Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov Strikingly Illustrated by Expressionist Painter Alice Neel (1938)


Images belong to The Estate of Alice Neel.

We all know the rep­u­ta­tion of 19th-cen­tu­ry Russ­ian nov­els: long, dense bricks of pure prose, freight­ed with deep moral con­cerns and, to the unini­ti­at­ed, enlivened only by a con­fus­ing far­ra­go of patronymics. And sure, while they may have a bit of a learn­ing curve to them, these clas­sic works of lit­er­a­ture also, so their advo­cates assure us, boast plen­ty to keep them rel­e­vant today — just the qual­i­ty, of course, that makes them clas­sic works of lit­er­a­ture in the first place.


While we should by all means read them, that does­n’t mean we can’t get a taste of these much-dis­cussed books before we heft them and turn to page one by, for exam­ple, check­ing out their illus­tra­tions. These vary in qual­i­ty with the edi­tions, of course, but how much of the art that has ever accom­pa­nied, say, Fyo­dor Dos­toyevsky’s The Broth­ers Kara­ma­zov has looked quite as evoca­tive as the nev­er-pub­lished illus­tra­tions here? They come from the hand of the Penn­syl­va­nia-born artist Alice Neel, com­mis­sioned in the 1930s for an edi­tion of the nov­el that nev­er saw the print­ing press.


The Paris Review’s Dan Piepen­berg, post­ing eight of Neel’s illus­tra­tions, high­lights “how attuned these two sen­si­bil­i­ties are: it’s the mar­riage of one kind of dark­ness to anoth­er”; “the black storm cloud of Neel’s pen is well suit­ed to Dostoyevsky’s ques­tions of God, rea­son, and doubt.” And yet Neel also man­ages to express the nov­el­’s “mad­ness and com­e­dy,” bring­ing “a man­ic bathos to these scenes that lends them both grav­i­ty and lev­i­ty; in every wide, glassy pair of eyes, grave ques­tions of moral cer­ti­tude are under­cut by the absurd.”

You can see all of eight of Neel’s Kara­ma­zov illus­tra­tions at The Paris Review, not that they pro­vide a sub­sti­tute for read­ing the nov­el itself (which you can find in our col­lec­tion of Free eBooks). After all, that’s the only way to find out what exact­ly hap­pens at that bac­cha­nal just above.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Fyo­dor Dos­to­evsky Draws Elab­o­rate Doo­dles In His Man­u­scripts

Albert Camus Talks About Adapt­ing Dos­toyevsky for the The­atre, 1959

Crime and Pun­ish­ment by Fyo­dor Dos­toyevsky Told in a Beau­ti­ful­ly Ani­mat­ed Film by Piotr Dumala

The Dig­i­tal Dos­to­evsky: Down­load Free eBooks & Audio Books of the Russ­ian Novelist’s Major Works

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture as well as the video series The City in Cin­e­ma and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Rain,adustbowlstory says:

    My favorite nov­el. I nev­er rec­og­nized the humor in it until I read it out loud to my daugh­ter when she was small. She thought Smerdyakov was a scream.

  • Jack El-Hai says:

    Alice Neel also fig­ures promi­nent­ly in Joe Gould’s Secret, the mas­ter­piece of long­time New York­er writer Joseph Mitchell. In that book Mitchell describes how Neel paint­ed a strik­ing por­trait of Gould and her rela­tion­ship with him. (You can eas­i­ly find an image of the por­trait online.) Neel’s role and the entire book are unfor­get­table.

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