Taras Shevchenko arrived in St. Petersburg from Vilnius, along with the rest of the servants of Paul Englehardt, in February of 1831. He was on the eve of his seventeenth birthday. It was here, in the Tsarist capital and the centre of the cultural life of the Russian Empire, that Shevchenko was to mature, first as an artist, and as a poet, writer and activist.
His master, still realising that the youth would not make a good house servant and wanting a "court painter", apprenticed young Taras in 1832 to the master painter V. Shyrayev; known to be both stern and arbitrary. Shyrayev was also a famous painter, decorator and art expert, who ran an enterprise engaged in painting the walls and ceilings of the homes of the St. Petersburg elite and public buildings.
As such, Shyrayev was in contact with and entertained the cream of Tsarist society and it is only logical to assume that the young apprentice Shevchenko also became exposed to many of the ideas then circulating in the Russian capital. Popular amongst the intelligentsia were ideas of reform, many borrowed from the ill-fated 1825 Decembrist uprising by young officers who had borrowed heavily from the philosophy of the French Revolution. In later life, a more politically mature Shevchenko referred to the Decembrists as "the first Russian heralds of freedom". While in Vilnius, Taras also had the experience of having witnessed first hand the Polish uprising against Tsarist rule.
While a good part of Shevchenko's apprenticeship was spent mixing paints and delivering items to various of Shyrayev's projects across St. Petersburg, he also honed his own talents and learned much from the master painter. Although he was still officially a serf, his apprenticeship nonetheless allowed him a certain degree of personal freedom in the city. In his spare moments, normally in the evenings, he would wander the city making sketches, often in the Summer Gardens during the northern "white lights".
It was because of this habit that Shevchenko met a fellow Ukrainian and artist, Ivan Soshenko, in July of 1835. A friendship was formed and Soshenko took Shevchenko under his wing, teaching him some of the basics of painting and introducing the talented youth to some of the most enlightened and cultured elements of St. Petersburg society, including the Russian artist Karl Bryulov, the poet Zhukovsky (who had been a tutor to the Tsar's family), Ukrainian writer Hrebinka, the conference secretary of the Academy of Arts V Hrihorovich and others.
Moving in this circle of the Russian intelligentsia, Shevchenko won the hearts of this enlightened segment of society, which quickly recognized the young man's talents and realized that they could only be properly developed if he were a free man.
Accordingly, the artist Karl Bryulov; whose works were much in demand, painted a portrait of the poet Zhukovsky which was raffled off, raising the 2500 roubles necessary for Shevchenko to receive his certificate of freedom on April 22, 1838.
An interesting aspect of this story is
that, on his arrest in 1847, Shevchenko was reproached for his "black ingratitude", as the rumour had circulated that the Tsar's family had bought all the raffle tickets and, as a result, had purchased the freedom of the serf who then went on to attack and ridicule them through his poetry. While it is true that the tickets were no doubt bought in the most part by members of the court, it was not through any altruism on their part, but to cheaply obtain a fine work of art. What was ingratitude for some, was perhaps more realistically an ironic form of nemesis.
With his freedom attained, in 1838 Shevchenko became an external student at the Academy of Arts, studying under Karl Bryulov. In January of 1839, he was accepted as a resident student of the Association for the Encouragement of Artists and at the annual examinations at the Academy was awarded a silver medal for a landscape. The following year, he again won a silver medal for his first oil painting The Beggar Boy Giving Bread to a Dog.