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Sunday, December 7, 2014

Isaac Levitan

March, 1895, Isaac Levitan.
Does it ever really get this bright and sunny in Russia? Especially in March?
Isaac Levitan Self-portrait, 1880
One of the most difficult types of artists to write about are the landscape painters native to various countries and regions around the world. Although each region has it's natural geographic beauty, which sometimes varies considerably, all too often, the artist painting that beauty don't vary all that much. I hate to say it, but with a few exceptions, when you've seen one French landscape, or one English moor, or one Swiss mountain, you've pretty much seen them all. Of course, a country the size of the United States, spread over four time zones and so many latitudes, will have geographic extremes which add an exceptional number of variations. One would naturally expect the same to be true of a country the size of Russia. Yet strangely, that's not the case. Once outside the cities you have basically two landscape vistas, woodlands and farmlands. Yes, there are some mountains and some frigid shorelines, but for some reason, Russian landscape painters don't seem to have been fascinated by either. Isaac Levitan is what you might call the exception which proves the rule.

Levitan, Savvinskaya Sloboda near Zvenigorod. 1884, Isaac Levitan,
about as close as he ever got to the traditional Russian landscape either in style or content.
Sunny Day, 1876, Isaac Levitan
Although Isaac Levitan was born in a northern corner of Poland, now part of Lithuania. He was of Russian descent, and indeed, the virtually unpronounceable village where he was born in 1860 became part of Imperial Russia just seven years later. Isaac's parents were Jewish and poor, but well-educated. His father taught German and French while also serving as a Russian translator as the need arose. When young Isaac was ten, the family moved to Moscow in search of work. His mother died in 1875, his father two years later, leaving the family of four young children in abject poverty. His Sunny Day (right) depicts this phase of Levitan's life. The work was painted in 1876, between the deaths of his parents, yet we see no sign of remorse, only a feeling of warmth and sunlight.
Birch Forest, 1885-89, Isaac Levitan

Autumn Day, 1879, Isaac Levitan
In 1873, at the age of thirteen, Isaac Levitan began studying drawing at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. After his father died in 1877, Isaac and his older brother were able to continue their schooling through scholarships. The boy spent a year in "copying" class (copying museum paintings). The bored teenager switch to "naturalistic" class (drawing plaster casts of body parts), which also bored him, so he switched again, this time to landscape class--each move considered a step down the hierarchy of art studies at the time. Nonetheless, Levitan began displaying his work about 1877, receiving positive reviews and critical acclaim for his landscapes. However, after someone tried to blow up the Alexander II in 1879, Levitan became part of a mass deportation of Jews from Moscow. It was a year later, only after the influential art collector, Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov (founder of Moscow's present-day Tretyakov Museum), purchased his 1879 landscape, Autumn Day (right), that Levitan was allowed to return.

Spring in Italy, 1890, Isaac Levitan. Italy seems to have loosened
his technique and brightened Levitan's palette.
Bridge, Savvinskaya Sloboda, 1884, Isaac Levitan
From that point on, Levitan moved among the highest circles of the Russian art world, eventually becoming acquainted with the Chekhov brothers, Nicolay (the painter) and Anton (the playwright). He is said to have had a crush on their sister, Maria Pavlovna Chekhova. In any case, he worked for their illustrated magazine, Moscow, while also illustrating Fabritsius' edition Kremlin and creating scenery for a private Moscow opera company. As a painter, Levitan seldom, if ever, painted urban scenes. He preferred the quiet countryside, and only sparsely populated portions of it at that. There are seldom any human figures in any of his landscapes and only meager evidence of human presence of any kind. As the phrase "mood landscape" suggests, his paintings were, indeed, moody. By the turn of the century when he died at the age of forty, Levitan had earned a degree of international fame, his work standing apart from that of other landscape painters for the very reason it appeals so much to me. The landscape was Russian. The painter was Russian, but his paintings seem to have a fairly un-Russian, universal quality and appeal to them.

Water Lilies, 1895, Isaac Levitan

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