The Last Tavern at the City Gates

In retrospect, I’m pretty sure the whole reason I majored in art history was because I saw art as a portal into other worlds. I loved looking at incredible images that evoked mood and told about the history of art and so on and so forth. But I always felt (and still do) that a work of art contained a hidden story that was waiting to be uncovered.

In honor of that, I’m trying something a tad different on the blog today. Here is one of my favorite paintings, The Last Tavern at the City Gates (1868) by Vasily Perov. Below is a little snippet of what I see when I look at this painting.


Last Tavern at the City Gates
Vasily Perov, The Last Tavern at the City Gates, 1868

It’s freezing and the darkness is creeping closer. Even Sashenka, ever patient and trusting, seems to have grown worried. He is beginning to shiver under his shaggy gray fur. He lets out an almost imperceptible whimper, looking anxiously toward the tavern door.

My parents are inside, collecting a debt from our neighbor. It is a debt we must collect before we begin our journey. It is all we have left in the world.

“Wait here, Elena,” they said. “We won’t be long.”

But it has been long, hasn’t it? Twenty minutes? Forty? An hour? My fingers have become numb, so I breathe hot air onto my mittens. But the condensation makes them wet, only making my fingers colder. I cannot feel my toes.

The snow stopped several hours ago, and the wind has died down, so an eerie silence blankets the street. The slightest sounds ricochet off the building facades. The sound of my shallow breathing and the rustling of my clothes as I fidget seem amplified. I feel exposed, on view in this corridor of shops and taverns.

Suddenly, there is the distinct crunch of boots on snow. A boy from my school is crossing the road, and he tucks his head down into his coat, bracing himself against a sudden gust of icy wind. He does not see me.

The horses are growing anxious now too. They paw at the ground, stomping, snorting, shaking their heads. They look up from time to time, glancing out of the corners of their eyes. Frost clings to their lashes.

From inside the tavern I hear a shout. Or is it laughter? There are clanging sounds. A lamp flickers. Several minutes of silence follow, and then the door flies open. My parents walk out, their faces revealing nothing. The silence of the snow on the street erupts into a chatter of crunches and squeaks as they walk toward our horses.

My mother nods at me. Solemn. Sashenka settles in on my lap, and the horses pull away. We move through the city gates out into the orange-gray twilight. There is nothing but darkness ahead, and we are pursued by the menacing cold. We will arrive at our destination after dark, frozen and exhausted. But we will have made it. Our beds will be soft as clouds and warm as an oven. We will have made it.


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