Biography of Isaac Levitan
Isaac Levitan was born on August 30, 1860 in the small town of Kibarty, now part of Lithuania but then incorporated into Congress Poland, a province of the Russian Empire. His family were Jewish, his father Ilya Abramovich the son of a rabbi and an educated man, who worked as a private French and German tutor and later as a translator for a French construction company. But the family was poor. Isaac's mother, a housewife, struggled to care for Isaac, his brother Abel, and his sisters Teresa and Emma. Nonetheless, both parents encouraged their two sons' early interest in art, and young Isaac would often escape the stresses of the family home to draw the trees and grass around the city.
Early Training and Work
In hopes of a better life the Levitan family moved to Moscow in the early 1870s. Living conditions were extremely poor, and they got used to living hand to mouth. However, the parents allowed their sons to follow their art careers. In 1873, at the age of thirteen, Isaac enrolled at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture - also called the "Art School" or the "Moscow School" - following in his brother's footsteps. The Moscow School was more modern and progressive than the Neoclassically-inclined St. Petersburg Academy. Indeed, Moscow was then at the center of a progressive movement in painting that rejected the European academic standards promoted by Russian state culture. At the School, Levitan was immediately noted for his talent. To reward him for his achievements during the academic year 1874-75, and in acknowledgement of his financial predicament, the School Board awarded him a box of paints and brushes.
In 1875, Levitan's mother died, followed in 1877 by his father. Living conditions worsened for the orphaned children. While the sisters rapidly married, and Levitan's brothers were able to find basic housing, Isaac became homeless, living almost as a beggar. Constantly hungry, he would sleep in the homes of relatives or friends, or even in the empty classrooms of the Moscow School. Starting in 1877, the School waived his tuition fees, partly "because of extreme poverty" but also in recognition of his "singular success in art". They also offered him a small stipend to purchase canvas and paints. M.V. Nesterov, a contemporary of Levitan's and fellow student at the Moscow School, recalled in his memoirs that Levitan was as well-known amongst his peers for his poverty as for his talent.
Levitan quickly showed a preference for landscape painting and soon joined the studio class of the famous landscape painter Alexei Savrasov, then considered the most advanced in the Moscow School. The enthusiastic, bold and noisy teacher encouraged his students to work outside and to study nature at first hand. He often held outdoor sessions, in the morning light of early spring. For Savrasov, the value of a painting lay not in its "photographic resemblance" but in the strength of emotion it conveyed. Levitan, like most of Savrasov's students, loved his master and was greatly influenced by him. Savrasov, for his part, favored Levitan and took a special interest in his development. Levitan discovered with Savrasov the work of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, whom he grew to love. It is said that the young Isaac taught himself French in order to read a book on Corot by Theophile Silvestre published in 1853. In spite of these creative discoveries, Isaac was remembered by his fellow students - with whom he sometimes painted on the outskirts of Moscow - as a sad young man, who had suffered too early the sorrows of orphanage and destitution.
Levitan was only sixteen when his name appeared in the press for the first time. In March 1877, two of his paintings were exhibited in the student section of the fifth show of the Peredvizhniki (the Wanderers, or the Society of Traveling Exhibitions). They were very well received: Levitan was awarded with two minor silver medals and he started to receive public recognition for his work.
In April 1879, Alexander Soloviev, a Russian Jew, attempted to assassinate Tsar Alexander II. The Empire imposed a rigorous system of censorship and repression in Russia, including stronger anti-Semitism orders. Jews were banned from big cities, and Levitan was forced to leave Moscow in May 1879. Taking refuge on the outskirts of the city at his sister's home, Levitan continued to work restlessly. Every morning, he would wander in Sokolniki Park, making sketches and studies for his painting Autumn Day, Sokolniki. A year later, Levitan was allowed to return to the Moscow School after pressure from teachers and classmates who urged officials to allow him back.
In 1880, at the second exhibition of the Moscow School, Levitan exhibited five landscapes. Pavel Tretyakov, a famous art collector known for supporting young artists including those of the Peredvizhniki, purchased Autumn Day, Sokolniki and started to follow Levitan's career carefully. The show was a great success for Levitan, who was still only twenty; he continued to participate regularly in exhibitions held by the School, as well as shows staged by the Moscow Society of Art Lovers. In 1881, Levitan received a silver medal for a model's drawing and a stipend to travel to the Volga region, one of his dreams. This region was very important for artists of the time, symbolizing the unique beauty, culture, and identity of the Russian nation. Unfortunately Isaac's sister Teresa fell ill and he was forced to spend the funds he had been given on doc¬tors' bills, postponing his trip. To supplement his income, Levitan gave private art lessons, and worked as a graphic artist and lithographer for the magazines Moskva ("Moscow"), Raduga ("Rainbow") and Volna ("Wave") magazines from 1882 to 1884.
