a drink glass, and lines suggesting furniture and buildings. It's like what you might think of as you fall asleep after a night at the tavern.

Georges Braque, 1882-1963
The Candlestick, 1911

The analytical approach—testing various viewpoints and materials—evolved through several stages, and various artists came up with different results. Braque was developing cubism in conversation with Pablo Picasso. The painting by Picasso is decidedly small-time, but it is a good example of deconstruction. Experimentation in technique may be seen in the corked bottle, which is rendered with 3-dimensional shadows and grit in the paint, while the gas lamp on the wall is barely outlined. Deconstruction in shapes is used in presenting different planes of a guitar. I think the odd shape drawn on a light background refers to the gas jet used for heating or cooking.

Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973
Guitar, Gas-Jet and Bottle, 1913
This cubist painting by Léger is much more fully realized. He made a deliberate effort to render all shapes as tubes; his style is sometimes humorously referred to as tubism. This painting is a pretty far cry from the work of Braque. Léger applied the idea of deconstruction to the female body, as well as to the traditional still life.

Fernand Léger, 1881-1955
Woman and Still Life, 1921

One of the biggest surprises in the show was a work by Vermeer. This artist is best known for Dutch interiors with light streaming through a window on a single modest woman, playing an instrument or performing a task. Religious parables were rare in his small body of work. I like this work for its warmth and intimacy. Jesus knew the sisters Mary and Martha well; he stayed in their home, and it was their brother, Lazarus, that he raised from the dead. He is not putting on a show here; even his halo is a modest aura. He's just sitting with them in their kitchen. Not surprisingly, the sisters have different personalities, and sometimes squabble. The woman holding the bread is the nervous hostess, worried about feeding the guests who will be coming to hear him speak. Mary, on the other hand, is just enthralled with his presence, not bothering with the tasks at hand. Jesus resolves the dispute by favoring the adoring Mary. This part is open to interpretation, but I think Mary saw that she had a rare opportunity and it would be smart to take advantage of it. Playing the role of hostess was distracting Martha from the experience.

Johannes Vermeer, 1632-1675
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, c. 1655

In the painting below, El Greco dramatized an allegory of unknown meaning, presenting it as a scene on stage. An attractive young person holds our attention merely by lighting a candle, perhaps with a burning stick from a fire. A more mature man, an outsider with a prominent cape and hat, is spell-bound, and some sort of monkey is taking a very intelligent interest in the proceedings. Something exciting is about to happen, some sort of ritual is in progress.

El Greco, 1541-1614
An Allegory (Fábula), c. 1590
One of my favorite paintings was an unusual work by Edgar Degas. The bulk of Degas' work depicts dancers or racehorses from a detached standpoint, in which he manipulates design, color, shapes, and other aesthetic concerns. Much less often he produced insightful portraits, and Diego Martelli is brilliant. You can see Diego is Degas' friend; he has kicked off his slippers and let down his guard; he is lost in thought while Degas paints his portrait. He is sitting on a small, uncomfortable stool, calling attention to the cramped environment. This image makes it difficult to separate the dark blue table covering from a vaguely depicted blue sofa. The table is littered with books and papers indicating a scholarly life, and, in fact, Martelli was an art critic. I think the slightly raised perspective suggests the critic's attitude toward art.

Edgar Degas, 1834-1917
Diego Martelli, 1879

One section of the show was devoted to Scottish art. Several of these works were monumental, full-length portraits of Scottish aristocracy that were staid and formal; they didn't hold my interest. What got me was a work by Henry Raeburn from 1795. Raeburn was best known for solemn portraits of august persons seated in traditional poses, but he struck a more whimsical note with this image of a minister ice-skating; though the Reverend is nonchalant, his graceful pose is difficult on ice-skates. I like the simple silhouette against a murky background.

Henry Raeburn, 1756-1823
Reverend Robert Walker Skating, c. 1795

A Scottish portrait artist from earlier in the 1700s was Allan Ramsay. He was more of a society painter and many of his portraits depict women wearing lavish outfits. The model for the portrait below was the painter's wife, but the portrait isn't really about her personality or their relationship. It is intended as a show-off piece, a self-advertisement, showing his uncanny ability to depict complex lace, sumptuous satin, porcelain complexion, and a perfect hand (hands are the hard part of a portrait), and throw in a lovely bouquet as well. I figure he used his wife as a model because no one else was willing to sit that long.

