Kibarty, Augustów Governorate, Congress Poland (today Lithuania)
Summary of Isaac Levitan
Isaac Levitan created some of the most beautiful works associated with the Peredvizhniki School and is credited, along with Ivan Shishkin, with ushering in a golden age of Russian landscape painting. Born poor in modern day Lithuania, Levitan moved as a child to Moscow. Orphaned and made homeless shortly afterwards, the young artist channeled the tragedies of his upbringing into creativity. He found success early, exhibiting with the Peredvizhniki Group as a student affiliate while still a teenager, and was swept up in the aims of that movement: to create a distinctly Russian art that would depict the beauty of the national landscape and the strength of the national character, withdrawing from European and Neoclassical models of aesthetic value. His own distinct contribution to this phase of Russian art was what we might call the "mood landscape": one represented with naturalistic accuracy yet imbued with a profound emotional and spiritual charge. Levitan's death in 1900 at the age of 39 deprived Russian and international art of a prodigious talent.
- Isaac Levitan was amongst a generation of Russian landscape painters who sought to capture the unique beauty of the Russian wilderness, influenced by the Realist and Naturalist painters of France but determined to find their own, native muse. If Shishkin was the great painter of Russian forests, Levitan was a master of vast, open spaces, from the plains of Crimea to the banks of the Volga. His range was wide, however, and he also created more enclosed, human-centered landscapes.
- Like many artists of the Peredvizhniki School, Levitan's work was compelled by a strong, unorthodox spirituality. Whereas works such as Ivan Kramskoi's Christ in the Desert (1872) and Nikolai Ge's What is Truth? (1890) channeled some such sentiment into representations of Christ, the Jewish Levitan expressed a more esoteric, pantheistic faith, a sense of God-in-nature, through works of sublime scale and beauty such as Above the Eternal Peace (1894).
- Levitan learned from the achievements of the first generation of Peredvizhniki artists and created a distinct body of work in response, helping to bring about the second great wave of creativity associated with the school during the 1880s-90s. In his last works, we can sense a more explicit incorporation of the lessons of European Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, as color planes become more simplistic and exaggerated. But he remained, throughout, true to the nationalist animus of the Peredvizhniki School.
Biography of Isaac Levitan
Isaac Levitan was born on August 30, 1860 in the small town of Kibarty, now part of Lithuania but then incorporated into Congress Poland, a province of the Russian Empire. His family were Jewish, his father Ilya Abramovich the son of a rabbi and an educated man, who worked as a private French and German tutor and later as a translator for a French construction company. But the family was poor. Isaac's mother, a housewife, struggled to care for Isaac, his brother Abel, and his sisters Teresa and Emma. Nonetheless, both parents encouraged their two sons' early interest in art, and young Isaac would often escape the stresses of the family home to draw the trees and grass around the city.
Important Art by Isaac Levitan
This work, painted when Levitan was 19, was the first acquired by the patron Tretyakov. It relies on a simple but effective compositional arrangement, with the two convergent lines formed by the edges of the path meeting those of the tree-line in the center of the canvas. The two reflecting triangles accentuate the depth of the composition and suggest the loneliness of the scene. The colors, though muted, are warm, and divided into a subtle spectrum: first, the bright hues of the grass and the path, then the golden yellow of the small and younger trees, behind them the higher trees, with their brown-green leaves, and finally, the blue of the sky.
In the foreground, the lady in black captures the eye. In a sense she is the subject of the painting, yet Levitan only added her later on, on the suggestion of his friend Nikolai Chekhov, who could not conceive of a work without human figures. Throughout the preparatory process of plein air sketching, Levitan focused on only the landscape, completing a number of drafts before finishing the canvas in the studio. In this sense, the landscape itself is the subject of the work. The viewer is struck first by the naturalism of the scene, still revolutionary at the time, and by the scale of the trees stretching upwards to the sky. The subtle formal arrangement might also seem to symbolize the passage of time, with the eye drawn upwards from the younger trees to the higher, darker trees, touching the white eternity. A strong emotion of sorrow is conveyed through the desolation of the setting, which would have been enhanced by the empty bench had the woman not been added. Still doubtful and insecure in his talent, perhaps, Levitan conceded to his friend, adding a romantic detail and a more anecdotal touch to the work.
