Isaac Ilych Levitan
Isaac Ilych Levitan
The work of Isaac Ilych Levitan (1860—1900) belongs to highest achievements of Russian culture. An incomparable poet of his native land, who, as the painter Konstantin Yuon said, “felt in all its intensity the unutterable fascination of the word Motherland, in his pictures he managed to convey his love towards it, simple and plain, beautiful in its frankness.
As if summing up and accumulating in his work many achievements and the most valuable features of landscape painting of the last century, Levitan at the same time raised it to the level which became a point of departure for many finest Russian painters of our century. Not only does his work retain its historic value; it is also actual in our days as well, when on our ability to assert in art and in the life itself real culture of feelings, intimate attention toward earth depends the fate of civilization.
Levitan’s life was sad and happy. It was sad, for, as only too often was the fate of poets and artists in Russia, he was granted only a short spell of life, and in the course of his incomplete forty years of life he experienced poverty, homeless orphanhood, national humiliation, and injustice.
The most important basis of his artistic searches became the traditions of asserting, by means of art, intimate relations of the man and nature, „sympathizing with it“, which were characteristic for the Moscow culture of those days.
In his elegiac, sad picture, A Day in Autumn. Sokolniki (1879), he achieved a degree of „humanization11, spiritualization of painterly essence probably unprecedented for Russian painting. It was no chance that Pavel Tretyakov, the founder of the national picture gallery, acquired this picture.
Still more clearly manifested became specific features of Levitan’s talent in his works of the early and mid-eighties. Shown at exhibitions of the Companionship of Movable Painting Exhibitions, they stood out in that according to the words of a contemporary, „they were delicate, fresh and, at the same time, vivid, compared with landscapes of the leading painters of the older generation”.
Usually quite small in size and modest in motifs, they were chiefly devoted to Levitan’s favourite season, spring, and in rendering light and air combined frankness of a sketch, which was almost impressionistic, with a certain melodiousness and spirituality (The First Greenery, 1883; Small Bridge. Savvinskaya Village, 1884, and others).
This concept, being at first the translation loan of the German term „Stimmung Landschaft”, gained a very important meaning in our culture of that day, for it stated the wish of best among Russian people, characteristic for the „crepuscular” period of the reign of Alexander III, to oppose the system of pure, natural feelings that unite man to the beauty and music of nature, to the abnormal reality. Similar moods and corresponding system of images appeared in literature, in philosophy, in pedagogics and, of course, in visual arts of that day. However, it was just Levitan’s work and his own charming personality which, for many of his contemporaries, became an ideal example of this type of spiritual culture.
Alexander Benois, an outstanding painter and historian of art, recollected that „only when Levitan’s pictures appeared did I believe the beauty of Russian nature… The cold dome of her sky turned to be beautiful, her twilight beautiful… as well as scarlet glow of setting sun, and brown rivers in spring… All the lines are beautiful, even the calmest and the simplest ones“.
Having something in common with Arnold Boecklin’s picture, The Island of the Dead, famous at that time, and expressing sad, melancholy feelings which were indeed characteristic of Levitan, the „monumental elegy“ Above the Eternal Peace does not, at the same time, possess a feeling of despair and a lack of will to live. The artist himself wrote in one of his letters that he loved nature too much to be a pessimist.
And indeed, in the middle of 1890s, clouds seem to dissipate in his works, and the artist creates a number of masterprieces distinguished by a certain elevation of style, a vital, optimistic pathos [March; Fresh Wind; Golden Autumn, all of them painted in 1895; and others). The artist devotes many of his works of that period to blossoming of nature; he paints beautiful still lives which became probably the highest achievement of the Russian painting of 1890s in this genre, and were somewhat akin to Edouard Manet’s still lives. Levitan’s graphical works of the 1890s are also very interesting.
Among his works were those in which, according to Anton Chekhov’s words, „a passionate thirst for life“ characteristic of him was rendered in a highly expressive form (Stormy Day, 1897; The Last Sunrays; 1899; and others).
The chief direction of the artist’s search in his last years of life was the endevour to reach the maximum degree of generalization of his impressions of nature and comprehending its essence, which is achieved by a highly precise and spiritual revelation of the essence of the „real life“. According to the words of a critic, Levitan in his late years “tried to monumentalize the earth’s breathing”.
One of the best embodiments of these aspirations ecame his unfinished painting, The Lake (1899— 1900).