Allan Ramsay, 1713-1784
Margaret Lindsay, Mrs. Allan Ramsay, c. 1758
A similar work was painted during the same period by Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Again we have porcelain complexion, a perfect hand, and lovely flowers; the subject is just a model. However, Greuze was a sentimentalist, and emotion generally trumps all in his work. And isn't it lovely when a young person gets all sad over the loss of a pet, perhaps forming a little resting place for it in the backyard?

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1725-1805
Girl with a Dead Bird, 1765
Returning to fashionable portraits, I was delighted to find a famous work by American John Singer Sargent. Sargent produced portraits of society women in Europe as well as the United States. In his portrait of Lady Agnew, a member of the Scottish aristocracy, character dominates fashion and even trumps Sargent's bravura brushstroke. This woman engages you directly, unflinchingly; she knows what she is doing. Her posture is all training: while she appears to be at her ease, she is obviously holding in her abs; and one hand slyly clutches the edge of her armchair to help her remain erect. She is allowing herself to be admired, but she is not letting down her guard.

John Singer Sargent, 1856-1925
Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892

One of the most touching portraits in the show was by Anthony van Dyck.  Although it depicts the daughters of Charles the I of England, it is informal, intimate, and even tender; the painter seems to have loved those children, and they seem to love each other. It's unusual to find an intimate work by van Dyck; he is generally associated with life-size, full-length portraits, usually of aristocratic women.

Anthony van Dyck, 1599-1641
Princesses Elizabeth and Anne, Daughters of Charles I, 1637

Sometimes a portrait is not a portrait but a character study. Instead of trying to capture a likeness of a specific person, the artist creates a "fictional" character who embodies certain traits or particular moods. Called "tronies," these were in vogue during the 1600s, especially in Holland. This one by Frans Hals depicts the sort of person who get into drunken rants, an outspoken person "whose jawbone attacks everyone." He is shown brandishing the jawbone of a cow as a weapon. This pose also alludes to a biblical story in which Samson used the jawbone of an ass to slay a thousand Philistines. The painting is associated with a particular individual, but he was mainly the model for a character study.

Frans Hals, 1582-1666
Portrait of Pieter Verdonck, c. 1627

Rembrandt had a similar intent with the painting below. Though it depicts a lovely woman in bed, she is not concerned with her image or her sex appeal; she is worried about something. "What is that noise? Where is my companion? What's going on out there?"  In the 1600s, the Dutch slept in beds that were like cabinets with heavy drapery, to help keep out winter's damp and chill. Here the bed frame and drapery also suggest a proscenium and curtain, like a stage. We're looking at an inner world of private fears. There is also a possible biblical allusion. The character Sarah had seven husbands who were killed by the devil; this woman could be watching anxiously while her eighth bridegroom tries to chase the devil away.

Rembrandt van Rijn, 1606-1669
A Woman in Bed, 1647
An example of a twentieth century tronie is this portrait by Jawlensky. The artist might not have even needed a model for it; he merely used a simplified face as a framework; personality and emotion are conveyed in the vivid hues and the contrasting brights and darks. What sort of personality? The left eye emerging from a dark shadow tends to suggest depths of pain, the bright yellows and greens convey anguish and jealousy, the red looks like the flush of anger, and the coarse daubing brushstroke expresses inner turmoil. I see a jilted lover.

Alexei von Jawlensky, 1864-1941
Head of a Woman, c. 1911

Landscapes were not treated as important until the 1800s. In the 1700s, painters relied heavily on portraits to pay the bills. Thomas Gainsborough is best known for ridiculously pompous full-length portraits of the fashionable set, but his landscapes are lovely and unpretentious.

Thomas Gainsborough, 1727-1788
River Landscape with a View of a Distant Village, c. 1750
Corot did some interesting character studies, but he was one of the earliest artists to yield to his fascination with nature and to treat landscape as an important subject. This work from the 1820's anticipates the freshness of nature and the preoccupation with light effects of the Impressionists, and you can see why they were inspired by his example.

