isaak levitan, lyrical landscape

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This is the only western study of the renowned Russian landscape painter, Isaak Levitan (1860-1900). This third, expanded edition is further enhanced by new images and extra chapters about his portraits, still lifes and cityscapes; it also discusses his working methods and assesses the influence of his output on later artists.


  • Contents

    Preface 6

    Foreword 8

    Introduction 12

    1 Childhood 14

    2 Serfdom and Nationhood 18

    3 The Moscow School of Painting 24

    4 Landscape Painting in Russia 34

    5 Levitans River Volga 40

    6 Anton Chekhov 50

    7 Realism Levitan and the Wanderers 58

    8 Travels in Europe, 1890-94 66

    9 Major Works 72

    10 The Cultural Scene, Moscow and St Petersburg 78

    11 Levitan and Nature 86

    12 Working Methods 94

    13 Secession Munich 102

    14 Secession Vienna 110

    15 Cityscapes and Flower Paintings 118

    16 Diaghilev and the World of Art 124

    17 Portraits 130

    18 Levitans Last Years, 1898-1900 136

    19 Levitans Legacy 142

    Notes 148

    Chronology 152

    Select Bibliography 154

    Index 156

    PRELIMS pp1-13 5/5/11 4:08 pm Page 5

  • 8PRELIMS pp1-13 5/5/11 4:09 pm Page 8

  • businessman Chichikov trades in serfs whose names still appear on the

    government census although they have long been dead.

    For state or crown peasants, numerically approximately the

    same as privately owned serfs, life had been a little less harsh. They

    had usually received more land for their own cultivation, and were

    much less subject to interference from their masters. From 1837, a

    new Ministry of Agriculture, headed by Count C P Kiselev, had

    made efforts to develop peasant agriculture. Fostering a more

    paternalistic attitude among his officials, Kiselev tried to ensure a

    fairer taxation system and instituted the provision of basic welfare

    facilities, schools and medical services. Yet, as with serfs in private

    ownership, housing was crowded and unsanitary, without chimneys

    and with dirt floors and, in wintertime, livestock stabled on the

    ground floors of village homes. Cockroaches invariably invaded the

    table at mealtimes and were even regarded as a sign of plenty.

    Several paintings of the clergy from about this time indicate their

    lack of education and their fondness for vodka: for the unlettered there

    was little moral support from the Russian Orthodox Church. The artist

    Vasily Perovs Village Easter Procession features drunken priests leaving a

    tavern as the procession begins, and Ilya Repin portrays an archdeacon

    as a gross and hirsute figure whose roseate complexion and huge belly

    betray his gluttony. Unsurprisingly, superstition was rife among the

    peasantry. There were many instances of their fear of change in the

    form of technical advances: they would refuse to answer newly


    Serfdom and Nationhood

    Self-portrait, 1880sIsaak LevitanIndian ink, brush and white onpaper, 38 x 28cmTretyakov Gallery, Moscow

    Misa Moiseyev (study), 1882Ivan Kramskoi (1837-87)Oil on canvas, 57 x 45cmRussian Museum, St Petersburg

    Chapters 1-3 pp.14-33 5/5/11 4:17 pm Page 19

  • citys painting school was more suitable and represented a wise choice.

    The Moscow School was fortunate to have on its staff the well-

    regarded teacher Vasily Perov (1832-82), for whom Levitan

    developed a great respect. Perov had himself studied at the School

    in the 1850s and had admired and made copies of the Dutch

    masters at a formative stage of his artistic development. Living in

    Paris from 1862-4, he was drawn to genre subjects and, working in

    the city streets, represented the poorest among its inhabitants; when

    he returned to Russia he felt impelled to convey the tedium and

    sadness of peasant life. In paintings such as The Last Tavern by the

    City Gates, which shows peasants leaving the warmth and comfort of

    an inn to begin their bleak, wintry journey home by open sleigh,

    Perov included a landscape element to indicate the expanses of

    empty countryside and snow-filled horizons they have to traverse.

    Perov was also an accomplished portraitist, whose study of the

    writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, painted in 1872, remains the outstanding

    commemoration of the great novelist. The fifty-year old Dostoevsky

    is shown with considerable insight, his hands clasped over his knees

    as he sits keep in thought, dressed in a drab brown overcoat.

    Perov thus brought to the School, and to the studio where

    Levitan worked with him, great feeling for his chosen subjects.

    Several of his more outstanding students inherited his conviction

    that their art should bear witness to the hardship and despair

    prevailing among Russias poorer classes; and a number of Levitans

    contemporaries from there were to produce works revealing the

    humiliating poverty in which many Russian people still lived.

    Levitan, though he later professed that his relatives had

    encouraged him to paint more modern and therefore more

    marketable subjects, such as views of Moscow or other urban

    scenes, quite soon showed a preference for landscape painting.6 In

    March 1876 he was able to join the studio of the landscape master

    Aleksei Savrasov (1830-97). Savrasovs methods were among the

    most advanced in the School, and he was an inspiring teacher. He

    believed implicitly in working in the open air and in studying nature


    The Moscow School of Painting

    Chapters 1-3 pp.14-33 5/5/11 4:19 pm Page 25

  • mountainsides form the backdrop to In the Mountains of the Crimea,

    where a pair of oxen haul a cart up a rough mountain road. In other

    paintings it was often large-skied, flat expanses of land that appealed

    to him. From low-lying fields and meadowland he created tightly

    controlled, subtly coloured compositions such as Wet Meadow (1872).

