During a serious conversation on St. Petersburg’s Kalinkin Bridge the young painter Tchartkov is urgently admonished by his teacher not to sell himself with unambitious paintings for a quick success. After he contemplates, lost in thought, the twenty-kopek coin that represents his entire cash on hand, Tchartkov sets off on the way home. On the other side of the bridge, there appears to him a beautiful girl, who reminds him of the Psyche he once painted.
With the last of his money, the poor painter buys from an art dealer a masterful portrait of an old man. Hardly acquired, Tchartkov already regrets the irrational purchase. He brings the picture to his shabby atelier and hangs it on the wall. In a dream, he experiences how the old man steps out of his canvas and how the Psyche also comes to life. She evades the covetous old man and vanishes again into her picture. Before the old man, too, climbs into his painting, he leaves a number of glittering coins on the floor. While Tchartkov is still pondering his strange dream, the landlord appears, bringing along the precinct superintendent as reinforcement, and demands payment of the already long overdue rent. After an accidental bump against the newly purchased portrait, a thick roll of gold coins falls to the floor. Having become rich in one fell swoop, the painter pays his debts and terminates the lease on the apartment.
In an expensive restaurant, Tchartkov meets a journalist whom he asks, in return for a generous remuneration, to create publicity for him in the newspaper. Tchartkov’s new, luxuriously furnished atelier on Newski Prospect is thronged with distinguished customers who want to be portrayed by the talented painter. In the middle of his new wealth, the beautiful Psyche appears to him again. However, when he confesses his love and attempts to take hold of her, she disappears just like the first time. The journalist, now a friend of the successful young painter, happens to notice the picture of the old man in the atelier. He explains to the owner that the person depicted is none other than the pernicious money lender Petromichali. Anyone who accepts his money is lost. Taken aback, Tchartkov covers the sinister picture with a cloth.
Years pass, and Tchartkov becomes a greatly successful fashionable painter. Having become fat and comfortable, he is exceedingly convinced of his own importance. When he receives an invitation to the vernissage of a young Russian painter at the Academy of Art, he can only reluctantly bring himself to make the boring obligatory visit. However, in the exhibition hall he recognizes the work of an overwhelmingly uncompromising young talent. Once again, the figure of Psyche appears to him in dazzling light, and Tchartkov hastily leaves the exhibition. Arriving home, he sits in his atelier surrounded by all his so popular portraits, and despondently realizes that his own manner of painting is gratuitous and empty. He curses the old man and hurls a candelabra at the painting, which, as if by magic, remains undamaged.
Tchartkov accepts no more commissions for portraits. He feverishly tries to complete his youthful work, the Psyche. Once again, he is haunted by visions of a Psyche who has come to life, and in despair he must admit to himself that he is not able to complete the painting. Slumped in a large armchair, he hears the murmuring voices of his teacher, the market traders, and his many customers. Tchartkov dies. In silent magic, the figures of Psyche and the old man climb out of their canvases and disappear.