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Isaak Ilyich Levitan

The Jewish Painter of the Tsar

Isaak Levitan was one of the greatest landscape painters of the nineteenth century not only in Russian, but in European art as well. He created works of undying artistic merit. His art is for all time and for all people because it absorbed into itself the woes, the joys and the social realities of its age, because it converted that which men lived by into sublime works of art and translated the author’s emotions into lyrical images of his native land. At the end of the nineteenth century the landscape was one of the foremost genres in Russian painting. It was this influence that shaped Levitan’s art, an art fully and by right symbolic of the finest achievements of Russian landscape painting.

Portrait-of-Painter-Isaac-Levitan
Portrait of Painter Isaac Levitan by Valentin Serov, 1893, oil on canvas. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

Few materials pertaining to Levitan’s biography have survived. His personal archives (letters and probably documents too) were destroyed on his orders by his brother Adolf shortly before the artist’s death. Nonetheless, in broad outline we know Levitan’s biography well enough. It is quite typical for an artist hailing from the lower-middle class (the razno- chintsy) who paid his way through art school with “copper coins” and who achieved success and recognition on the strength of his talent alone, but at the price of dire privation and gruelling toil.

Levitan-Above-Eternal-Peace
Above Eternal Peace (1894) Oil on canvas, 150 x 206 cm. Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow.

Isaak Ilyich Levitan was born on August 30 (18 Old Style), 1860, in the little town of Kybartai (now Vilkaviskis district, Lithuanian SSR). His father was quite an educated man for his time who not only graduated from a rabbinical seminary, but picked up a degree of secular education on his own as well, an education which, incidentally, included the mas¬tery of German and French. This provided him with a living in Kovno (now Kaunas, Lith¬uanian SSR) where he gave private lessons and later worked as an interpreter for a French construction company then building a railway bridge in the vicinity.

Lavitan-Quiet-Abode
Quiet Abode. 1890. Oil on canvas. 87 x 108. The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia.

In the beginning of the 1870s Ilya Levitan desirous, evidently, of finding more fertile fields for his abilities, moved with his family to Moscow. The large family (Isaak had an elder brother, Adolf, and two sisters) led a hand-to-mouth existence. For the young Levitan conditions became almost unbearable when his mother died in 1875 and his father two years later.

Lavitan-Golden-Autumn
Golden Autumn 1895. Oil on canvas. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia. Dimensions: 82 x 126 cm

The Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture which Levitan entered in 1873 even waived his tuition “because of extreme poverty” and in recognition of his “singular success in art”. Levitan was homeless in Moscow, sleeping alternately in the homes of relatives or friends and sometimes even spending the night in the empty classrooms of the School. Now and then the School’s night watchman took pity on the youth and let him into his cubicle for the night; another watchman, who sold breakfasts on the side, would provide the lad with “up to five kopecks’ worth” of victuals on credit. Levitan’s good showing in the academic year of 1874—75 induced the School’s Roard of Teachers to reward him with “a box of paints and brushes”.

Lavitan- Lake-Rus
Lake. Rus. Oil on canvas. Location: Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Dimensions: 149 x 208 cm

By that time the fledgling artist was beginning to show a preference for landscape painting, and in the autumn of 1876 Alexei Savrasov took Levi¬tan into his studio. In March 1877 two of Levitan’s canvases — Evening and Sunny Day. Spring — were displayed in the students’ section of the 5th Moscow exhibition of the Society for Circulating Art Exhibitions, the largest and most influential creative association of realist artists in the country, active between 1870 and 1923 (also known as the Itinerants’ Society). Autumn Day. The Sokolniki Park, Levitan’s entry for his own School’s 2nd Students’ Exhibition of 1879—80, was purchased by Pavel Tretyakov, the founder of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, which meant that the artist was beginning to achieve public recognition…

Levitan-Autumn-Day
Autumn Day, Sokolniki Park. 1879. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia. Dimensions: 63 x 50 cm

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