Camille Corot, 1796-1875
Ville-d’Avray: Entrance to the Wood, c. 1825

This painting by Monet developed those qualities into a typical Impressionist landscape. Monet's work is so plentiful that I sometimes get blasé, but the reflections in the river make this scene irresistible. Monet loved this line of poplars so much that he fought to save them when they were threatened by development; his love is evident in this bright and gentle scene; this is his idea of heaven.

Claude Monet, 1840-1926
Poplars on the Epte, 1891

But the twentieth century demanded something bolder in landscape. Anticipating the attitude of the Cubists, Cezanne wanted to break up the planes in a scene, to dramatize the structure, to analyze the colors into their constituent hues, and to transform nature into decorative abstraction. He wasn't worried about details; he even let blank areas of the canvas stand for light filtering through the trees. He wanted to say, "What gets me about these trees is their dramatic structure." It gets me, too.

Paul Cézanne, 1839-1906
The Big Trees, c. 1904

What appealed to André Derain about the landscape was the interplay of colors. As though fixating on the patches of color in Cézanne's style, he caused patches of bold color to dominate this scene of the coast of France. He is saying, "The best thing about the south of France is the way the hot light brings out the intense colors. Your spirit feels joyous and free."

André Derain, 1880-1954
Collioure, 1905

Art changed a lot during the four centuries represented by this collection from Edinburgh. People tend to prefer certain eras or styles over others. It might seem that art degenerated or fell apart in the twentieth century. But art, like science or technology, is experimental; all creative people are constantly wondering "what if I did it this way instead?" And art reflects its' time. Painting developed during periods when societies were more unified and events followed a simpler narrative line. In the twentieth century societies became increasingly fragmented and contentious, while science and technology exploded. Who could be a Botticelli or even a Monet in this chaotic time?

With 55 paintings the National Galleries of Edinburgh provides the story of art in a convenient capsule-size that you can consume in a hour or two—an hour of education, wonder, and enjoyment. If you've been watching for a good reason to get yourself back up to the de Young, this is it.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

La Donna del Lago: Not My Favorite Opera

All of the Live in HD presentations from the Metropolitan Opera in New York at local cinemas offer major entertainment experiences, but the truth is that some operas are better than others, and La Donna del Lago (Lady of the Lake) by Gioacchino Rossini is not my favorite.

This is the kind of opera that people wanted in the early 19th century, when it was written. It is basically a collection of good songs—not thrilling songs, but serviceable—loosely connected by an underdeveloped plot and perfunctory music. Even though the libretto (script) was inspired by a poem by Sir Walter Scott that was popular at the time, the lyrics are so prosy that I was frequently forced to groan, as one does at a bad pun. For most operas at the time, the libretto's main purpose was to provide excuses for songs that would show off the talents of popular singers. Forget about poetic lyrics, thematic significance, dramatic coherence, and symbolic significance. Fulfilling its purpose, no more and no less, La Donna del Lago delivers a big bundle of good songs.

And the Metropolitan Opera delivered an amazingly talented cast to belt them out.

Not surprisingly opera stars love this type of work. An opera that is written mainly to show off voices is called bel canto, or beautiful singing, and the type of singing they do is called coloratura, or colorful. In coloratura singing, the written music is like a framework for the performance, and the singer has a lot of leeway to add musical figures, like trills and warbles and runs down the scale and other flashy stuff. This is Show Off City, and the singers milk every note.

For me, the great revelation was the Italian mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona. Mezzo-sopranos sing best at the low end of the soprano range. This means that men's roles are sometimes written for their voices. I really don't know the history or reasoning for using women's voices for men's roles, and it is very hard to take when the character is involved in a romance with another female singer. Ms. Barcellona is very well suited to this type of role because she is tall and bulky, and quite good at conveying the postures and attitudes of a highland warrior. And her singing is commanding. She is alone on stage for two or three arias, and she easily holds the stage on her own. In fact, her coloratura singing was so subtle that the emotions she expressed dominated the music, quite a good trick.