    Here storm clouds move away to leave an area of young grass washed

    by rain, and a pool of rainwater shining as it reflects the sky. Vasiliev

    thus moved on from Venetsianovs quiet, sunny compositions, making

    the viewer aware of the beauty to be found in seemingly

    unprepossessing scenery seen in all weathers, and imparting a sense of

    magnificence into the landscape. By the 1870s these two quite

    dissimilar artists had, in their different ways, ennobled a countryside

    which could otherwise have easily appeared featureless and tragic.

    Alongside the creators of such imaginative and innovative

    images of the Russian terrain, there thrived more conventional

    artists who achieved success with representations in a more realistic

    mode. Best-known from this more traditional school were the exact

    contemporaries Mikhail Klodt and Ivan Shishkin, both born in


    Landscape Painting in Russia

    Wet MeadowFyodor Vasiliev (1850-73)Oil on canvas, 70 x 114cmBridgeman

    Chapters 4-5 pp34-49 5/5/11 4:25 pm Page 36

  • 41

    Levitans River Volga

    Chapters 4-5 pp34-49 5/5/11 4:27 pm Page 41

  • 48

    Levitans River Volga

    Chapters 4-5 pp34-49 5/5/11 4:30 pm Page 48

  • 65

    Realism Levitan and the Wanderers

    The Laundresses, 1899Abram Arkhipov (1862-1930)Oil on canvas, 97 x 65.5cmNovosti

    Chapters 6-7 pp.50-65 5/5/11 4:43 pm Page 65

  • Major Works

    Chapters 8-9 pp.66-77 5/5/11 4:49 pm Page 77

  • Raised in a small, impoverished, rural settlement in Lithuania, and

    later subsisting for the most part in the streets of Moscow, Levitan

    nonetheless painted early studies of ponds, trees and other natural

    phenomena that revealed an unusually developed sensibility towards

    the natural world. His first experience of a very different landscape,

    when he travelled to the Crimea in 1886, considerably enlarged and

    refined this awareness. Levitan was awestruck on seeing the beauty

    and majesty of the region, and deeply affected by these new

    surroundings. A reverence for nature remained with him all his life,

    and is surely the foundation stone on which his graceful and

    persuasive landscape panoramas are built. His gifts enabled him to

    appreciate and portray both grandeur and delicacy, the swelling

    waters of the Volga or ferns growing by a forest path, each face of

    nature represented with equal conviction.

    Teaching at the Moscow School of Painting from 1898, Levitan

    enjoined his students above all to feel and understand nature. Do

    not remember pictures, he said, encouraging them to work outside

    en plein air, to look anew at their surroundings, to develop their

    visual memory for the natural scene and to liberate it from the

    superfluous. Although he sometimes recorded small, intimate

    corners of nature and also painted flowers, in general he believed

    that it was the overall concept of a landscape and the harmony of its

    colours that was significant, rather than isolated details.

    There is, in many of Levitans landscapes, an indisputable vein of

    melancholy, which has often been attributed to his own

    disadvantaged upbringing and outlook on life. His friend Konstantin

    Korovin once heard him say I would like to convey the sadness

    spread everywhere in nature. That sadness for some reason is a

    reproach to me. In actuality, however, Russias tragic history, the

    many hardships of her people, and simply the vastness of her terrain

    seem to have imbued her landscape with a certain melancholy, and

    such sadness is, perhaps, equally in the eye of the beholder.

    Likewise, the spiritual aspect often noted in Levitans paintings could

    be said to reflect the unique and special spirituality with which Holy

    Russia had long believed herself to be endowed, perceiving her own

    Orthodox Church as heir to Rome and Byzantium.

    The poor but intellectual environment of Levitans childhood

    contrasted markedly with the life he experienced in Moscow and St

    Petersburg. His Jewish family background, with teaching based on

    the Talmud and maybe a bias towards the thinking of philosophers

    such as Spinoza,39 in which man and nature are one, made him

    distinct from other young Russians and at a distance, initially, from

    the mainstream of Russian intellectual thought. Frequent

    discrimination against Jews living in Moscow caused him profound

    anxiety. In 1879, for instance, following an attempt on the life of

    Tsar Aleksandr II, Jews were ordered to leave the city. Levitan, his

    brother and sisters were forced to live for several months some

    distance away in the village of Boldino, in Vladimir province, and

    only the intervention of influential friends enabled them to return.

    The single surviving letter from the artist to one of his sisters, dated

    as late as December 1899, refers to his almost having had to move

    away from Moscow again, despite being an artist of renown, in as

    late as 1892, and of the ever-present difficulty for Jews of securing

    legal residence in the city.



    Levitan and Nature

    Last Snow (study), 1895Isaak LevitanOil on canvas, 25.5 x 33cmRussian Museum, StPetersburg

    Chapters 10-11 pp.78-93 5/5/11 4:54 pm Page 86