Progression of Art
Autumn Day, Sokolniki
This work, painted when Levitan was 19, was the first acquired by the patron Tretyakov. It relies on a simple but effective compositional arrangement, with the two convergent lines formed by the edges of the path meeting those of the tree-line in the center of the canvas. The two reflecting triangles accentuate the depth of the composition and suggest the loneliness of the scene. The colors, though muted, are warm, and divided into a subtle spectrum: first, the bright hues of the grass and the path, then the golden yellow of the small and younger trees, behind them the higher trees, with their brown-green leaves, and finally, the blue of the sky.
In the foreground, the lady in black captures the eye. In a sense she is the subject of the painting, yet Levitan only added her later on, on the suggestion of his friend Nikolai Chekhov, who could not conceive of a work without human figures. Throughout the preparatory process of plein air sketching, Levitan focused on only the landscape, completing a number of drafts before finishing the canvas in the studio. In this sense, the landscape itself is the subject of the work. The viewer is struck first by the naturalism of the scene, still revolutionary at the time, and by the scale of the trees stretching upwards to the sky. The subtle formal arrangement might also seem to symbolize the passage of time, with the eye drawn upwards from the younger trees to the higher, darker trees, touching the white eternity. A strong emotion of sorrow is conveyed through the desolation of the setting, which would have been enhanced by the empty bench had the woman not been added. Still doubtful and insecure in his talent, perhaps, Levitan conceded to his friend, adding a romantic detail and a more anecdotal touch to the work.
Sokolniki is a park outside of Moscow where Levitan had settled for a time with his sister, having been expelled from Moscow as a Jew following the failed assassination attempt of Tsar Alexander II by a Jewish revolutionary. Dejected and lonely, we can imagine Levitan's feelings as he walked among the trees making sketches for this painting. The work was exhibited at a Moscow School exhibition, where it is said to have angered Levitan's mentor Savrasov, who found the woman "unnecessary". Nevertheless, the collector Tretyakov purchased the work and started to follow Levitan's career.
Oil on canvas - Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
This painting depicts a forest of birch trees on a sunny day. Small touches of bright yellow contrast with specks of dark green, heightening the luminosity of the canvas. The white of the trunks stands out, punctuating the landscape with vertical lines. Purple dots sprinkle the grass. Opting for an eye-level perspective, Levitan only includes a portion of the forest canopy, cutting off the treetops and much of the foliage, while suggesting their presence by depicting the light passing through to mottle the meadow beneath. The human's eye view invites us into the painting, as if we were experiencing the sensory pleasures of the birch grove firsthand. It took Levitan about four years to finish this small canvas. But despite the years of thought and corrections poured into the final outcome, the painting radiates with freshness and a sense of immediacy.
We can sense the influence of Impressionist techniques on the work, in particular Levitan's admiration for Camille Corot. Like Corot, Levitan captured the delicate beauty of light passing through foliage using small, quivering brushstrokes and precise gradations of colors. But the subject-matter, while comparable to the sylvan scenes of the Barbizon School or Impressionist milieux, is subtly nationalistic. The birch tree is often taken as a symbol of the beauty of the Russian countryside, and the artist made a conscious choice in selecting it.
Levitan's birch grove captured nature in its brilliant, sensory and emotional appeal, and inspired future artists. Gustav Klimt may have had this work in mind when composing his early landscapes, which seem to share compositional traits and motifs with Levitan's work. The work is also significant in suggesting the youthful joy of the artist; Levitan started to work on it at a positive point in his career, before the tribulations of his final decade.
Oil on canvas - Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
The Vladimir Road
This painting represents the Vladimirka or Vladimir Road leading east out of Moscow to the city of Vladimir. It was by chance that Levitan first discovered the road while out hunting with his mistress Sofia. Taken by the starkness of the scene, he decided to depict it. He painted it as he first saw it: empty and desolate, on a cloudy day. The composition is quite simple, with the horizon line dividing the canvas and crossing in its center the vertical line of the road. The latter is flanked by beaten footpaths on each side. The meandering of footprints is somewhat reflected in the light swirling movement of the clouds above, but this is a dreary landscape overall. The female character waiting in the middle distance recalls a sense of human presence, but underlines at the same time the vast stillness and loneliness of the place.
The subject was an emotive one for artists and free thinkers of Levitan's generation. The Vladimir Road was a historically charged location, used since the middle of the eighteenth century for transporting convicts from Moscow to Siberia, where they would be put to hard labor. In Russian artistic vocabulary, the road is associated with misery, imprisonment, and death. By choosing to depict it, Levitan immortalized the thousands of wretched outcasts who had marched along the Vladimir Road towards exile. He may have identified with them as someone who had himself been a beggar, forced to live on the fringes of society, and also as a man discriminated against and twice banned from Moscow for being Jewish.
Through the emptiness of the scene, and through the road that seems to open out to infinity, the artist conveys a strong feeling of despair which is at the same time an expression of compassion. Despite tapping into these elemental human emotions, the work is unusual in its rootedness in historical reference. Perhaps for this reason, Levitan ended up losing interest in it, and gave it for free to Tretyakov.