Daniela Barcellona, mezzo-soprano, plays a pants role in La Donna del Lago.
Here shown with soprano Joyce DiDonato.
Internet grab.
Ms. Barcellona was interviewed during the intermission. Even though she makes a good man, she does not seem butch; she doesn't seem to have any alternative sexual orientation. She seems like a regular woman, a little shy, but she can do it because she is a singing actress of great power. I'd like to see her sing a woman's role, but her large stature and her large voice tend to limit her range. She'd be great as a goddess or a queen. But she is so good at these so-called pants or trouser roles that she'll probably be kept busy doing that.

Daniela Barcellona, off stage.
All these images are grabbed from the internet.
Another singer I liked a lot was John Osborn, a tenor. His character was secondary and unsympathetic, but his singing was subtle in some passages, and I think he could fill out a more important role quite nicely.

The starring tenor role was played by Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez. Mr. Flórez's voice has a tinny ring in my ear, but I think that's a personal taste. I can't deny that he whipped up brilliant coloratura effusions. His acting seemed a little over-impassioned at first, but as the demands on his character increased he became more convincing and believable. It all seemed so easy to him, I thought he could be carrying on a chess game at the same time. As a bonus, he is as handsome as any movie star.

Juan Diego Flórez, tenor, singing lead role in La Donna del Lago.
Finally, we come to the undisputed star of the show, the wondrous Joyce DiDonato, another mezzo-soprano. It's unusual to have two mezzo-sopranos fall in love in an opera, but the duets joining these two voices, one slightly lighter than the other, is like the singing of angels.

Here's a significant back story. Joyce—she acts and talks like a regular Kansas girl off stage—has been singing the final aria of the opera as a solo piece in concert for several years. It is a glorious hymn to peace that could easily stand alone, and provides the perfect showcase for vocal fireworks. She developed the ambition to show audiences the context for this aria and has been working to revive this old-fashioned work. When she delivers the concluding aria, you understand why. Tripping along with dazzling flourishes, her voice reaches fantastic heights, both musically and emotionally. Clearly she pours all her real-life longing for peace on earth into her singing, and all of her talent as well.

Joyce DiDonato, singing the finale, "Tanti affetti"
To get back to my grumbling, the staging seemed stupid to me. In two or three important and delicate love duets, the female section of the numerous chorus pretended to busy themselves setting out a feast. It was distracting, very. During one choral number, several women standing in the foreground were threatened by violence that appeared to have no relation to the script. The director, Paul Curran, seemed to be creating a back story in pantomime. It was distracting and irrelevant to the singing. Also, the chorus was too dominant. The Metropolitan Opera loves its huge chorus and shoe-horns it into every production, no matter how the singers crowd the stage, or whether their presence is really called for, especially in such quantity. Admittedly they are good, but forty men singing full voice sounds more like a military exercise than an emotional expression.

But, so what? In this opera, you get a bundle of good songs, a handful of spectacular performers, and the incomparable Joyce DiDonato. That's all that matters.

Christine Oliver in Redwood City

The artist Christine Oliver lives across the street from me. Recently she was invited by the Arts Council of Redwood City, which is trying to inspire an arts renaissance in their town, to paint one of its utility boxes. All urban areas are dotted with ugly metal boxes containing controls for various utilities. In recent years there has been a whimsical trend to decorate these eyesores.

Christine devoted several chilly weeks in December and January to this difficult task. When it was completed, and after a delay for a severe storm, an "opening" celebration was held around the utility box on a corner in Redwood City. Circumstances caused us to arrive late, but I observed that the Mayor of Redwood City was there as well as one or more members of the Arts Council, and quite a few loyal fans of Christine's. We got there in time for pro seco and snacks, provided by the the artist and her husband, Paul, who are indefatigable hosts.

As one of the earliest utility boxes in the decorating project, Christine thought it should represent some of the architectural bright spots in this rather colorful and old-fashioned little town.

This is a sample of one of the old-fashioned houses remaining in Redwood City. I like how she used the extension of the box as part of the house's architecture.

Painting of old house in Redwood City
I took this shot with my iPad.
I am not sure about the source of this view, but the fool-the-eye quality is quite good here.

Architectural view on one side of Utility box.
All these photos are my iPad snapshots.

One of the most colorful buildings in town is the old Fox Theater. Christine depicted it on the street side of the box.

One of the entrances of the Fox Theater building.
When the party was over, Dan and I went looking for the source of this image.

