Isaac Levitan and His Contemporaries

Olga Atroshchenko

Magazine issue: 
#3 2010 (28)

The life story of Isaac Levitan as an artist is in many respects similar to the life stories of other graduates of the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. Most of them offspring of peasants or bankrupt merchants, and very few from noble families, they usually came to Moscow from the remote provinces practically penniless, and often, after the loss of parents, like Levitan.

Not unusually, they were brought to the school by the luck of fate: some accidentally struck up an acquaintance with a teacher from the school, as did Mikhail Nesterov with the school's inspector Konstantin Trutovsky who noticed the lad's gift for drawing. Some other students, such as Abram Arkhipov or Andrei Ryabushkin, became acquainted with former graduates who prepared them, over a short period of time, for the entrance exams. As is well known, Levitan and Konstantin Korovin enrolled at the school following in the footsteps of their elder brothers. Undoubtedly all of these artists with whom Levitan studied and later became friends — Korovin, Nesterov, Arkhipov, Nikolai Chekhov (Anton Chekhov's brother) — were naturally endowed with a brilliant and original talent.

At the time when they entered the school, however, at the age of 13 or 14, they were quite unlearned, because none had received a decent education either at home or at a regular school. Konstantin Korovin later wrote with bitterness: "Father and mother didn't care to give me even a modicum of direction"1. Even Nesterov, who was a brilliantly intellectual individual, avowed that he had to self-educate himself relentlessly. Yet, aware of the benefit of knowledge for work in art and contacts with people, they learned eagerly even when already grown-ups. Savva Mamontov, who watched with interest Fyodor Shalyapin's personal growth, was literally shaken by the incredible pace of his filling the gaps in his stock of knowledge.

Undeniably, the professional and personal development of the renowned artists in the making was in no small degree nurtured by teachers at the School, with Vasily Polenov playing a key role in that process. The artist Ilya Ostroukhov called Polenov "a great mentor", and believed it was Polenov who shaped his "creative physiognomy"2. Polenov's other students used to say the same.

Polenov taught a landscape and still-life class from 1882 to 1895 — in Levitan's words, during that time he "created a Moscow tradition of painting".3 As an educator, he continued to develop the tradition of lyrical mood-centered landscape initiated by Alexei Savrasov who was, as Korovin put it, the dearest of those who revealed to him and Levitan "the unknown as celestial bliss"4. The initiator of an Impressionist tradition of painting in the open air in Russian art, Polenov, like his predecessor, continued to foster an elevated, poetic attitude to nature. Besides, as Ostroukhov aptly put it, the experienced teacher revealed "to the Russian artist the mystery of the new power of paints and encouraged in him such boldness in plying paints which he had previously never dreamed of".5 For Polenov, the technology of painting was a serious issue — he studied changes in colour due to changes in the composition of priming, adhesive, and lighting. As is well known, Levitan the teacher to a large extent relied on Polenov's experience.

One of the few Russian painters to receive a solid university education, Polenov was fluent in several foreign languages and traveled extensively: in 1882 he brought from Palestine magnificent Oriental sketches astonishing for their novelty and originality. Even Polenov's appearance made him stand out among the school's teachers: always well-groomed, prim, neatly dressed, and politely addressing his students as "mister", he won over hearts and minds — in Alexander Golovin's words, as "a thoroughly erudite, cultured, caring and kindly person"6.

