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Isaac Levitan: Simple, Unpretentious landscapes through his eyes

The text below is the excerpt of the book Isaac Levitan (ASIN: B082KJ3BTZ), written by Alexei Fiodorov-Davydov, published by Parkstone International.

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.

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 mastery of German and French. This provided him with a living in Kovno (now Kaunas, Lithuanian 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.

Levitan Photography, Late 1890s
Levitan. Late 1890s. Photography.

Levitan’s creative endeavour coincided with a general upsurge in Russian artistic culture. The years of his formation as an artist — the first half of the 1880s — saw the creation of such masterpieces as Ivan Kramskoi’s Grief Inconsolable (1884), Ilya Repin’s Religious Procession in Kursk Province (1880—83) and Vasily Surikov’s The Boyarina Morozova (1881—87). Levitan developed as an Itinerant and was associated with the movement’s junior generation, the so-called “young Itinerants”. He was a contemporary of Mikhail Nesterov, Konstantin and Sergei Korovin, Alexei Stepanov, Vasily Baksheyev, and Abram Arkhipov. With some of them he studied together in the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, with others, like Ilya Ostroukhov and Valentin Serov, he maintained friendly relations. Like Nesterov and Serov, Levitan was already beginning to evolve a new realism that went further than the realism on which he had been reared. Yet to the end of his days he did not break with the Itinerants, not even when he was exhibiting with the World of Art group. The World of Art (Mir Iskusstva), founded in the late 1890s, preached artistic individualism and “art for art’s sake”, but the work of its members often revealed realist tendencies. The new, emerging trend to which Levitan belonged should not, however, be identified with the World of Art, though in its early stages the society did attempt to draw into its orbit all that was young, novel and fresh.

Autumn day, Sokolniki, 1879. Oil on canvas, 63 x 50 cm. Galerie Tretiakov, Isaac Levitan, Alexei Fiodorov-Davydov
Autumn day, Sokolniki, 1879. Oil on canvas, 63 x 50 cm. Galerie Tretiakov.

At the turn of the century, alongside the World of Art and the Union of Russian Artists, there were other trends too which have yet to be explored in depth. Such, for instance, is the art of Nesterov, a graduate of the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture some of whose pupils comprised the nucleus of the “young Itinerants”, of Mikhail Vrubel whose origins were with the Academy of Arts, and, finally, of Arkady Rylov. These three masters cannot be identified either with the Itinerants or the Union of Russian Artists, or the World of Art. Levitan, though, could and should be numbered among the “transitional” masters, not because he belonged to any group or trend, but because of the transitional character of his art. No matter how many new features are discernible in Levitan’s canvases of the period, his painting of these years taken as a whole does not seem to go beyond the realism of the second half of the nineteenth century.

The impact of Levitan’s art stemmed from the profoundly subtle poetic feeling that permeated all his work. It cannot be said that he was the first to discover the lyrical beauty of the simple, unpretentious Russian landscape. That had been done before him by Savrasov, who had his predecessors too. But in developing further Savrasov’s lyrical and deeply national landscape painting Levitan lent it a new dimension, elevated it to a new plane. He was a true poet of nature, and this universally accepted definition of Levitan is quintessential. For Levitan, Savrasov’s contribution “to the realm of Russian art” lay in the fact that he attempted “to seek out in the most ordinary and commonplace phenomena the intimate, infinitely touching and often melancholy features which are so strongly felt in our native scenery and which evoke an overwhelming response in our soul”. These words are applicable to Levitan himself because his landscapes are suffused with an even greater measure of the “lyricism and boundless love for one’s native land” that he so highly valued in the art of his first teacher.

The Apiary, 1885, Isaac Levitan, Alexei Fiodorov-Davydov
The Apiary, 1885. Oil on canvas, 51 x 38 cm. Private collection, Saint Petersburg.

Levitan’s influence transformed Russian landscape painting into a subtle and meaningful art. He taught his contemporaries to feel nature so deeply, to give it so much of their soul, faith and hopes, and so understand its moods as had never been the case before him. That is the essence of what we today refer to as the “Levitan landscape”. It is worth recalling in this respect the sensations produced by the finest, the most significant of Levitan’s canvases, be it a cloudy summer day on the Volga in After the Rain. Plios (1889), which strikes one not only by the superb rendering of the almost tangible humidity of the air, but, too, by the very “mood” of the landscape itself that is so subtly conveyed, or the soul-searing, poignant hopelessness of The Vladimirka Road (1892), or the buoyant anxiety of reawakening nature in The Month of March (1895), or the sonorous optimism of Golden Autumn (1895) and the elegiac melancholy of Eternal Rest (1893—94), or the surging melody of joy in The Lake. Russia (1899—1900).

The “landscape of moods”, the baring of “the soul of Russian nature” that hallmark Levitan’s paintings are present in the works of his contemporaries too, such as Svetoslavsky, Nesterov and Ostroukhov, but with Levitan, they are more vividly expressed.

March, 1895, Isaac Levitan, Alexei Fiodorov-Davydov
March, 1895. Oil on canvas, 60 x 75 cm. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Levitan ranks among the most appreciated and loved of Russian artists. His paintings bring to mind Chekhov’s words from the story The House With the Mezzanine: “For a brief moment I fell under the spell of something my own, something very familiar as if I had once seen this very panorama in my childhood.” The poignant emotions, the aesthetic pleasure that overwhelms the viewer as he contemplates these vaguely familiar pictures of nature are the root and cause of Levitan’s undying popularity.

The ability to discern the eternal amid the present-day, to mirror in a landscape the country and the time, to say so much about them with such poetic force — this remarkable oneness of thought, feeling and painterly evocation of beauty is the priceless essence of the legacy of Levitan…

See more of his works on:

Jewish Museum & Tolerance Center

The State Russian Museum

The Virtual Russian Museum

The Russian Art Gallery

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