The Fox Theater building houses various businesses.
Lovely architectural detail.

In the old days, the focal point of downtown Redwood City was the classically inspired Courthouse Square. On the fourth side of the utility box, Christine cleverly painted a key architectural detail of a pavilion on one side of the Square.

Detail from pavilion in Courthouse Square
My shot of the real thing provides a little more context.

Pavilion in Courthouse Square
The old courthouse has been turned into a history museum.

The Redwood City History Museum used to be the Courthouse.
Christine advised us that while we were exploring Redwood City we should check out a mural by her friend Morgan Bricca on the back of a Chinese restaurant across town. It was well worth the trek.

Mural by Morgan Bricca
What a gift to the city! Not only is this a very special mural, but it covers the ugly blank back of the building, which happens to be in a busy location. There was a "before" photo nearby.

Here are some details.

By then it was time for lunch. The back entrance used to be in a blank wall. These colorful details are painted illusion.

Painted back entrance to the Crouching Tiger Restaurant and Bar.
On the way back to the car, I observed that the sun had finally lit up the shady side of Christine's Utility Box.

Homage to the old days.
Christine's Utility Box did its job for us: introduced us to a charming little town that we've been overlooking, though it is nearby.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Crime and Punishment: Those Awful Russian Names

The first barrier to reading Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is the names. There are way too many names, and the names have way too many syllables. You can't pronounce them; you can't remember them; and you forget which character is which. You just can't read Dostoevsky at the same pace you would read a novel written for English speakers because the Russians have different naming conventions.

Russian Naming Conventions

Russians traditionally use three names, as English-speakers do, but the middle name is a variation of the father's first name, called a patronymic. For instance, since Ivan is a common first name in Russia, two sisters in the novel have the patronymic of Ivanovna.

The middle name of all male characters ends in "ovitch" and of all female characters in "ovna." This ending simply means "son of" or "daughter of" the father. Thus Rodion's middle name is Romanovich, whereas his sister's middle name is Romanovna.

The main characters have two or three nicknames. Nicknames generally use the first syllable of the first name plus a common ending, the way we might say Robby for Robert or Debby for Deborah. For instance, the main character is named Rodion and his nicknames are Rodya or Rodka.

Organized Table of Names

The second barrier to enjoying Crime and Punishment is there are way too many characters. The reason is that Dostoevsky intertwined three separate but parallel stories, and each of them has its own set of significant characters. Most modern murder mysteries have a similar problem: the reader or viewer must keep multiple stories floating in their minds simultaneously.

I was frequently forced to consult a list of characters, but these lists did not have the benefit of organization. Characters were listed randomly, or perhaps in order of appearance, but the list offered no help in remembering who is who.

This list is grouped according to plot, as though each story were self-contained.

In addition to the murders, many other crimes, sins, vices, and other transgressions against the laws of humanity and Christianity are described and punished.

Raskolnikov's Circle

Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov
  • A former student who commits murder in order to test a theory and to validate his worth in his own mind. 
  • He is 23 years old.
  • He is generally known by his last name; Raskolnikov is one of the most famous names in literature. 
  • Raskolnikov comes from the Russian word raskol, which means schism. In Russian history, there was a sect that broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church called Raskolniki. So, Raskolnikov is a character who breaks away from traditional belief, to his own perdition.
  • He also has a split personality, vacillating between innate compassion and assumed superiority.
  • Both during the time of the novel, and in reports of his life beforehand, he spontaneously makes acts of compassion, but he quickly regrets and debases such feelings.
  • This character is one of the earliest depictions of the split personality, and is still considered an accurate representation of the type.
  • He is a deluded and self-destructive loser. His primary sin is lack of faith—faith in God, faith in himself, faith in the value of life.
  • His best quality is his unwillingness to allow his sister to sacrifice herself on his behalf; he is offended that she thinks he would want such a thing.
  • His crime is willful and egoistical murder, and his punishment is mental anguish and suffering that causes physical illness, and finally imprisonment.
Vladimir Koshevoy, actor in the role of Raskolnikov
All photos are Internet grabs.
Avdotya Romanovna Raskolnikov
  • Raskolnikov's sister is the center of a secondary plot. She is courted by three different men and has to choose between them. She is generally referred to as Dunya or Dunechka. 
  • She is about 22 years old.
  • She is strong, faithful, rational, and loyal. She represents virtue.
  • She's also a dish, and the men are panting for her.
  • Her personality is a positive, life-affirming version of Raskolnikov's.
  • Like her brother, she shows willingness to kill someone, but it's only in her own defense, and then her effort fails.
  • Her reward is that she grows as a self-respecting woman, and she gets to marry a good guy instead of a dominating boor.
  • In addition, she is given a chance at an equal-partnership marriage and a secure future.
Kate Ashfield playing Dunya