In 1888, the Polenov family — his mother Maria Alexeevna, who had a talent for painting and literature, his sister Yelena Polenova, who was a gifted artist, and his wife Natalya, who dreamed of becoming a painter too and studied at the school — settled in a two-storey house belonging to a Ms. Frolova, on Krivo-kolenny lane, Moscow. In this home full of beautiful furniture, paintings on the walls, a large library and collections of antiquities put together by the artist's father Dmitry Polenov during his time as a diplomat in Greece, the young artists found themselves in a world of art and sublime beauty. "The drawing-room in Polenov's home," wrote Korovin, "was especially elegantly appointed. There were old Oriental fabrics hanging, some curious looking jars, weapons, costumes. He brought all this from the Orient. All this looked so much unlike our poverty. And back in my room in Sushchevo, I could not but notice the great difference between here and there."7 Leonid Pasternak also mentioned the distinctive comfort in the house, the never-ending engaging conversations proceeding in an atmosphere of calm and ease during an evening tea party at the round table, about the warm welcome he received. "When I became friendly with him and was accepted into his family," recalled Ostroukhov, "I joined not a group of artists but a family of artists, for everyone whom I found there — both the family members and those from outside the family — were connected by solid ties of spiritual, artistic kinship. Somehow I too started to feel myself at once as an equal member; the same happened to every other companion — Korovin, Serov, Maria Yakunchikova, Levitan and others."8

It was Polenov who first introduced the young artists to the French Impressionists, showing them photographs of the works of contemporary Western European masters, kept in big leather-bound albums; it was in Polenov's home that they first saw photographs of Vasnetsov's murals in the St. Volodymyr's Cathedral in Kiev.9

Thanks to Polenov's recommendations, they had a chance to see Sergei Tretyakov's and Mikhail Botkin's collections of Western European art, as well as landscapes by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Charles-Francois Daubigny and other Barbizon artists, and the refined compositions of Mariano Fortuny, Jules Bastien-Lepage's masterpiece "Rural Love" (1882, now in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts),  and Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret's composition "Blessing of the Young Couple before Marriage" (18801881, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts), which astonished viewers with the "unparalleled rendering of sunlight and reflections in a lit room".10

In 1884 Polenov introduced his favourite students Isaac Levitan and Konstantin Korovin to his friend, the patron of the arts Savva Mamontov. Very respectful of teamwork and, at the same time, eager to give his wards an opportunity to earn some money, he recommended them to Mamontov as stage designers for the Russian Private Opera Company. Theatre held so strong a sway over Korovin that, starting from the 1900s and up to his departure from Russia, he served as the head of the stage design department at the Imperial Theatres in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In Levitan's life, theatre work remained a fleeting episode of little importance. Having created a few independent croquis and several paintings using as their basis Viktor Vasnetsov's sketches for Alexander Dargomyzhsky's opera "The Mermaid", the master of landscape painting never again returned to theatre work, although the production was a triumphant success and the public applauded the sets, for the first time in the history of opera.11 Nor did Levitan become a regular in Mamontov's circle of artists, although he was undoubtedly fond of the hospitable owners of the home in Abramtsevo and the new friends he made there, such as Serov and Ostroukhov. Probably the reason was his weak health, with frequent bouts of melancholy and depression, which caused him to prefer isolation. According to Sergei Vinogradov, "during the last decade his heart ailment made him feel strongly depressed," and because of this "he worked no more than two hours per day, although he never skipped a day"12.

Undeniably, the artistic ambiance with its special "cult of chivalry and beauty" which Polenov and Mamontov nurtured around them must have left its imprint. So, Ostroukhov and Nesterov, largely emulating Polenov and Mamontov, put together valuable art collections, which later formed the basis of museums.13 Thanks to these people, Vinogradov refined his artistic tastes to such a level that he became an essential assistant and consultant for Mikhail Morozov in his acquisition of works of contemporary Western European artists. It was perhaps partly due to them that Levitan was regarded by his students as an engaging and very educated person with aristocratic manners. And in terms of his appearance, too, the renowned landscapist, as his contemporary Vinogradov remarked, "led a beautiful life never matched by a single artist from his generation"14.

