Isaac Ilyich Levitan (August 30, 1860 –
August 4 1900) was a classical Russian landscape painter who advanced the
genre of the "mood landscape."
Life and work
Isaac Levitan was born in a shtetl of Kibarty, Augustów Governorate in Congress
Poland, a part of the Russian Empire (present-day Lithuania) into a poor but
educated Jewish family. His father Elyashiv Levitan was the son of a rabbi,
completed a Yeshiva and was self-educated. He taught German and French in Kowno and
later worked as a translator at a railway bridge construction for a French building
company. At the beginning of 1870 the Levitan family moved to Moscow.
In September 1873, Isaac Levitan entered the Moscow School of Painting,
Sculpture and Architecture where his older brother Avel had already studied for two
years. After a year in the copying class Isaac transferred into a naturalistic
class, and soon thereafter into a landscape class. Levitan's teachers were the
famous Alexei Savrasov, Vasily Perov and Vasily Polenov.
In 1875, his mother died, and his father fell seriously ill and became unable to
support four children; he died in 1877. The family slipped into abject poverty. As
patronage for Levitan's talent and achievements, his Jewish origins and to keep him
in the school, he was given a scholarship.
In 1877, Isaac Levitan's works were first publicly exhibited and earned
favorable recognition from the press. After Alexander Soloviev's assassination
attempt on Alexander II, in May 1879, mass deportations of Jews from big cities of
the Russian Empire forced the family to move to the suburb of Saltykovka, but in
the fall officials responded to pressure from art devotees, and Levitan was allowed
to return. In 1880 his painting Осенний день. Сокольники (Autumn day. Sokolniki)
was bought by famous philanthropist and art collector Pavel Mikhailovich
In the spring of 1884 Levitan participated in the mobile art exhibition by the
group known as the Peredvizhniki and in 1891 became a member of the Peredvizhniki
partnership. During his study in the Moscow School of painting, sculpturing and
architecture, Levitan befriended Konstantin Korovin, Mikhail Nesterov, architect
Fyodor Shekhtel, and the painter Nikolay Chekhov, whose famous brother Anton
Chekhov became the artist's closest friend. Levitan often visited Chekhov and some
think Levitan was in love with his sister, Maria Pavlovna Chekhova.
In the early 1880s Levitan collaborated with the Chekhov brothers on the
illustrated magazine "Moscow" and illustrated the M. Fabritsius edition "Kremlin".
Together with Korovin in 1885-1886 he painted scenery for performances of the
Private Russian opera of Savva Mamontov.
In the 1880s he participated in the drawing and watercolor gatherings at
The landscape of mood
Levitan's work was a profound response to the lyrical charm of the Russian
landscape. Levitan did not paint urban landscapes; with the exception of the View
of Simonov Monastery (whereabouts unknown), mentioned by Nesterov, the city of
Moscow appears only in the painting Illumination of the Kremlin. During the late
1870s he often worked in the vicinity of Moscow, and created the special variant of
the "landscape of mood", in which the shape and condition of nature are
spiritualized, and become carriers of conditions of the human soul (Autumn day.
Sokolniki, 1879). During work in Ostankino, he painted fragments of the mansion’s
house and park, but he was most fond of poetic places in the forest or modest
countryside. Characteristic of his work is a hushed and nearly melancholic reverie
amidst pastoral landscapes largely devoid of human presence. Fine examples of these
qualities include The Vladimirka Road, 1892 Evening Bells, 1892, and Eternal Rest,
1894, all in the Tretyakov Gallery. Though his late work displayed familiarity with
Impressionism, his palette was generally muted, and his tendencies were more
naturalistic and poetic than optical or scientific.
In the summer of 1890 Levitan went to Yuryevets (Юрьевец) and among numerous
landscapes and etudes he painted The View of Krivooserski monastery. So
the plan of one of his best pictures, The Silent Monastery, was born. The
image of a silent monastery and planked bridges over the river, connecting it with
the outside world, expressed the artist's spiritual reflections. It is known that
this picture made a strong impression on Chekhov.
In 1897, already world-famous, he was elected to the Imperial Academy of Arts
and in 1898 he was named the head of the Landscape Studio at his alma mater.
Levitan spent the last year of his life at Chekhov’s home in Crimea. In spite of
the effects of a terminal illness, his last works are increasingly filled with
light. They reflect tranquility and the eternal beauty of Russian nature.
He was buried in Dorogomilovo Jewish cemetery. In April 1941 Levitan's remains
were moved to the Novodevichy Cemetery, next to Chekhov's necropolis. Levitan did
not have a family or children.
Isaac Levitan's hugely influential art heritage consists of more than a thousand
paintings, among them watercolors, pastels, graphics, and illustrations.