In 1882, Levitan started to study under Vasily Polenov, a famous landscape painter associated with the Peredvizhniki movement. Polenov introduced him to the art of the Impressionists and Barbizon School, and of Western Europe more generally. During his studies under Polenov, Levitan befriended Konstantin Korovin, later considered an Impressionist, and Nikolai Chekhov, the brother of Anton Chekhov, who would become one of his closest friends. The same year that Levitan began lessons with Polenov the School was forced to dismiss his former teacher Savrasov, who had succumbed to alcoholism and was more and more often arriving late and drunk, or failing to attend the School at all. Levitan, however, continued to seek Savrasov's advice, and the two remained close until the master's death in 1897. In 1883, Levitan went to show Savrasov a painting he hoped to enter into a competition. Savrasov wrote "Big Silver Medal" on the back of the canvas and signed it. It is believed that when the School committee saw the comment of the disgraced teacher they rejected Levitan's entry. Sad and disappointed, Levitan stopped attending classes. A year later, the School committee refused to reward him a First Rank Artist grade, instead giving him a diploma of "unranked artist", only qualifying him to work as an art teacher. Levitan left the School under a cloud.
In spite of his fractious departure from the Moscow School, Levitan's career was blossoming. In early 1884, at a general meeting of the Peredvizhniki, he was accepted as a contributing member. Levitan featured as a full Peredvizhniki member for the first time in the Society's twelfth exhibition, and became known as one of the most talented of the second generation of the Wanderers, exhibiting every year with them from then on. His circle of creative compatriots at this time included Polenov, his former teacher and Levitan became a regular at Polenov's country house outside of Moscow, attending his morning watercolor sessions and evening drawing sessions. Levitan was often used as a sitter during these evening sessions, with other artists recalling his "beautiful head". Mikhail Nesterov, for example, described Levitan as "beautiful with a serious Oriental beauty", while another of his contemporaries wrote in a letter: "[y]ou had to look into his eyes. I believe I have never seen eyes so deep, dark and pensively sad." Polenov introduced Levitan and his friend Korovin to the important patron Savva Mamontov. Levitan was soon invited to evenings at Mamontov's famous house, where the industrialist had established something of a colony of progressive artists. Together with his friends Nikolai Chekhov and Viktor Simov, Levitan would create sets for Mamontov's private theater company.
During the summers Levitan, like many Russians, left the scorching city for the country. During the summer of 1885, he stayed in the village of Maksimovka, where the Chekhovs had a country house. Welcomed as a friend of Nikolai's, Levitan soon moved in with the family, and a close relationship with Anton Chekhov developed.
Over the course of his career, Levitan was very active in art circles and attended many events and gatherings at different artists' and patrons' residences in Moscow and across the country. In addition to Mamontov's evenings, he attended the Saturday soirées at the Moscow Society of Art Lovers, a meeting ground for older artists such as Polenov, Vladimir Makovsky, and Nikolai Nevrev. Levitan also frequented the famous Wednesday gatherings at the home of Vladimir Shmarovin, whose regulars included art critics, actors, and poets as well as artists. All these circles and groups were part of the early Russian avant-garde, that sought to promote a distinct Russian culture and identity in opposition to the Western cultural ideals instilled during the reign of Peter the Great. Levitan adhered closely to these ideas and remained determined throughout his career to depict the uniquely Russian beauty of his nation's landscapes.
Through the Chekhovs, Levitan met Sofia Petrovna Kuvshinikova, an amateur landscape artist married to a doctor. The two artists developed a friendship that soon grew into a romance lasting for many years. They would travel together, often with Sofia's husband, who tolerated the affair, and Levitan often asked Sofia to play the piano while he worked. It is said that the couple served as the inspiration for the main characters in The Grasshopper by Chekhov, published in 1892. Unfortunately, Isaac and Sofia were hurt by their perceived depiction in the story, leading to a rift between Chekhov and Levitan, who stopped talking to each other for some time, before reestablishing contact in 1895. Nonetheless, the correspondence between the two men reveals a very close relationship, based on mutual respect, shared emotions and ideas. Indeed, the art historian Galina Churak has posited that the artist and the author matured in parallel. Churak establishes many links between Levitan's landscape paintings and the tone and detail of Chekhov's writing.