Pulcheria Alexandrovna Raskolnikov
  • Raskolnikov's mother is 43 years old.
  • She is a widow with a small pension.
  • Even though she never admits that her son is a murderer, she suffers the torments she deserves for bringing a murderer into the world.
  • Her sin is overweening pride bolstered by hysterical fantasy.
  • Her blind pride in her son may have been a factor in his hubris, or exaggerated self-esteem.
  • Her punishment is that by being so detached from reality, and completely victimized by emotion, she finally becomes ill and goes mad.
Geraldine James as Pulcheria

Dmitri Prokofych Razumikhin
  • A student who plays an important role in both the stories of both Raskolnikov and Dunya. He does his best to care for Raskolnikov when he has given up caring for himself, and ends up falling in love with Dunya. 
  • Razumikhin comes from razum, which means reason, mind, or intelligence. He is the foil for Raskolnikov, offering positive action instead of negative ideation.
  • His virtue is rewarded by winning the beautiful Dunya, and seeing a way to a self-supporting future. Their relationship shows that human love can grow even in the most adverse conditions, foreshadowing the eventual romance between Raskolnikov and Sonya.
  • Like Raskolnikov, Razumikhin is saved by love. Before he meets Dunya, he has a lot of energy and good will, but his efforts lack focus. After he falls in love, his way suddenly becomes clear.
Shaun Dingwall as Razumikhin

Minor Characters in Raskolnikov's Circle

Zossimov (Surname only)
  • A young doctor, and friend of  Razumikhin, who takes an interest in Raskolnikov's case.
  • He observes and comments on his condition, but does nothing to heal him.
  • He is about 27 years old.
  • His function is to interpret and vouch for Raskolnikov's bouts of delirium.
Nastasya Petrovna (no surname)
  • Nastasya is the servant of Raskolnikov's landlady.
  • Her nicknames are Nastenka or Nastasyushka.
  • She brings Raskolnikov tea and soup when he is ill.
  • She takes pity on him, even though she perceives him as the loser he is. 
  • She is about the same age as Dunya and Sonya, but she supports herself through hard work.
Praskovya Pavlovna (no surname)
  • Raskolnikov's landlady.
  • She is about 40 years old.
  • In the past, Raskolnikov was engaged to her sickly daughter, but this girl died.
  • She gets Raskolnikov to sign a promissory note for the amount he owes her and later brings his lack of payment to the police.
  • She is called Pashenka by Razumikhin, who immediately earns her trust.
Raskolnikov's Victims

Alyona Ivanovna (no surname)
  • An aging pawnbroker who is murdered by Raskolnikov early in the novel. 
  • Her sin is taking advantage of other people's misery in the form of usury.
  • Raskolnikov claims the world would be better off without her.
  • Her punishment is being murdered.
Dramatization of the murder
Lizaveta Ivanovna (no surname)
  • Alyona's sister lives a life of devotion to others.
  • She is about 35.
  • Raskolnikov is forced to kill her when she discovers her sister's murder.
  • She is described as a sort of "holy fool." 
Unidentified actress playing Lizaveta

The Police Investigators

If this were a modern television mystery, these would be the main characters, and we would see the murder and the two sub-plots from their point of view.

