“What can be more tragic than to feel the boundlessness of the surrounding beauty and to be able to see in its underlying mystery… and yet to be aware of your own inability to express these large feelings”
~ Isaak Levitan.
Isaak Levitan was born in 1860 in Kibarty, a small town in Lithuania, to the family of a blue-collar railroad worker. From 1873 to 1885 he attended the Moscow College of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture in Moscow, Russia. He studied under the famous Russian painters Savrasov and Polenov. From 1884 he displayed his paintings with the Society for Circulating Art Exhibitions* and became a member of the Society in 1891. From 1898 Levitan taught landscape painting at the Moscow College of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture.
In 40 years of his life, Isaak Levitan painted many landscapes which were later recognized to be among the finest masterpieces of Russian art. Levitan never looked for exotic and pretentious subjects for his paintings but remained faithful to simple poetic motifs of his native land. The natural simplicity of motif and composition of Levitan’s landscapes is a hallmark of his artistic genius.
It was evident from the very outset of Levitan’s career that he had an extraordinary ability to awaken deep human feelings by the means of landscape painting. Although people usually are not present on his canvases, his landscapes unfailingly speak of humanity. Levitan’s paintings tell us something about ourselves, as they touch the chords of our inner spirit. Nature is always presented in them through the prism of very personal human experience. Therefore Levitan’s landscapes are often called philosophical and psychological. The complexity of the human soul and the destiny of man can be rightfully considered the true subjects of his paintings.
In his early years, Levitan painted views of various places in the Moscow area. One of the best works from this period is “Autumn day. Sokolniky.” This early canvas is the artist’s elegy to the gray autumn day in one of the Moscow parks.
During the second period of his artistic career, Levitan was drawing his inspiration from the Volga. The painter spent several summers in a row on the banks of the great Russian river. Plyos, a small town on the Volga, was undoubtedly Levitan’s favorite spot. Levitan painted greatly multiform canvases which served as an invaluable contribution to the advancement of realistic landscape painting in Russia.
From 1892 to 1895 Levitan divided his time between the towns of Vladimir, Vyshny Volochek, and the Tver region. The works of this period are considered to be the most powerful philosophical reflections of the painter on the destiny of man. The canvas “Deep Waters” conjures up images of folk tales about the drowned. “The Vladimirka Road” depicts the route which was customarily used for leading prisoners to exile in the Siberia. “The Eternal Rest” speaks of the irreconcilable dualism of life and death. But not all the paintings of this period present such a grim perspective on human destiny. A joyous hymn of life is heard in such works as “March,” “The Fresh Wind. The Volga,” and “The Golden Autumn.”
The last large canvas by Levitan is titled “The Lake. Russ.” Perhaps this monumental work finds a parallel in Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto. The artist’s goal in the painting was to create an image that would be a summation of all, that from the artist’s point of view, was characteristically Russian: the great expanses of land and water, the white silhouettes of churches, the great clouds driven by the wind, and the rustling reeds. The canvas remained unfinished. The work on it was stopped by the painter’s death. Isaak Levitan was buried at the Novodevichiye cemetery in Moscow.
The famous Russian opera singer Fyodor Shalyapin, a friend of Levitan’s, spoke of the art of the painter:
“It has brought me to the realization that the most important thing in art is this feeling, this spirit, this prophetic world that sets people’s hearts on fire. And this prophetic world can be expressed not only in speech and gesture but also in line and color.”