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Master of Russian Landscape Painting

by Cathy Locke

Portrait of Painter Isaac Levitan
"Portrait of Painter Isaac Levitan," by Valentin Serov, 1893, oil on canvas

One of Russia’s greatest landscape painters, Isaac Levitan (1860-1900) walked the line between realist and symbolist painting. Living as Russian Jews in the 1800s was anything but easy for the Levitan family. Even though Isaac’s father, Ilya Abramovich, was an educated man with a degree from Yeshiva, he was only able to carve out a meager income for his wife and four children as a foreign language tutor in Moscow. The children’s artistic interests were encouraged and both sons enrolled in the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture; their oldest child Adolf in 1871 and Isaac in 1873. Their mother died in 1875 when Isaac was fifteen, and two years later their father died after a long battle with typhus. The children became homeless, often sleeping at the Moscow School of Painting. The teacher’s council arranged a scholarship with a small stipend in order to keep Isaac in school. One of his professors, Alexei Savrasov, took him on as an apprentice to provide some monetary aid. At the age of seventeen Isaac had lost both parents and knew the sorrows of poverty all too well. Out of this experience Levitan’s work took on a distinctive sorrowful quality that garnered his paintings the title of “mood landscapes.” Throughout his life he was prone to depression and tried to commit suicide twice. Levitan also had a heart illness that sapped his strength and caused shooting pain throughout his body. It is believed that the sadness he carried in his heart was reflected in his work.

The same year as his father’s death (1877), Levitan showed his work for the first time at an exhibition with the Wanderers (Peredvizhniki) in Moscow. He won two minor silver medals and received his first recognition from the press. During this period he often painted on the outskirts of Moscow where he started to gain a faithful group of collectors. Tsar Alexander II ordered the removal of all Jewish people living in large cities in Russia after a failed assassination attempt on his life in May of 1879. However, officials responded to pressure from Levitan’s collectors, as well as his teachers, and he was allowed to return to Moscow. His teachers awarded him the Prince Vasily Dolgorukov Stripen. Levitan’s first big break came in 1880 when his painting, Autumn Day. Sokolniki., painted when he was just nineteen, was bought by the famous art collector Pavel Tretyakov.

Autumn Day. Sokolniki.
Isaac Levitan, “Autumn Day. Sokolniki.” 1879, oil on canvas

During his ten years of study at the Moscow School of Painting (1873-1883) there were two teachers, Vasily Polenov and Alexei Savrasov, who had the most influence on Levitan’s development. During his school years he was a regular at Vasily Polenov’s country house outside of Moscow. There, alongside his friend Konstantin Korovin, he drew and created watercolor paintings. These were to become times of warm friendships where Polenov’s serene lyrical landscape paintings would rub off on the young Levitan. An example of this type of style is Levitan’s painting Autumn Day. Sokolniki., where we see a woman walking carefree in the countryside. Alexei Savrasov took Levitan under his wing early and they remained close until Savrasov’s death in 1897. During Levitan’s final years at school he became discouraged and stopped attending classes. Even though Savrasov was fired as a professor due to his alcoholism, Levitan continued to seek his advice. In 1883, Levitan was ready to graduate and expected to receive a diploma at the level of “first-rank” for one of his best landscape paintings. Savrasov wrote on the back of the painting “Big Silver Medal” and signed his decree. Unfortunately, when the school’s graduation committee saw the disgraced professor’s comments they gave Levitan a diploma of “unranked artist.” However, this did not stop the artist! By the spring of 1884 the Wanderers had offered Levitan full membership in their group, and he was exhibiting regularly with the Moscow Society of Art Lovers as well. In 1885, Korovin introduced him to the famous philanthropist and railroad tycoon Saava Mamontov. Together, Korovin and Levitan painted scenery for performances of Mamontov’s private operas. By 1889 Levitan came full circle and began teaching landscape painting at the Moscow School of Painting.