Porfiry Petrovich (no surname)
  • Porfiry is the local police inspector in charge of investigating the murders. 
  • He is about 35 years old.
  • He is a relative of Razumikhin, and like him has a positive and sympathetic personality.
  • Although he plays the part of a buffoon, he makes clever use of psychology to solve the murders.
  • He tries to steer Raskolnikov toward confessing and getting his life on track.
  • He is clever and conniving, but he speaks profound wisdom to Raskolnikov, giving him the direction he needs to gain redemption.
  • Porfiry was the prototype for a 1970s television detective named Columbo, played by Peter Falk. 
  • Because of his hyper-polite style, when I read Porfiry's speeches, I hear the voice of Chief Inspector Morse, in the British television mystery, Morse.
Unidentified actor playing Porfiry

Peter Falk as Detective Columbo.
Columbo's character was based on Porfiry.

Ilya Petrovich (no surname)
  • The police official who first gets involved with the murders. He is assistant to the chief of police, Fomich.
  • His middle name is the same as Porfiry's, but there is no indication that they are related. 
  • He is sometimes distinguished by the nickname "Gunpowder," because he is temperamental and easily offended.
  • He represents the dumb cop who jumps to conclusions based on old-fashioned methods.
  • He is the one who receives Raskolnikov's confession.
Alexander Grigorievich Zamyotov
  • Head clerk in the police station. 
  • He is almost always called Zamyotov.
  • He becomes friends with Razumikhin.
  • He suspects that Raskolnikov is the killer of Alyona and Lizaveta.
  • Before he confesses officially, Raskolnikov teases Zamyotov with a mock confession, thereby arousing his suspicions further.
Darren Tighe as Zamyotov
Nikodim Fomich (no surname)
  • The chief of police is amiable but detached.
Witnesses and Suspects

Nikolai Dementiev (no middle name)
  • A painter working in an empty apartment next to Alyona Ivanovna’s on the day of the murders. 
  • He is suspected of the murders and eventually makes a false confession.
  • He is sometimes known as Mikolka, Mikolai, or Nikolashka.
  • He is about 22.
  • Another painter working with him is called Dmitri, or Mitka.
Koch (No other names given)
  • Koch comes to the apartment of the pawnbroker, Alyona, just after Raskolnikov kills her and her sister. He rattles the door, but it is latched from inside.
  • Later he is accused of the murders, but he is soon released.
Pestryakov (No other names given)
  • A student who also comes to the pawnbroker's apartment and finds it latched.
  • He figures out that something must be wrong with the tenants, and goes for the caretaker.
  • He too is briefly suspected.
Dunya's Story

Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin
  • Luzhin is a wealthy lawyer who is engaged to Dunya in the beginning.
  • He is 45 years old.
  • He represents the self-satisfied bureaucrat.
  • Everyone in her circle considers him unacceptable because he is hoping her poverty will make her submissive. Raskolnikov forbids the marriage.
  • Luzhin is the type of person who might make a young student turn to nihilism: a fake, a miser, and a bully.
  • His sin is scheming: the desire to dominate and his willingness to use deception to get his way. His punishment is to be publicly exposed and humiliated.
  • His function is to provide an opportunity for self-understanding for Dunya, and to show that Raskolnikov is at least decent enough to be concerned for his sister's happiness and independence.
David Haig as Luzhin

Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigailov
  • Svidrigailov is a fairly well-off widower. He and his wife, Marfa Petrofina, formerly employed Dunya as a governess.
  • He is around 50, but looks younger.
  • At the time, Svidrigailov was common name for a shady dealer and schemer.
  • His sin is unbridled lust, an unrestrained obsession with sex, including adultery, child abuse, and trickery.
  • He is not a theoretician like Raskolnikov, but he is a nihilist in practical terms: he doesn't have any values or morals, and he is willing to use any trickery to get what he wants.
  • Like Raskolnikov, he has a split personality; he spontaneously reaches out to alleviate the suffering of children, and his final acts are to save Sonya from prostitution and to place the younger Marmeladov children in orphanages. Also like the murderer, the lecher is disturbed by nightmares.
  • Instead of driving him to commit murder, Svidrigailov's self-defeating self-indulgence inevitably drives him to bottomless boredom and lonely suicide.
Unidentified actor portraying Svidrigailov

Marfa Petrofina Svidrigailov
  • Wife of Svidrigailov; 5 years older than he.
  • She doesn't appear in the novel except in other people's stories, and as a ghost. Her character functions as a literary device to tie off the loose ends. 
  • She represents the landed, wealthy class. Her money is working in the background throughout the novel.
  • She maligns Dunya's character unfairly, but restores it later, and leaves her a bequest.
  • She sets up the engagement between Luzhin, a relative of hers, and Dunya.
  • Her sin is gluttony, and her sin is to die of over-indulgence.
Sonya's Story

