Dmitry Levitsky was one of the first Russian artists of the post-Petrine time, who, during his lifetime, achieved a high profile of glory, which in the 18th century was not easy for the Russian master. At that time, even the third-rate Western masters, many of which flooded Russia, met with worship and honor, their work was in great demand, they were given mountains of gold, while Russian artists remained in the shadows and received for their works a pittance. This situation was explained not only by the ignorance of titled sponsors, who alone had the opportunity to buy works of art. It was explained also by that ingrained glance that Russian masters can only be imitators and timid students of the West.
Dmitry Levitsky. European artists who have come to Russia since Peter’s time, as well as trained Russian pensioners abroad, played a certain role in bringing Russia closer to Western culture: by their experience they accelerated the process of cultural change that began in the 16th-17th centuries and was realized at the turn of the 18th century century. But this did not mean at all that from that moment Russian culture lost its identity and was condemned to the role of “provincial reflection” of the great destinies of world art. This deeply erroneous view, unfortunately, was shared not only by grandees of the XVIII century, he lived among a certain circle of people until very recently. Meanwhile, post-Petrine art is quite a unique phenomenon, and therefore has exceptional value in the history of world culture. The work of the famous portraitist Levitsky is one of the brilliant examples of the high heyday of Russian art in the second half of the 18th century.
Dmitry Grigorievich Levitsky was born in 1735 in the Ukraine. The artist’s father, Grigory Kirillovich, was an outstanding engraver. He belonged to the so-called “Kyiv-Lviv” engraving school, which worked in the style of Western art. Father was the first teacher of drawing the future portraitist. According to his collection of engravings, young Levitsky became acquainted with European art. But his fate was determined by the arrival in Kiev (1752) of the Russian artist A. Antropov, who was sent from St. Petersburg to paint the St. Andrew’s Cathedral, just built according to the drawings of the famous St. Petersburg architect B. Rastrelli. Antropov guessed the talent in the son of a well-known engraver; his young Levitsky began to learn painting, and after Antropov left for Petersburg (1756) he himself moved there. This was a lucky chance for the young artist not only because the meeting with Antropov brought him to the vastness of great art, but also because in Antropov he found a master close to him in his artistic aspirations: in the portraits of Antropov, the same strong sense of truth , which will become the main in the work of Levitsky himself; The development of this feeling, he certainly was indebted to Antropov.
Upon his arrival in St. Petersburg, Levitsky continued to study with Antropov. Later he attended classes of some academic teachers – the Frenchman Lagrene and the Venetian decorator-perspectivist Valeriani.
In 1770, at the academic exhibition appeared the first portraits of Levitsky, immediately glorified him. For the portrait of the architect Kokorinov, he received the title of academician and from 1771 began to teach in the portrait class of the Academy.
From that moment, Levitsky was swamped with orders. He is posed by the most eminent nobles.
Levitsky also writes his friends, and it is in these portraits that his clever, sometimes slightly mocking truthfulness, the depth of his psychological insight, is revealed to the fullest. These same features penetrate into the lush noble portraits, thrilling life with stiff poses and smiles.
The first order made by Levitsky Catherine II was portraits of the pupils of the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens that she had just founded.
In 1773-1776, Levitsky wrote the famous series Smolnyannok. These portraits, at first glance, seem to be ceremonial: the girls are depicted as tall, full-sized, often against the backdrop of lush draperies, columns or parks; with inimitable craftsmanship, a glittering atlas of their magnificent clothes was handed over, but in this splendor there is nothing stiff: the movements of the girls are light and graceful. Nelidova and Borshchova stopped for a moment in the minuet, slyly and cheerfully grinning at the spectator.
Particularly successful Levitsky portrait Khovanskaya and Khrushchev, dressed as a shepherd and shepherdess. This group, so common in the eighteenth century, took on a very special character here: Levitsky emphasizes her disguise, especially in a girl disguised as a shepherd who is much lower than her “lady” and therefore seems very amusing. The artist admires the awkward grace of a teenager: the hand of a cowherd boy is timidly pressed to a skirt and as if does not know what to do; her face is struck by her unexpected seriousness, which betrays the child’s inability to play a flirtatious cowherd boy. So, through the refined secular grace of Levitsky breaks fresh and keen sense of life.
Brightly, it affects the portrait of M. Diakova-Lvova (1778). Here the skill of the artist reaches a higher limit: his richest understanding of color blossoms in full, allowing him to catch barely noticeable shades. Like Smol’nyanka, Lviv is depicted in a graceful movement: her head bends to her shoulder like a flower on a thin stem. In this portrait, the beauty of the young creature, illuminated by the smile of happiness and gullibility with which it enters life, is even more vividly felt.
The same Lvov was written by Levitsky once again in 1781. Although only three years have passed, but in her pose more self-confidence, more habit to the salon; this is already a mature woman, intelligent, slightly mocking; In the corners of her lips, narrow creases were already hiding – a hint of disappointment. She could tell about her early portrait with the words of Tatiana in Pushkin, with a longing for the time when she was “younger and better, it seems, was.”
The full-blooded sense of life is manifested in Levitsky and in the parade portrait of Demidov, the largest rich man and grandee (1773), who is depicted as tall, against the backdrop of a magnificent curtain and solemn columns of the Educational House built on his means. And yet Demidov is quite simple with Levitsky: he stands in a careless pose, in a dressing-gown, in a nightcap; His hand points not at the Educational House, but on the pots of flowers; watering can and onion on the table complete his characterization as a passionate lover of botany.
French educator Diderot, who came to Russia in 1773, Levitsky depicted without a wig, in a home dressing gown, without any luxuriant ornaments. This portrait is undeniably the best among the picturesque images of the great encyclopaedist; apparently, he himself recognized this, as his daughter bequeathed (now he is in Geneva).
One of the deepest images of Levitsky – the old man, probably the father of the artist, whom he wrote from memory, ten years after his death (1779). He has been wise for years, still looking thoughtfully into the surrounding with teary eyes, tired and from the life and from the hard work of an engraver.
Almost Gogol’s smile glows in the portrait of Bakunin (1782). The frivolous lady-landowner is shown with all the frankness here, cheerful and hot-handed, disheveled and slovenly, bloated in rich village grub, with a reddened nose and even a brilliant flare on its tip, indicative of hospitable dinners. In the transfer of the physical health of this woman, Levitsky reaches almost the rubensovo grove, remaining, however, alien to pathos. In the same year, yugda was written Bakunin, eoznik and one of the most “salon” portraits of Levitsky –
Ursula Mniszek, a glossy socialite, with cold, glassy-green eyes, a bruised porcelain linden and nothing expressive of a smile. The portrait is built on the same combination of pink and greenish shades as the first portrait of Lviv, but here they acquired a special china voice.
Strangely enough, but the elements of salon affectation penetrated the portrait of the daughter of Levitsky – Agash, depicted in a Russian national costume, in a pink pottery and kokoshnik, against the background of a simple room (1786).
Such is the complex character of Levitsky’s creativity, as in the mirror that reflected Catherine’s aristocratic Russia and its noble life, and the festive ecstasy of life, and at the same time the birth of a new concept of man, about a human person whose value is determined not by dignity and not by title. It is the latter that makes up the unfading value of Levitsky’s art. Meanwhile his glory passed quickly; By the end of the eighteenth century, his work was growing less and less, with Paul almost in disgrace; since 1788, he does not teach in academic classes on the weakness of health.
The last twenty years of the artist’s life were in oblivion, poverty and disease. Although the need made him return to the academy in 1807, he did not play any role there. Almost blind, a year before his death, which followed in 1822, Levitsky went to his homeland.