Eternal Peace
Isaac Levitan, “Eternal Peace,” 1893-1894, oil on canvas

Levitan traveled across Russia during the summer and fall months doing plein air studies for most of his adult life, then returning to Moscow to paint larger pieces during the winter and spring months. In 1886, he visited Crimea where he is quoted as saying, “Last evening I climbed up a cliff and looked down at the sea from the top – I started to sob, and sobbed violently; that was eternal beauty, that was where a human being felt his own utter nullity!” Being Savrasov’s favorite student, Levitan developed the lyrical experience in nature from his teacher and translated it into a new quality where he created landscapes with an “atmosphere” of philosophic contemplation. He was most fond of poetic places in the forest or countryside. Pastoral landscapes, largely devoid of human presence, are characteristic of his work. Although his late work displayed familiarity with Impressionism, his palette is generally muted and shows influences from Savrasov. His painting Eternal Peace (1893-1894) is a typical example of Levitan’s work. To the untrained eye the painting is a landscape, a small island in the foreground with a vast stretch of water as far as the eye can see. To those who know Levitan’s poetic touch you see a different view. Here is a painting of a lone church on top of a desolate island. If you look inside the church you will see a small flicker of life, while just outside the church are a few modest graves. Here Levitan tells us how fleeting life can be. The island is designed like a ship’s bow that is on course to run into a land mass. The large expansive sky representing the heavens above is filled with clouds that are oddly not reflected in the water below. The painting reflects Levitan’s sorrow, the smallness of mankind next to the vastness of heaven. The lack of reflection of the heavens in the water below tells us of Levitan’s lack of faith in his own heart and emotions. All of Levitan’s work is marked with the theme of eternity, even in its smallest, most modest manifestation. In 1896, while visiting Finland Levitan stated, “Eternity, menacing eternity, where generations drowned and more generations will drown… So horrible, so fearsome!”

Levitan spent the last year of his life staying at several of his friends’ homes in the countryside outside Moscow. He never married, though it is known that he had a number of affairs with married women. In May of 1900 he caught a cold and returned to Moscow where Mrs. Turchaninova took care of him. Levitan died on July 22nd leaving about 40 unfinished paintings and 300 sketches. A starving childhood and a stressful life took their toll on his health in the form of a degenerative heart disease. In spite of the effects of a terminal illness, his last works were increasingly filled with light, reflecting tranquility and the eternal beauty of Russian nature. One of his very last paintings, Lake Russia, is considered unfinished. This painting is a collective image of Russian nature and the artist’s last thoughts and feelings of Russia, his Motherland. His painting Hay-Making is considered his last painting. Isaac Levitan gave his heart and soul to his work and his name will be forever associated with the tradition of Russian landscape painting.

  • Isaac Levitan, “Birch Grove,” 1885-1889, oil on canvas
  • Isaac Levitan, “Evening Bells,” 1892 oil on canvas
  • Isaac Levitan, “The Vladimirka Road,” 1892, oil on canvas
  • Isaac Levitan,“By the Whirlpool,” 1892, oil on canvas
  • Isaac Levitan, “Golden Autumn,” 1895, oil on canvas
  • Isaac Levitan, “Stormy Day,” 1897, oil on canvas
  • Isaac Levitan, “Silence,” 1898, oil on canvas
  • Isaac Levitan, ”Twilight. Moon.” 1899, oil on canvas
  • Isaac Levitan, “Lake Russia,” 1900, oil on canvas


Tretyakov Gallery Magazine: Isaac Levitan's Life and Work Timeline

By Margarita Chizhmak, Article:  HERITAGE, Magazine number:  Special issue. ISAAC LEVITAN Tretyakov Gallery Magazine: On Levitan’s Landscapes and the Levitan Exhibition By Lydia Lovleva, March 2010

Russiapedia: Prominent Russians: Isaac Levitan


About the Author:
Cathy Locke is an award-winning fine art painter, professor, and published writer, specializing in Russian art of the 19th and 20th centuries. She is the editor of
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