The lessons in industry and friendship — the qualities cultivated in these families — left their stamp. Yelena Polenova wrote in one of her letters: "When I and the others draw and paint when we assemble in our or Mamontov's home, it cannot be called work. In fact, the allure and benefit of these meetings lies not in what is created there but in the assembly of people who share the same occupation. Exchange of impressions and ideas is more important than the work itself."15 It is well known that Polenov, while very severe on himself, was always heedful and extremely delicate when passing judgment on his students' works. He is known to have often told that he "himself wanted to learn" from Korovin and Serov. Especially attentive and caring during the initial period of their independent careers, their teacher felt great satisfaction when their works met with recognition and success at exhibitions. One of Polenov's wife's letters contains this passage: "Today [Vasily], very excited, juried a competition on the Dmitrovka. Anton received a prize for Verushka's portrait, and Korovin, for the 'Tea-table' and a landscape. [Vasily] is the happiest of men, his joy as great as theirs..."16

Polenov was equally elated when his young friends started exhibiting at the shows arranged by the "Peredvizhniki" (the Wanderers), and then joined that society. Of all the young artists, Levitan was the first to exhibit at a "Peredvizhniki" show — he displayed, in 1884, views of Zvenigorod. He was granted membership in the society only in 1891, for a series of compositions created from sketches made on the Volga River; Ostroukhov was granted membership in the same year, after he accomplished his famous piece "Siverko" (1891, Tretyakov Gallery).

All the members of the Polenov family admired the brilliant and singular gift of Levitan. Yelena Polenova's letters contain especially many expressions of admiration: "Today our Sunday meeting was attended by two new persons: Vasily's students Levitan and Korovin. Levitan is that [young artist] whose sketches Vasily and Natasha liked so much. Korovin painted with oil (while he was alone), and Levitan made a watercolour — an impromptu — a sheer delight! And they are so young, fresh, believing in the future. There was such a strong whiff of the new and the good emanating from them."17 One would assume that Yelena Polenova is writing about Levitan's watercolour piece "Jewish Woman in an Oriental Wrap" — she shared the sitter with Levitan (both pieces, from 1884, are now at the Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve near Tula). Sometimes Levitan attended the ceramics Thursdays that she organized. One of the souvenirs left from that period is an elegant picture on a tile called "Autumn" (1880s, Polenov Museum-Reserve). Although painting over enamel was a technique new for the artist, in this piece, as in the others, he skillfully conveyed the melancholy poetic mood of the autumnal forest.

It is also likely that the sketches that Levitan gifted to the talented lady painter laid a foundation for the remarkable tradition of exchanging artwork, due to which many of the artists put together collections of pictures. Thus, in one of the letters she writes: "Today I received two sketches from Levitan and one from Tretyakov"18. Perhaps one of the sketches mentioned was Levitan's early piece "Entry Road to a Village" (1884), displayed at the commemorative exhibition along with other pieces from the Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve near Tula. This museum holds quite a lot of the master's works: nine paintings and three drawings accomplished at the drawing evenings at the Polenovs'.

Levitan presented to Polenov his magnificent compositions with views of the Crimea, expressing his gratitude for Polenov's tireless moral and material support. The Polenov family believed that Polenov paid a part of the expenses needed for the young artist's visit to the Crimea. Vasily Polenov was very fond of those sketches, confident that "neither Aivazovsky, nor Lagorio, nor Shishkin, nor Myasoedov have produced images of the Crimea so truthful and distinctive as Levitan" 19. In the last, and most difficult, period of Levitan's life the relationship between him and Polenov became especially close. Polenov wrote to the terminally ill artist letters full of words of consolation and encouragement, and often invited him to his country house called Borok, in a scenic location near the Oka river. In 1900, not long before his death, Levitan presented to his teacher and friend his last work — a small sketch "Felled Forest Trees. Logpiles" (1897, Polenov Museum-Reserve) with a touching inscription, "from loyal Levitan".

