A young man sat in his solitary attic. His greatest desire was to become a painter, but first he had to overcome quite a few obstacles. To begin with, he lived peacefully in his attic, grew somewhat older, and became accustomed to sitting for hours in front of a small mirror and experimenting with painting self-portraits. He had already filled an entire notebook with such sketches, and he was very satisfied with some of them.
“Considering that I never went to art school,” he said to himself, “this sketch has turned out rather well. And that is an interesting wrinkle there next to the nose. You can see that I’m something of a thinker or something similar. I need only to lower the corner of the mouth a little. Then I’d have my own special expression, quite melancholy.”
But when he reexamined the sketches sometime later, most of them no longer pleased him. That was irritating, but he concluded from this that he had made progress and was now placing greater demands on himself.
The young man did not live in the most desirable attic, nor did he have a very agreeable relationship with the things lying and standing around this attic. However, it was not a bad relationship. He did them no more or less harm than most people do. He hardly noticed the objects and was not very familiar with them.
Whenever he failed to paint a good self-portrait, he read for a while from books and learned what had happened to other people who, like him, had begun as modest and completely unknown painters and then had become very famous. He liked to read such books and read his own future in them.
So one day he was again somewhat sullen and depressed and sat at home reading about a very famous Dutch painter. He read that this painter had been possessed by a true passion. Indeed, he was frenetic and completely governed by a drive to become a good painter. The young man found that he had many traits in common with this Dutch painter. As he read further, he also discovered many that did not exactly fit him. Among other things he read that whenever the Dutchman had not been able to paint outside due to bad weather, he had painted everything inside, even the tiniest object that met his eyes, unflinchingly and passionately. One time he had painted a pair of old wooden shoes, and another time an old crooked chair — a coarse, rough kitchen and peasant chair made out of ordinary wood, with a seat woven out of straw, quite tattered. The painter had painted this chair, which nobody certainly would have considered worth a glance, with so much love and dedication and with so much passion and devotion that it became one of his most beautiful pictures. The painter’s biographer found many wonderful and appropriately touching words to say about this painted straw chair.
Here the reader stopped and contemplated. That was something new that he had to try. He decided immediately — for he was a young man who made very rash decisions — to imitate the example of this great master and to try this way to greatness.
He looked around in his attic and realized that he had actually not paid much attention to the things among which he lived. He did not find a crooked chair with a seat woven out of straw anywhere; nor were there any wooden shoes. Therefore he was momentarily dejected and despondent, and he almost felt discouraged, as he had often felt whenever he read about the lives of great men. At those times he realized that all the little indicators and remarkable coincidences that had played roles in the lives of the others had not become apparent in his life, and he would wait in vain for them to appear. However, he soon pulled himself together and realized that it was now his task to be persistent and pursue his difficult path to fame. He examined all the objects in his little room and discovered a wicker chair that could serve him very well as a model.
He pulled the chair closer with his foot, sharpened his art pencil, took his sketch pad on his knee, and began to draw. After a couple of light first strokes, he seemed to have captured the form sufficiently, and now he inked in the thick outlines with a few firm and powerful strokes. A deep triangular shadow in a corner attracted him, and he painted it full of strength, and so he continued until something began to disturb him.
He worked a little while longer. Then he held the sketch pad away from himself and examined his sketch carefully. His very first glance told him that he had completely failed to capture the wicker chair.
Angrily he drew a new line into the sketch and fixed his eyes grimly on the chair. The sketch was still not right. It made him mad,
“You demonic wicker chair!” he screamed violently. “I’ve never seen a beast as moody as you are!”
The chair cracked a little and said with equanimity, “Yes, take a look at me! I am as I am, and I won’t change myself anymore.”
The painter kicked it with his toe. The chair swerved backward to avoid the kick and now looked completely different.
“You dumb chair!” the young man exclaimed. “Everything is crooked and wrong about you.”
The wicker chair smiled a little and said softly, “That’s what’s called perspective, young man.”
The painter jumped up. “Perspective!” he yelled furiously. “Now this clown of a chair comes and wants to play schoolteacher. Perspective is my affair, not yours. Remember that!”
The chair said nothing more. The painter stomped loudly back and forth a few times until someone began pounding beneath the floor with a cane. An elderly man, a scholar, lived under him, and he could not bear the noise.
The young man sat down and looked at his last self-portrait. But it did not please him. He found that he looked more handsome and interesting in reality, and that was the truth.
Now he wanted to read his book again, but there was more in the book about the Dutch straw chair, which irritated him. He now felt that the writer had really made much too much of it, and after all …
The young man looked for his artist’s hat and decided to go out. He remembered that he had long ago been struck by the fact that painting was not very fulfilling. One had nothing but bother and disappointments, and in the end even the best painter in the world could portray only the simple surface of objects. For a man who loved the profound aspects of life, it was no profession for him in the long run. And once more he seriously thought, as he had done many times, about following an even earlier inclination and becoming a writer instead of a painter. The wicker chair remained behind in the attic. It was sorry that its young master had gone. It had hoped that a decent relationship could finally develop between the two of them. It would have liked at times to speak a word, and it knew that it certainly had many valuable things to teach a young man. But unfortunately nothing ever came of this.