Sokolniki is a park outside of Moscow where Levitan had settled for a time with his sister, having been expelled from Moscow as a Jew following the failed assassination attempt of Tsar Alexander II by a Jewish revolutionary. Dejected and lonely, we can imagine Levitan's feelings as he walked among the trees making sketches for this painting. The work was exhibited at a Moscow School exhibition, where it is said to have angered Levitan's mentor Savrasov, who found the woman "unnecessary". Nevertheless, the collector Tretyakov purchased the work and started to follow Levitan's career.
This painting depicts a forest of birch trees on a sunny day. Small touches of bright yellow contrast with specks of dark green, heightening the luminosity of the canvas. The white of the trunks stands out, punctuating the landscape with vertical lines. Purple dots sprinkle the grass. Opting for an eye-level perspective, Levitan only includes a portion of the forest canopy, cutting off the treetops and much of the foliage, while suggesting their presence by depicting the light passing through to mottle the meadow beneath. The human's eye view invites us into the painting, as if we were experiencing the sensory pleasures of the birch grove firsthand. It took Levitan about four years to finish this small canvas. But despite the years of thought and corrections poured into the final outcome, the painting radiates with freshness and a sense of immediacy.
We can sense the influence of Impressionist techniques on the work, in particular Levitan's admiration for Camille Corot. Like Corot, Levitan captured the delicate beauty of light passing through foliage using small, quivering brushstrokes and precise gradations of colors. But the subject-matter, while comparable to the sylvan scenes of the Barbizon School or Impressionist milieux, is subtly nationalistic. The birch tree is often taken as a symbol of the beauty of the Russian countryside, and the artist made a conscious choice in selecting it.
Levitan's birch grove captured nature in its brilliant, sensory and emotional appeal, and inspired future artists. Gustav Klimt may have had this work in mind when composing his early landscapes, which seem to share compositional traits and motifs with Levitan's work. The work is also significant in suggesting the youthful joy of the artist; Levitan started to work on it at a positive point in his career, before the tribulations of his final decade.
This painting represents the Vladimirka or Vladimir Road leading east out of Moscow to the city of Vladimir. It was by chance that Levitan first discovered the road while out hunting with his mistress Sofia. Taken by the starkness of the scene, he decided to depict it. He painted it as he first saw it: empty and desolate, on a cloudy day. The composition is quite simple, with the horizon line dividing the canvas and crossing in its center the vertical line of the road. The latter is flanked by beaten footpaths on each side. The meandering of footprints is somewhat reflected in the light swirling movement of the clouds above, but this is a dreary landscape overall. The female character waiting in the middle distance recalls a sense of human presence, but underlines at the same time the vast stillness and loneliness of the place.
The subject was an emotive one for artists and free thinkers of Levitan's generation. The Vladimir Road was a historically charged location, used since the middle of the eighteenth century for transporting convicts from Moscow to Siberia, where they would be put to hard labor. In Russian artistic vocabulary, the road is associated with misery, imprisonment, and death. By choosing to depict it, Levitan immortalized the thousands of wretched outcasts who had marched along the Vladimir Road towards exile. He may have identified with them as someone who had himself been a beggar, forced to live on the fringes of society, and also as a man discriminated against and twice banned from Moscow for being Jewish.
Through the emptiness of the scene, and through the road that seems to open out to infinity, the artist conveys a strong feeling of despair which is at the same time an expression of compassion. Despite tapping into these elemental human emotions, the work is unusual in its rootedness in historical reference. Perhaps for this reason, Levitan ended up losing interest in it, and gave it for free to Tretyakov.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Isaac Levitan
- Isaac Levitan, the Mystery of NatureOur PickBy Alexei Feodorov-Davydov
- Antosha and Levitasha: The Shared Lives and Art of Anton Chekhov and Isaac LevitanBy Serge Gregory
- Isaak Levitan: Lyrical LandscapesBy Averil King
- Crossed Destinies - Anton Chekhov and Isaac LevitanBy Galina Churak / Tretyakov Gallery Magazine
- Isaac Levitan and His ContemporariesBy Olga Atroshchenko / Tretyakov Gallery Magazine
- Isaac Levitan: Beyond Landscapehttps://www.tretyakovgallerymagazine.com/articles/isaac-levitan/isaac-levitan-beyond-landscape / Tretyakov Gallery Magazine
- Isaac Levitan: A Master of Pastel ArtBy Lydia Torstensen / Tretyakov Gallery Magazine
- Isaac Levitan's Life and Work TimelineBy Margarita Chizhmak / Tretyakov Gallery Magazine