Isaac Levitan, who was, in Mikhail Nesterov's words, "beautiful with a serious Oriental beauty" was frequently used as a sitter at the evening drawing sessions in Polenov's house. Nearly every participant of the assemblies had recollections about "drawing and painting his beautiful head". Some of the graphic images of Levitan in Bedouin clothes, which Polenov brought from Palestine, have survived. The drawings created by Polenov, Valentin Serov, Nesterov and Sergei Ivanov in 1887 feature him in a wrap. In Sergei Vinogradov's, Dmitry Shcherbinovsky's and Sergei Ivanov's drawings made in 1889, Levitan wears a turban. And Polenov's oil sketch of Levitan used for the image of Christ in the painting called "Dreams" (1894, Radishchev State Art Museum, Saratov) was probably made in 1887. In 1891 Polenov created a superb portrait of Levitan (now in a private collection), often mentioned by Nesterov in a letter to his family20.

But the best image of Levitan was produced by Valentin Serov, who portrayed the artist in his studio (1893, Tretyakov Gallery). This portrait matches a verbal description of Levitan delivered by another one of the artist's contemporaries, Fyodor Shalyapin. "You had to look into his eye," wrote the great singer. "I believe I have never seen eyes so deep, dark and pensively sad. Every time I sing on stage [Anton] Rubinstein's romance to Pushkin's lyrics — "Didyou behold in dark of forest leaf The bard of love, the singer of his sadness?" I nearly always think of Levitan. It is he who walks in a forest and listens to sad and sim ple sounds of a pipe. It is he the bard of love, the singer of sadness. It is he who saw a little church, a trail in a forest, a lonely arboret, the curve of a river, the wall of a monastery — but the sad eyes of dear Levitan did not look at it formally. No, he gave a sigh on the trail, and near the belfry, and near the lonely arboret, and he gave a sigh in the clouds too."21

Mikhail Nesterov, who felt a special spiritual and artistic affinity with Levitan, considered that the talented painter "showed us the humility and the mystery hidden inside every Russian landscape — its soul, its charm.".22 Fyodor Malyavin too had something interesting to say about Levitan's art. As recounted by Igor Grabar, he said. "Malyavin tried to persuade me to stop painting landscapes: 'but can't you understand that no one should paint landscapes after Levitan. Levitan painted everything, and he painted it all so well that neither you nor anyone else can equal him. The genre of landscape is exhausted, old fellow. You're just doing a stupid thing. You've seen those landscapes at the exhibitions? Nothing but poor imitations of Levitan.'" "No matter how hard I tried to persuade him," wrote Grabar, "that neither landscapes nor portraits nor any other painting genre can cease to exist but will grow and evolve, alternatively moving up and down, he stuck to his guns. And we parted at that." 23

  1. Konstantin Korovin Reminisces... Moscow, 1971. P. 112 (hereinafter - Konstantin Korovin Reminisces).
  2. 2Sakharova, Yekaterina - Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov. Letters, Diaries, Memoirs. Moscow-Leningrad, 1950. P. 449 (hereinafter - Sakharova. Letters, Diaries, Memoirs).
  3. Congratulating Vasily Polenov on the 25th anniversary of his creative career, Levitan wrote: "I am confident that the Moscow art would not have turned out the way it is without you. Thank you for us and for our art, which I adore." Quoted from: Sakharova, Yekaterina. Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov. Yelena Dmitrievna Polenova. A chronicle of the Artist's Family. Moscow, 1964. P. 603 (hereinafter - Sakharova. A Chronicle).
  4. Konstantin Korovin Reminisces... P. 519. The book contains Korovin's very detailed memoir about how he and Levitan made excursions, early in spring, into Sokolniki and Zvenigorod - "the environs of Moscow, where there are fewer people" - and following Alexei Savrasov's advice, learned to paint, and most importantly, to feel nature.
  5. Ostroukhov, Ilya, and Glagol', Sergei. Moscow Municipal Picture Gallery of Pavel Tretyakov and Sergei Tretyakov. Moscow, 1909. P. 81.
  6. Golovin, Alexander. Meetings and Impressions. Leningrad-Moscow, I960. P. 22.
  7. Konstantin Korovin Reminisces... Pp. 158-159.
  8. Sakharova. Letters, Diaries, Memoirs. Pp. 449-450.
  9. A reference to this episode is contained in Sergei Vinogradov's letter to Yegor Khruslov of January 28, 1891, written in Kharkov, now held at the manuscript department of the State Tretyakov Gallery, fund 9, item 94, sheet 1. "...Atthe Polenovs', I and Abrasha [Abram Arkhipov - O.A] saw photographs (a whole album) of Vasnetsov's compositions in the Kiev cathedral. We both felt overwhelmed by his works - awesome, elementary forces unleashed, and the human talent. Would like to see the original?! Pay attention to the fresco with the saint martyr Catherine, and then tell me about it. Even on photograph, it looks formidable."
  10. Vinogradov, Sergei. Moscow of Yore. A Memoir. Lapidus, Nina, ed. Riga, 2001. P. 76 (hereinafter -Moscow of Yore).
  11. Natalya Polenova writes: "Levitan painted landscapes, Alexander Yanov painted ancient homes with towers, the sketch for the 'Undersea Kingdom' was created by Viktor Vasnetsov, and Levitan also executed the sets. They decided not to cut out trees with meticulously painted leafs, as is customary, but simply created talented pictures. The oak in the first act, with sharp shadows cast on the tree trunk by the branches in plain daylight, indeed seemed like nature." Quoted from: Polenova, Natalya. Abramtsevo. A Memoir. Moscow, 2006. P. 44.
  12. Mos cow of Yore. P. 31.
  13. In 1909 Mikhail Nesterov gifted to the city of Ufa, where he was born, a collection of paintings, sketches, drawings of his contemporaries, more than 100 pieces in all. In: Durylin, Sergei. Nesterov in Life and Art. Moscow, 2004. P. 181. Ilya Ostroukhov's unique collection, initially held in his home in Trubnikovsky Pereulok, Moscow, in 1924 was institutionalized into a public museum named after its founder.
  14. Mos cow of Yore. P. 31.
  15. Sakharova. A Chronicle. P. 351.
  16. Natalya Polenova's letter to Ye.D.Mamontova of December 11, 1888. // In: Sakharova. A Chronicle. P. 404. Prizes at the Moscow Society of Art Lovers' competition were awarded as follows: first prize - to Valentin Serov for the painting "Girl with Peaches" (1887, Tretyakov Gallery); second prize was shared between Konstantin Korovin for the painting "At a Tea-table" (1888, Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve) and Isaac Levitan for the landscape "Evening is Falling" (present whereabouts unknown); third prize went to Konstantin Korovin for the landscape "Golden Autumn".
  17. Yelena Polenova's letter to PD.Antipova of November 18, 1884. // In: Sakharova. A Chronicle. P. 347.
  18. Yelena Polenova's letter to P.D .Antipova of December 29, 1884. // In: Sakharova. A Chronicle. P. 358.
  19. Vasily Polenov's letter to Natalya Polenova of September 8, 1887. // In: Sakharova. A Chronicle. P. 387.
  20. Nesterov, Mikhail. Letters. Selections. Leningrad, 1988. P. 66. Levitan's features come through in Korovin's unfinished work "Buying a Dagger" (1899, Tretyakov Gallery). Perhaps Levitan posed for his longtime friend when the latter was finishing the piece in Moscow. More about it in: Kiselev, Mikhail Konstantin Korovin. Moscow, 2001. P. 10.
  21. Shalyapin, Fyodor. Mask and Soul. My 40 Years in Theatres. Moscow, 1989. Pp.156-157.
  22. Nesterov, Mikhail. Long Bygone Days. Meetings and Memoirs. Moscow, 1959. P. 125.
  23. Grabar, Igor. My Life. Monograph about Self. Sketched Reflections about Artists. Moscow, 2001. P. 177.





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