“Thought, on Viewing Zinaida Serebriakova’s At the Dressing Table for the 42nd Time” by David Galloway

David Galloway


Google it, I’ll wait. If not, then here: a shockingly
stunning artist captured mid-stroke as she brushes
her long brown hair that must reach to her waist,
gazing into the mirror with a Mona Lisa smile.
I doubt there’s a name for this, no multisyllabic 
mouthful to capture my feeling, but surely the
Greeks could produce a word ending in –philia
Hopeless love for a person in a painting. 
I am, have, have been loved, I am no fool to
throw myself at her, I recognize the futility,
but confess to you because you will not betray me,
though there are no consequences to betrayal
except she has no eyes for me. As she painted,
her husband and two children roamed the house.
She was twenty-five—that’s all, far too young we
might think, to be this magnificent, but skepticism
here is misplaced: she’d already studied with Repin,
master of masters, trained in Italy and France; when
the painting is exhibited the Tretyakovskaya Gallery
will snatch it up so I can find it there in a mere century.
Those eyes that know, that look into your soul. And 
hair—let us not forget all the totemic significance. 
Russian peasants feared young women’s long hair. 
It could be seen, but only in a single braid, and once
married was locked up, coiled inside a headdress 
like her sexuality, locked away, only accessible by her 
husband. But rusalki, those pale-blue-green spirits 
of the thick waters who call men to their own 
destruction, had unbound hair, tresses that signified 
unbridled power, and she brushes hers as if to say
this is my strength, this is my womanhood, here
bound into but unconstrained by marriage, potent.
Do not dare butcher her name that means “life of Zeus.” 
Not Zin-aid-a, but Zin-eye-EE-da. Zina, to those who 
know and love her. Love her for sheer talent and
beauty, which trick us into the belief that life is good.
She dips her brushes as snow falls through 1909, but Zina, 
Zina, it is all falling apart. The next decade brings two more 
children, then revolution, husband dead from typhus, and 
you a Russian widow, one of the 20th century’s millions.
But this painting, before Europe consumed itself twice in
fires of male rage, captures the glory of youth and beauty,
the folly we all undertook at twenty-five when we asked
the mirror how the world had prepared itself to receive us.

from Rattle #76, Summer 2022


David Galloway: “I’ve been to the Tretyakovskaya Gallery in Moscow more times than I can count, but I will always remember the first time I encountered Serebriakova’s painting. It was winter, my favorite time to travel to Russia, which creates a different feeling when you’re in a museum, a kind of humans grouping together for warmth sensation because there’s no rush to experience the weather outside. It wasn’t very crowded, and after the umpteenth time of studying it again and delving into Serebriakova’s life, I wrote this to celebrate her and to interrogate what the painting means to me.” (web)

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