 Sofya Semyonovna Marmeladov
  • A poor girl who is forced into prostitution to support her family. 
  • She is generally known as Sonya, a name derived from the Greek word for "wisdom."
  • She is about 18 year old, the youngest character.
  • She believes whole-heartedly in Christian values and God's mercy.
  • She is the center of a second subplot surrounding the deaths of her unfortunate parents. 
  • In the main plot, she falls in love with Raskolnikov and devotes herself to his spiritual redemption.
  • She symbolizes meekness and selfless devotion; "insatiable compassion." Her soul is pure even though her body is defiled.
  • Her reward is Raskolnikov's redemption and his ultimate devotion to her.
Lara Belmont as Sonya

Semyon Zakharovich Marmeladov
  • Sonya's father.
  • Marmeladov is an alcoholic with self-awareness. He knows he is ruining himself and his family, but he can't stop drinking.
  • His punishment is to be run over by a cart. It is unclear whether his fall in front of the horses was accidental or intentional.
  • He is a great storyteller. His function is to introduce Sonya's situation. He also introduces the tenets of Christianity that are illustrated by the novel.
Frank Middlemass as Marmeladov

Katerina Ivanovna Marmeladov
  • Generally known by both first and second names, Katerina Ivanovna is the wife of Marmeladov and step-mother of Sonya.
  • She is 30 years old.
  • She brought three younger children to the marriage: Polenka, Lyona, and Kolya.
  • She is consumptive and ill-tempered.
  • Katerina is the evil step-mother: Her sin is overweening pride; her crime is forcing her step-daughter to become a sex worker.
  • Her punishment is a spectacular descent into madness, concluding with her dramatic death.
Unknown actress portraying Katerina.
This image does not capture her hysteria.

Minor Characters in Sonya's Story

Andrei Semyonovitch Lebezyatnikov
  • Lebezyatnikov is a distant relative of Luzhin, Dunya's fiancé. He is temporarily sharing his apartment with Luzhin, his former guardian.
  • He lives in the same building as the Marmeladovs and is instrumental in getting Sonya kicked out when she becomes a whore.
  • Late in the novel, he observes Luzhin frame Sonya for theft. Lebezyatnikov comes to Sonya's defense, and exposes Luzhin's deception and hypocrisy.
  • He may not seem important but he reappears throughout the novel, always expounding on the "new ideas" that Dostoevsky is arguing against: nihilism, socialism, and denial of spiritual values.
Unknown actors playing Luzhin, who is counting his money,
and Lebezyatnikov, who is explaining that he saw
Luzhin plant the money on Sonya.

Amalia Ivanovna  Lippewechsel
  • Landlady to the Marmeladovs.
  • Bitter enemy of Katerina Ivanovna who thinks she is disrespectful.
  • She is German, and her role is basically comic relief.
  • Her eviction of the Marmeladovs is the catalyst for Katerina's final descent into madness.
The Beauty of It All

Admittedly, this is a big stack of characters, but is it really that many, compared to modern murder mysteries, for instance? Recently I've been watching a series set in Wyoming called Longmire. In addition to one or two murders in each episode, there is a sheriff's election to follow, a romance between the sheriff's daughter and one of the deputies, and one or two mysterious crimes floating around in the background; all these stories have a set of characters to recall. Midsomer Murders and Miss Marple, just to name two obvious examples, regularly expose the secrets of two or three families in the course of nabbing the actual murderers; this requires the viewer to track many characters at once.

The beauty of this approach is that the mind loves complexity, though it may rebel initially. Once you get this multifaceted story in your mind, it's like looking into a brilliant diamond; your mind experiences a jewel-like structure.

And here's something that surprised me: After I finally got a grip on the characters and their situations, the last half of the book actually was quick and easy. I just zipped right through it; suddenly I was finished, and hungering for more. So I went back and read the novel again. A great novel is like a great song or a great painting: you can enjoy it over and over.

For my explanation of why Crime and Punishment is worth your study, check out my other article on the novel: