From the portraiture and the religious works of the 16th century Italian painter Giovanni Battista Moroni I am moving in a completely different direction. I am focusing on the Russian Empire and one of, if not the greatest Russian landscape painter of the nineteenth century. Today let me introduce you to Isaac Levitan.
Isaac Ilyich Levitan was born in August 1860 in the small schetl of Kibart. A schetl is a small settlement with a large Jewish population. Kibart was close to the border town of Verzhbolovo, and was then part of what was known as Russian Poland. The town is now part of Lithuania and is known as Virbalis. Levitan was one of four children who was born into an intellectual working class Jewish family. His father, Elyashiv Levitan, was a language teacher, teaching French and German at the nearby school in Kowno (now Kaunus, Lithuania) He alaso supplemented his pay as a teacher by acting as a translator for a French building company, which was constructing a nearby bridge over the Lieponio River for the St. Petersburg to Warsaw railway. Elyashiv spent a lot of his free time educating his children at home. Both Isaac’s mother and father were interested in art and so, when their son and his brother Axel also showed an interest in it, they were only too pleased to nurture their children’s love of drawing and painting.
In the Spring of 1870 the family moved to Moscow and the following year his older brother Axel enrolled at the Moscow College of Art, Sculpture and Architecture, which was one of the largest educational institutions in Russia. Two years later, in September 1873, Isaac also registered as a pupil at the college to study art. His initial artistic training concentrated on copying but, after a year, he moved on to a class which focused on nature and art and soon he was embroiled in the genre of landscape painting, which was later to make him famous. He had first-class teachers at the college, including the landscape painters, Alexi Savrasov, the head of the landscape department, his successor, Vasily Polenov and the Realist painter Vasily Perov, who was the founder of the Peredvizhniki often known as The Wanderers or The Itinerants, who were a group of Russian realist painters who in protest at academic restrictions formed an artists’ cooperative. The group later evolved into the Society for Travelling Art Exhibitions.
Isaac loved the challenge of landscape painting and was greatly influenced by the landscape work of the Barbizon painters as well as the work of the French realist painter Camile Corot. Things were proceeding well for Isaac until 1875 when, at the age of fifteen, tragedy struck with the death of his mother and in 1877, after contracting typhus and having endured a long illness during which time he could not earn money, his father died. Now Isaac was without financial support. He had neither money to pay the college fees nor the money to live. He was asked to leave the college due to non-payment of his tuition fees but was rescued by the kindness of friends who gave him the money so that he could continue studying and later, thanks to the College Council who appreciated his talent, the tuition fees were waived and furthermore they awarded him a small bursary.
In 1877, the year that his father died, the fifth Travelling Art Exhibition was held at the Moscow College of Art. Isaac Levitan submitted two of his works with great hopes of a medal. He had completed one of the works, Solnechnyi den Vesna (A Sunny Day, Spring) the previous year, whilst his other entry, Vecher (Evening) had been completed in 1877. Levitan was disappointed in the judges’ decision. He didn’t receive a medal for either work but was granted a diploma which allowed him to become an art teacher.
The year 1879 proved to be a year of turmoil and triumph for nineteen year old Levitan. The turmoil occurred on the morning of April 20, 1879; Tsar Alexander II was attacked by a thirty-three year old former student, Alexander Soloviev, as he walked towards the Square of the Guards Staff. The result of this assassination attempt was a crackdown on groups of people who were believed to be a threat to the Tsar. The government issued an edict that there would be a mass deportation of Jews from the big cities of the Russian Empire. This meant that Isaac’s family were forced to move out of the centre of Moscow to the eastern suburb of Saltykovka. Later that year, due to pressure on the local government officials by art lovers, Isaac Levitan was allowed to return to the city.
The triumph came that December, when Isaac entered his painting, Osenniy den Sokolniki (Autumn Day, Sokolniki) in the second students’ exhibition. Levitan liked to paint views of different settings in the Moscow area. Considered to be one of the best works of this period is his poignant work entitled Autumn Day, Sokolniki, which he completed in 1879. The painting reveals to us Levitan’s belief in the connection between nature and human feelings. The painting is a depiction of a grey-clouded autumn sky and one can imagine the rustling sound of the wind through the trees causing the dying leaves to fall to the ground. The path which disappears into the distance is the focal point of the painting. It is empty with the exception of a woman dressed in black, who strolls towards us.
This work of art by Levitan was his reminder of his joy of walking along the forest path of his beloved Sokolniki Park. The park lies to the northeast of the city and was so named because of its connection with falconry which took place there and was the favourite sport of members of the royal court (sokol is the Russian word for falcon). This work of art received great revues and the following year it was purchased by the art collector and philanthropist, Pavel Tretyakov, the founder of the famous Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. This marked the initial public recognition of Isaac Levitan and his art. The painting can now be seen at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
It was around the end of the 1870’s that Isaac Levitan met the writer Anton Chekhov. The meeting came about as Anton’s brother, Nikolai, was a fellow student of Levitan at the Moscow College of Art. This was to be a friendship which lasted all Levitan’s life.
In my next blog I will continue looking at the life of Isaac Levitan and feature some of his most important later works.