Oil on canvas - Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Above the Eternal Peace
This work is one of Levitan's most famous. It shows from a bird's eye view a church on a hill, overlooking the bank of a vast lake. There is a graveyard next to the church and a small island in the middle of the water. The lake is immense, still and peaceful, evenly painted in bright white, contrasting with the fresh green of the grass on the hill. The horizon line divides the canvas into two equal spaces, separating the air above from the land and the water below, but it is the huge sky that dominates. It is rendered in three different colors: a yellow-white for the dying light of the sun, purplish for the clouds that hint at the encroaching evening, and darker colors suggesting an approaching storm. It is a mighty, beautiful, imposing sky.
Although the landscape depicted is that of Crimea, the church on the hill is from Plyos, in the Volga region. Levitan had sketched it previously and reproduced it here to enhance the mood of the work. In a letter to Chekhov from Crimea in 1886, Levitan wrote: "Last evening I climbed up a cliff and looked down at the sea from the top - I started to sob, and sobbed violently; that was eternal beauty, that was where a human being felt his own utter insignificance!" This statement suggests something of the transportive quality of the painting itself. Elevated above a comfortable viewing position, we face nature and the elements alone. The sky is, in the truest sense, sublime, almost threatening in its immensity, yet simultaneously soothing in its beauty, filling the viewer with an overwhelming wave of emotion. One is led to contemplate the power of nature and what may lie beyond it. The graveyard on earth symbolizes the impermanence of life and the powerlessness of human beings set against the immutable force of nature. We might note that the sky is not reflected in the water, as if to suggest the imperviousness of the heavens to the scene below.
While working on this painting, the artist would often ask his lover Sofia Petrovna to play the piano, especially a "March Funebre" from Beethoven's Heroic Symphony, upon which tears would come to his eyes. Levitan, not a Realist painter, permeated this work with his emotion, imbuing it with highly philosophical and lyrical qualities. Writing to Tretyakov, who purchased it, Levitan declared: "I am all in it, with all my mind". Some historians have also seen in this painting a nationalist paean to the beauty of the Russian wilderness.
Oil on canvas - Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
In the Alps in the Spring
This painting is one of the few works which Levitan dedicated to European landscapes across his career. Created while he was undergoing medical treatment in Courmayeur, a resort in Italy, the scene depicted is divided into three areas of terrain: the mountains in the background, the green valleys in the middle, and the flat plains in the foreground. A different color predominates in each section: bright white for the snowy peaks, dark green for the trees and grass on the slopes, and lighter green for the grass. In the very center of the canvas, at the bottom of the valley, a small hamlet stands out against the immensity, a cloud of smoke rising from it.
This painting translates the depth of emotion felt by Levitan when he saw the Alps for the first time: "Here I am at the foot of Mont Blanc and my heart is throbbing with admiration! It is so high, so far and so beautiful! Climb the top of Mont Blanc and touch the sky!" The artist was truly astounded by the scale and magnificence of the mountains, and something of this comes across through their placement high up on the canvas, leaving only a small segment of sky, as if the mountains had conquered it. The tiny size of the human settlement below enhances the sense of wonder conveyed by the vast peaks beyond.
If the mountains seem threatening in their awesome size, the fresh green of the valleys in the foreground, and the presence of the hamlet, makes this a less austere scene, and suggests an interest in human life and renewal. This is spring, after all, season of renewal, and water is melting from the peaks into the land, running in rivers across the plain. Given that Levitan was in Courmayeur for treatment of the heart condition that would eventually kill him, the spirit of hope and affirmation conveyed by this work is especially poignant.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
This is one of Levitan's last works, executed in the year of his death. The formal qualities of the painting are striking, suggesting a late, experimental turn in his style. The canvas, a rectangle of cardboard, is divided into three bands of color: green, blue and grey. The darker green verticals and red dots towards the top of the green stripe impose themselves clearly enough to relay the presence of a landscape, but not clearly enough to override the strong sense of abstract, formal arrangement.
In the last part of his career, Levitan created several works depicting haystacks. This one seems to be the final expression of the effect he was trying to achieve. With works such as Haystacking, Levitan reached an extreme stylization and simplification of form and color. His last paintings indicate his knowledge of and debt to the Impressionists, especially Monet. Indeed, the motif of the haystack clearly recalls the older French painter. However, the Russian remained truthful to his emotionally invested approach to landscape painting, and was not interested in the scientific side of Impressionist lighting. The result is a strange and solemn work, with a mood and formal appeal all of its own, almost suggesting the bold and distinct color plains of Post-Impressionist movements such as Synthetism.
Despite its radical formal simplicity, this is a striking and well-balanced work. The layout of the colors and their modulation create a great sense of depth; and there is no deletion of the landscape, no absence of subject. It gives a tantalizing hint as to how Levitan's work might have developed had his career not been cut short by his early death in 1900.
Oil on cardboard - Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow