Isaac Levitan: Beyond Landscape

Nina Markova

Magazine issue: 
#3 2010 (28)

"The import and significance of every true, great artist consists in the irresistible appeal of his personality and in how it reflects in his artwork", wrote Leonid Pasternak in a memoir about Isaac Levitan1. The originality of Levitan as an artist lies in his being a natural, entirely self-sufficient landscape artist who fully realized his talent in landscape art. His landscapes eclipsed all his forays into different genres and creative activities. Who remembers now that Levitan illustrated magazines and books, designed stage sets, created portraits and still-lifes?

This part of Levitan's legacy does not provide a very convenient ground for researchers to explore, because it is difficult to circumscribe within Levitan's landscape legacy all of his other artistic ventures that are unrelated to landscape and do not always match in quality the artist's most prominent works. However, this does not mean that Levitan's legacy beyond the bounds of the landscape genre should be ignored. This article is an attempt to show that many insights into the master's creative biography can be gleaned from the "periphery" of his oeuvre.

The widely held belief that Levitan was not adept at representing people is nothing but a myth. Certainly, as a student in a landscape class he was not required to have a perfect knowledge of anatomy; moreover, that subject did not interest him much: "I want to paint a stack of hay for it does not have bones or anatomy..."2. However, in the early 1880s, when he worked for illustrated magazines, he repeatedly had to depict human figures. Determined to continue his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts, in the 1881-1882 school year he accomplished a piece in a live drawing class that won him a minor silver medal, something which he justly prided himself on later3. From autumn 1884 Levitan visited watercolour morning classes and drawing evening classes conducted by Vasily Polenov, his teacher at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (the Moscow Art School), as well as drawing evening classes, always with live models, in Savva Mamontov's house. Levitan's images of people drawn at those sittings fascinated his colleagues with their confident mastery of form and thoughtful treatment of substantive aspects of imagery — surprising qualities in a landscape artist4.

Levitan was not a portraitist, but, in the words of his friend Sofia Kuvshinnikova, "every so often he would feel an urge to make a portrait, and some of them were noteworthy"5. He created portraits using oil or a variety of other graphic media, but never made much of it or offered one for exhibition.

Thus far, the number of his portraits has not been established even approximately. Presently we are aware of slightly more than ten such pieces. Perhaps some other compositions are still kept as precious relics in family collections or have been lost among the works of unknown artists. References to these compositions sometimes can be found in memoirs and archives6, and occasionally, on the art market7.

If we discount portraits made by the artist in his early youth for a living, he portrayed only people from his inner circle. Considering this, it would be safe to say that Levitan's portraits constitute unique documentary evidence highlighting various aspects of his life. Levitan's self-portraits (oil on canvas, 1890s; white and sauce on paper, between 1881 and 1885, both at the Tretyakov Gallery) are relatively well known, as are compositions featuring people most close to Levitan as well as their relatives — Sofia Kuvshinnikova (oil, 1888, in the Isaac Brodsky Museum), Anton Chekhov (1885—1886, Tretyakov Gallery), Nikolai Panafidin (1891, Tver Regional Picture Gallery). Other compositions do not enjoy as much attention from researchers and the public, most of all because the stories behind them and the sitters' identities are unknown. Investigation of these pieces is bound to yield very rich new material for the artist's biography.

Two penciled portraits (both created in 1880), one of which is at the Tretyakov Gallery, the other at the Russian Museum, feature young girls from the Yakovlev family. In 1880 a lawyer with the rank of titular counselor Vasily Yakovlev (1839-1912)8, who was very interested in art, hired for his nine-year-old stepdaughter Lena a teacher of painting — the Moscow Art School student Isaac Levitan. The memory of the child, who later in life was named Yelena Deisha, retained many interesting details about the artist. Describing her and her stepfather's visit to Levitan's dwelling, she recalled an easel with a portrait of some "pale old woman" painted from a photograph and a pile of sketches on canvas rags: "all manner of clouds light and heavy, whitecap clouds, dark storm clouds, and pink clouds, and golden clouds at sunset..."9.

"My mother commissioned him to make portraits of me and my sister. He penciled us on a yellowish-rosy paper. He turned out my sister's image quickly, but it took him a while to come up with mine. He made two versions, but remained unsatisfied"10, wrote Yelena Deisha, describing the story behind the two portraits. Yelena's portrait as a child ("Portrait of Lena Nenarokova"), which survived after the Bolshevik revolution in her Moscow home, was acquired in 1969 by the Tretyakov Gallery as a part of Alexei Sidorov's collection. Delicately penciled, with light touches of chalk and pastel, this portrait, traditional in concept and composition, is very expressive and conveys the sitter's complicated character. The knee-length "Portrait of Nadya Yakovleva" has a more sophisticated composition, although Nadya, Lena's little sister, looks much more helpless and awkward — her carriage stiff, hands folded on her lap and mouth uneasily half-open. Nadya died in an accident in the summer of 1882, at the Yakovlevs' estate Larino near Smolensk11, and Levitan mourned over this tragic loss together with his hospitable hosts. In the same year, in winter, Levitan together with the girl's father visited Larino, where he sketched Nadya's tomb (1882, Tretyakov Gallery), and later used the sketch to make a bigger picture for the Yakovlevs (1882, Russian Museum). Nadya's portrait and the picture of her tomb were handed to the Russian Museum by Vasily Yakovlev's younger daughter, Lyubov Yakovleva-Shaporina12, who lived in Leningrad. She also gave to the Tretyakov Gallery Levitan's pictures which he gifted to the Yakovlev family — the black-and-white prints of the lithographs "Balsamine", "Fortune-telling with Flower Wreaths", "Witches Dancing"; the artist created them in 1882 for the literary and artistic magazine "Moskva" [Moscow].

It is believed that Levitan's lithographs in the 1882 issues of the "Moskva" magazine are his earliest graphic pieces13. However, according to Yelena Deisha, her teacher also illustrated a "Budilnik" [Alarm Clock] magazine: ".Sometimes he brought his drawings. He worked as an illustrator for the illustrated magazine 'Budilnik' then. One of his assignments was 'Jack Frost' [in Russian: Frost the Red Nose]. He brought it to me. Frost was imaged as an old man with a grey beard and a woolly hat. He had a lively face, and the eyes under the thick eyebrows, like Leo Tolstoy's, were especially good. He complained about his editor who demanded that the Frost would indeed have a red nose."14 The editors of the book where Deisha's memoir was published assumed this information was incorrect15. Yelena Deisha'a description of the drawing, however, is so expressive and rich in detail that this author felt compelled to carefully examine all illustrations in the "Budilnik" issues for 1880-1882.

Indeed, the cover of issue No. 43 for 1881 features an image titled "Father Frost" that completely matches Yelena Deisha's description: Father Frost in a woolly hat, with a grey beard and thick eyebrows, walks amidst frozen trees and snow-covered firs, and behind him the edge of a village is visible, with a flaming stretch of icy sunset sky looking through a break in the clouds. There is just one problem: the lithograph is signed I.Klung. Meanwhile, "Father Frost" is only one of the two pictures stylistically different from the rest of the magazine's lithographic prints of the perky, mostly feather-drawn pictures of the magazine's permanent illustrators, such as Konstantin Chichagov, Nikolai Chekhov, Adolf Levitan (Isaac's elder brother), and the above-mentioned Ivan Klung. But another illustration, on the cover of the 42nd issue — "My Angel, I am Bidding My Farewell to You" — is signed, highly unusually for "Budilnik", "lithogr.I.Klung", which means that Klung, in that case, only lithographed the image created by an unidentified artist. The image features a confused pub owner and a bottle of vodka that walks away from him carrying along the "House of Drinks" [Piteinyi Dom] sign16. Both drawings are distinguished by soft gradations of black, tints of red, spots of white, a greenish background and a certain lack of drive in the overall image. Both pictures feature an elaborate landscape — this, too, is very unusual for a satirical magazine where representations of nature in illustrations are usually token. In the "Father Frost" landscape appears as a natural fixture of the narrative, contributes to the imagery and makes the composition well-rounded. Meanwhile, a sylvan landscape in "My Angel, I am Bidding My Farewell to You" seems not in the least justified. Comparison of these two pieces with Klung's own drawings, published in large quantities in the magazine, shows, first, fairly obvious stylistic differences between the two drawings, and second, just as obvious an influence of Klung's drawings on the unknown artist. The idea to represent a bottle with human arms and legs walking away was borrowed from one of Klung's compositions published in the previous, 41st, issue — the picture of two tradesmen leading away from a peasant a sack full of grain, also with human legs and arms. Third, the confidently delineated facial features and silhouette of the Father Frost suggest Klung's involvement with the creation of the image. Yelena Deisha may have been correct and Levitan indeed worked for "Budilnik", accomplishing for it two illustrations — those published in the 42nd and 43rd issues. The Father Frost picture, begun by the young artist and rejected by the publisher, was finished by another illustrator, who then signed it as his own piece of work.

This guess is better founded than may seem at first glance. Ivan Ivanovich Klung (?-1919) was an illustrator, lithographer, one of the pioneers of Russian chromolithography, and a publisher — in the last capacity he was not very successful. He worked for "Budilnik" in the mid-1880s, first as a lampoon artist, then as a lithographer. At about the same time, in 1882, Klung together with the writer Yeugeny Stalinsky ventured into publishing, launching a big illustrated magazine called "Moskva" 17. As a publisher, he engaged his former "Budilnik" associates: Anton Chekhov as a literary editor18, and Nikolai Chekhov and Adolf Levitan as illustrators. Isaac Levitan too became a regular contributor. All prints in the magazine were made using the method of chromolithography; in the words of a contemporary, "the way things were then, it was quite a bold and original undertaking"19.

If Levitan indeed made his debut in "Budilnik", it was not a great success: the satirical thrust of the magazine proved difficult for the young man's delicate nature. The generic focus on literature and art at "Moskva" magazine was more congenial to Levitan's gift: in 1882 the magazine published 12 lithographs signed by him20. These pieces do not have the stamp of individuality, and neither their narrative nor artistic qualities make them stand out against the ordinary fare offered by magazines then. Levitan created some of his images using other artists' works; in some cases other artists helped him to draw figures21. On the other hand, the opposite may be true — Levitan's talent may have contributed to the creation of landscape background in other artists' genre scenes22. Less experienced and skilled than the rest of the magazine's illustrators, Levitan, however, did not remain in the shade. He was granted a chance to "perform solo" in one of the summer issues (No. 25) which ran three of his lithographs themed around celebrations on the Feast of St. John the Baptist — "Balsamine", "Witches Dancing", "Fortune-telling by Flower Wreaths".

As a publishing venture, "Moskva" failed quite quickly. Klung fell out with Stalinsky, who remained the publications's owner, and started a new magazine — "Volna" [Wave]23. There too, Klung enlisted the services of Isaac Levitan and Anton Chekhov24. In terms of format and concept, "Volna" was a continuation of "Moskva", although the overall level declined because of Klung's financial losses caused by a law suit against Stalinsky. The magazine took to printing anonymous illustrations, some of which were copies of famous compositions with altered names and without an indication of the authorship. A remarkable lithograph by Levitan, printed in No. 4 (vignette to a poem "I Grew up near My Mother."), too, is unsigned, although the first page of the publication carries an announcement about the artist. The piece is a portrait of Alexandra Yakovlevna Glama-Meshcherskaya (1859-1942), at that time a young and very popular actress working in Moscow — since 1880, at Anna Brenko's Pushkinsky Theatre, and after that was closed down, at Fyodor Korsh's and Mikhail Lentovsky's companies. A brilliant ingenue actress, she was literally "turning the heads" 25 of Moscow theatre aficionados; we can see from the lady-loving Levitan's gallant expression of feelings, he did not remain unmoved either. The portrait was made from a photograph featuring the actress as she plays her best role — Varya in Alexander Ostrovsky's and Nikolai Soloviev's "The Girl Savage".

The financial worries of Klung, who never paid his associates on time, caused Anton Chekhov to break with him completely, and later to lampoon him in "Oskolki" [Fragments] magazine. Klung in the same year, 1883, started a new magazine, called "Rossia" [Russia]26. Several issues of that publication for 1884 carried Levitan's four lithographs, three of which — "A Trail in the Forest", "Main Gate at the Savvino- Storozhevsky Monastery", "Village" — featured natural settings near Zvenigorod, which the artist depicted from sketches made during his stay in the Savvinskaya township. Although the lithographs were supposedly illustrating Nikolai Bocharov's article about Zvenigorod — "Switzerland near Moscow", in the 28th issue — they were printed as artwork in their own right, in the supplement to the magazine. The drawings, which were printed from two stones, finely rendered spatial effects, the diversity of tree foliage, the play of shadows and glints of sunlight and, in spite of a very spare use of colour print, featured colourful and picturesque imagery — in short, the works were already the "real" Levitan.

So, contrary to earlier beliefs, Levitan's forays into the world of magazine illustration in 1881-1884 were not random episodes, odd side jobs for different publishers. For nearly four years he worked for the same publisher who, providing the very needy artist with work and educating him in the basics of lithography, not only helped him to survive but also enabled him to develop artistically. Although Alexei Fedorov-Davydov may be correct in arguing that "genre and illustration quite obviously were not exactly Levitan's calling" 27, Levitan's illustrations for "Budilnik", "Moskva" and "Volna", for all their immaturity, naivety and ordinariness, were the prelude for the lithographed landscapes in "Rossia" magazine.

Much has been written about the friendship between Isaac Levitan and Anton Chekhov, although the precise date of their acquaintance still remains a subject of debate. It can be assumed that they became close while working together at the illustrated magazines: for several years the Levitan brothers and the Chekhov brothers formed a single artistic team at Klung's publications. Klung helped launching the creative careers of two men of genius — the writer and the painter. Although literature scholars know Klung because he gave an initial boost to Chekhov's career, he has remained largely unnoticed by visual art scholars, although he played a much more important role in the future landscape artist's life than in the future writer's. Scholars have gained nothing in neglecting Levitan's early experience in print illustration and largely dismissing magazine illustrations of the 1870s-1880s as an artistic activity in a state of decline. Klung as a publisher and artist, albeit of a modest import, as well as significant aspects of the biography of one of Russia's most prominent artists, have been relegated to the margins of art history.

Such a failure to duly appreciate a certain part of an artist's legacy, even if it does not seem "to have any artistic significance whatsoever"28, distorts our notion of the artist's evolution, overly simplifies it and, therefore, deprives it of objectivity.

  1. Quoted from: Isaac Levitan. Letters, Documents, Memoirs. Fedorov-Davydov, Alexei, ed. Moscow, 1956. P. 245 (hereinafter -Letters, Documents, Memoirs).
  2. Konstantin Korovin Reminisces... Moscow, 1990. Pp. 110-111.
  3. "Graduating students of the Moscow Art School, in order to receive a medal, had to make a sketch of a nude sitter, and Levitan pulled it off very well". Pichugin, Zakhar. Isaac Levitan (Fragments of My Memoirs). Russian State Archive of Literature and Arts. Fund 791, inventory 1, item 2, sheet 1, obverse. Perhaps Levitan's friend and fellow student at the Moscow Art School Mikhail Nesterov referred to the same episode: "Once he came to our live drawing class and sketched a nude body, although landscape students like him were not required to; the sketch was very original, and he accomplished it within a couple of days, although the school would give you a month for the assignment". Quoted from: Letters, Documents, Memoirs. P. 123.
  4. In a letter to a friend of November 18, 1884 Yelena Polenova said: ".. .Today two new members visited our Sunday assembly - Vasily's students Levitan and Korovin... Levitan made a watercolour - an impromptu - it's charming!"; on November 23 of the same year: "I've just returned from a drawing assembly at Mamontov's. After tea we penciled the head of an old man, with a very suggestive face and an interesting lighting... And Levitan made a feat! A sheer delight!.." (Quoted from: Sakharova, Yekaterina. Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov. Yelena Dmitrievna Polenova. A Chronicle of the Artists' Family. Moscow, 1964. Pp. 347, 348). On drawings from the Tretyakov Gallery collection, see also Markova, Nina. Recent acquisition of Isaac Levitan's graphic works by the Tretyakov Gallery. Communications of the Tretyakov Gallery. Art of the second half of the 19th century - 20th century. Issues in art renovation and museum studies. Moscow, 1995. Pp. 61-63.
  5. Quoted from: Letters, Documents, Memoirs. P. 172.
  6. An interesting episode was recounted by Zakhar Pichugin, Levitan's friend from the Moscow Art School who worked with him at the Volna magazine: "Once Levitan saw me working on a portrait of my landlord. He looked long at the piece, then asked if he could use my palette; I didn't mind and said jokingly that I didn't have paints suitable for landscape. 'Never mind, I'll manage!' - said he. And indeed, his piece came off well. The sitter and I were satisfied." Quoted from: Pichugin, Zakhar. Isaac Levitan (Fragments of My Memoirs). Russian State Archive of Literature and Art. Fund 791, inventory 1, item 2, sheet 2.
  7. In 1993 the Tretyakov Gallery acquired "Portrait of a Little Boy Iosif Levin".
  8. Information about Vasily Yakovlev was provided by the state archive of Smolensk Province (hereinafter - SASP). Fund 48, inventory 4, item 1784, 1883; item 426, church No. 46, 1912.
  9. Quoted from: Letters, Documents, Memoirs. P. 153. A typed manuscript of the memoir is at the manuscript department of the Tretyakov Gallery.
  10. Ibid. P. 152. At that time Levitan indeed made sketches of the sky. One of them, with an authenticating signature of Konstantin Korovin, is held at the State Literature Museum. He may have used these sketches painting sky on Nikolai Chekhov's composition "Messalina" (see Letters. Documents. Memoirs. P. 159). For some reason this fact has been neglected, unlike the widely known fact that the woman on Levitan's picture "Autumn. Sokolniki" was painted by Anton Chekhov's brother. It should be remembered though that at that time such collaboration between two artists was regarded as a matter of course (see: Nesterov. Op.cit., p. 123).
  11. Nadya drowned in the Dnieper on July 26, 1882. SASP. Fund 48, inventory 2, item1743, church No. 60, year 1882.
  12. Shaporina, Lyubov Vassilievna, nee Yakovleva (1877-1967), was an artist, engraver, organizer of the Petrograd Puppet Theatre (1919), wife of the composer Yuri Shaporin. In the journals, which she kept writing for nearly five decades, she chronicles her personal life and recounts, with utmost frankness, the tragic events unfolding in Leningrad, amid the city's intelligentsia circles. Yakovleva-Shaporina's journals have not been published in entirety as yet. The manuscript is held at the manuscript department of the Russian National Library.
  13. Fedorov-Davydov, Alexei. Isaac Levitan: his life and art. Moscow, 1966. P. 362, ftn. 6 (hereinafter - Life and Art); Fedorov-Davydov, Alexei. Isaac Levitan: documents, reminiscences, bibliography. M., 1966. P. 158-159 (hereinafter -Documents, reminiscences, bibliography).
  14. Quoted from: Letters, Documents, Memoirs. P. 151-152.
  15. Ibid. P. 287, fnt. 5.
  16. The reform of 1881 replaced bar-rooms with taverns where not only vodka was served but food as well.
  17. "Moskva" was a literary and artistic weekly published in 1882-1883; Yeugeny Stalinsky was publisher and editor.
  18. In 1882 Chekhov published five short stories in the magazine.
  19.  Chekhov, Mikhail. Around Chekhov. Moscow, 1980. P. 89.
  20. Fedorov-Davydov even tried to identify Levitan's works among unsigned pictures. See: Documents, reminiscences, bibliography. P. 33.
  21. Prepress proofs of the lithographs "Hunting sketches (Mishka)", "Caretaker in a kitchen garden" and the pieces currently held at the State Literature Museum (registeries 54794/7 and 54794/8) carry Adolf Levitan's notes stating that he drew the figures on the pictures.
  22. Very illustrative is Fedorov-Davydov's mistake in attributing to Isaac Levitan "Favourites", a lithograph signed by Adolf Levitan. See: Documents, reminiscences, bibliography. P. 158, No. 910. The same mistaken assumption was repeated by Vladimir Petrov in his book Isaac Iliich Levitan. St.Petersburg, 1992. P. 19, illustration.
  23. "Volna", an artistic and literary magazine published in 1884-1886; N.Russiyanov was its official publisher and editor.
  24. In No. 12, 1884 of the "Volna" magazine Anton Chekhov published an article "The lives of noteworthy contemporaries".
  25. An epigram by a famous playwright and man of letters Dmitry Averkiev circulated among theatre people:
    "You 're repeating on and on
    That you 're GlamA, and not GlAma,
    But whether you 're GlAma or GlamA,
    You've enraptured us"
    (Glama-Meshcherskaya, Alexandra. Recollections. Moscow-Leningrad, 1937. P. 217.)
  26. "Rossia", a weekly literary and artistic magazine published in Moscow in 1883-1885 and 1887-1890; O.M.Umanets and G.Pashkov, official publishers and editors.
  27. Life and Art. P. 362, ftn.6.
  28. Ibid. P. 362.





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