By the mid-1880s Levitan's career was blooming, and he was able to travel quite widely. In 1886 he spent two months in the Crimea region, where he drew about 60 sketches, all of them sold at the Moscow Society of Art Lovers exhibition later in the year. Sketches were an important currency for Levitan, always retaining the traces of his first emotional responses to a scene. In 1887, he fulfilled his dream of traveling to the Volga region. He would return there almost every summer subsequently, accompanied by Sofia and visiting many cities on the river. He was especially fond of the town of Plyos, where he bought a home. During all of these trips, Levitan would work tirelessly, sketching and drawing en plein air. Indeed, he produced a huge number of works during his relatively short life. About 1000 paintings exist to this day, and as many or more drawings and sketches. Levitan was also a passionate hunter, who could reportedly spend days alone in the forest with his dog, often going without food. Once a friend even alerted the police to his absence because Levitan had been gone for so long.
Back in Moscow, Levitan would focus on his paintings and larger works. He would regularly exhibit with the Peredvizhniki group and with the Moscow Society of Art Lovers, his work always well received among artists and the public in general. In 1887, the artist Vasily Vereshchagin acquired Morning in Autumn, A Fog (1887) as a token of recognition of the young artist's professional maturity.
In 1890, Levitan traveled abroad for the first time. He visited the European cities of Berlin, Paris, Nice, Menton, Venice and Florence. He was impressed by little villages in Italy and stunned by the Alps. He kept a travel sketchbook and executed several "European" paintings. He would go again in 1894 and in 1897.
In September 1892, Jews were expelled from Moscow once more and Levitan was ordered to leave. It was only by virtue of his friends' and art collectors' pleading that he could move back home by the end of the year. An official per¬mission to return was issued to him in January 1894, thanks to the mediation of the artist Pavel Bryullov, a member of the Peredvizhniki Society Board. Levitan was 'accepted' back thanks mostly to his talent. He started to achieve international recognition at this time, with some of his paintings featuring in the World Fairs at Chicago (1892), London (1894), and Paris (1900). In 1896, he exhibited with the Munich Secession, a group loosely associated with Art Nouveau.
1895 was a year of tragedy for Levitan. He was diagnosed with a serious heart illness and was profoundly shocked. He attempted suicide twice, "as a consequence of aggravated neurasthenia" according to one of his biographers. After suffering a heart attack, he travelled abroad for medical treatment, notably spending time in an Alpine resort in Italy, where he was overwhelmed by the views of the mountains.
In 1898, he began to teach at his alma mater, the Moscow School, where he was appointed Head of the Landscape Studio, following the path of his mentors. His health condition was not getting better but he continued to work diligently, painting, sketching, drawing, and producing landscapes filled with peaceful light. He traveled and attended exhibitions, notably the opening of the 28th Peredvizhniki exhibition, where he wanted to see featured artworks by his students alongside his own. He was loved as a teacher, involving himself closely in the careers and fortunes of his pupils.
Until the end of his life, Levitan kept creating. His very late works show his awareness of new trends in international painting, and evidence of individual experiment. But his illness worsened. He died on July 22 of 1900 at the age of 39, and was buried in Moscow's Jewish cemetery. In 1941, his remains were transferred to the Novodevichy Ceremony, where he was buried next to the grave of his dear friend Anton Chekhov.
The Legacy of Isaac Levitan
Levitan is considered one of the most important artists in recent Russian history, noted in particular for his contributions to the Russian landscape genre. Like his teacher and mentor Savrasov, he placed the Russian countryside at the heart of his work at a moment when the Empire was choosing between westernization and native cultural identity. This was a striking gesture in itself. But Levitan's love for his native land conveyed itself through images of such profound, emotional and poetic depth that his contribution to the Russian landscape tradition can be seen as truly exceptional. As a teacher at the Moscow School he influenced his students, setting a new trajectory in Russian landscape painting. As his biographer Federov-Davidov wrote, "we can say without exaggeration that after Levitan, Russian landscape painting entered a new stage and acquired quite a new character."
Levitan's influence in Russia also extends across media, including film. When depictions of nature became central to Russian cinema, famous directors such as Sergei Eisenstein turned to Levitan's visual language for inspiration. A recent exhibition in Moscow included sequences from many Russian films shot in locations depicted in Levitan's paintings, or recreating the same mood as particular works of his.
This is not to say that Levitan's legacy is purely nationalistic. His gift for conveying emotion and spirituality through landscape transforms his paintings into reflections on eternity, nature, and humankind with universal resonance, adding a philosophical and phenomenological dimension to their value. His relatively short career, his unique life-path, and his enormous productivity add an element of color to his legacy.
Content compiled and written by Pich-Chenda Sar
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas
Content compiled and written by Pich-Chenda Sar
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas
First published on 20 Aug 2020. Updated and modified regularly