Milestones: Isaac Levitan

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An autumnal grove of birch trees with slender white trunks and speckled orange leaves is interrupted by a meandering grey river, which softly reflects the hues of the bright sky above. Such is the effusive evocation of the Russian countryside in Isaak Levitan’s painting, Golden Autumn. Levitan, gave birth to a form of painting, known as the ‘landscape of mood’. ‘Landscape of mood’ spiritualizes the form and state of nature, using it as an expression of the human condition. Levitan’s landscapes are fleeting representations of a forest clearing, a cottage, a river, a country path, haystacks. 

Hushed, almost melancholic contemplations of pastoral settings were his characteristic style. With only a couple of exceptions in his prolific life work, Levitan did not depict urban landscapes, and his paintings are normally devoid of human presence. Despite few humans appear in these works, his paintings invariably reflect the prism of humanity and are often referred to as ‘psychological’ or ‘philosophical’. 

Some also have political undercurrents. In one of his most famous pieces, Vladimirka, he paints the road down which people who had been exiled made their way to the distant Siberia. It is a lonely and deserted track seemingly leading nowhere and the pale grey of the sky conveys the dejection and desolation of the scene. Though only a depiction of a landscape, this painting was a controversial indictment of the government’s decision to send political prisoners down this godforsaken path. Levitan’s method was often not dissimilar to that of the Impressionists, but while their emphasis was on the optical, his was on the naturalistic. The works created toward the end of his life reflect his influence by the emerging Modernist movement. For example, the painting Stormy Day, which portrays a green slope leading up to a cluster of cottages, overshadowed by a menacing grey cloud, shows his departure from strictly realist depictions toward more abstract and emotive expression. In many ways, Levitan’s work is the visual counterpart to Chekhov’s literary compositions. 

There are hints of Levitan in Chekhov’s snapshots of quotidian existence and his elegies to the Russian countryside, most notably in his short stories. Both of these artists have a simple understated style, which nevertheless conveys great emotional depth. 

Levitan’s life was a series of tragedies: his mother died when he was fifteen and two years later he was orphaned. 

As Jews they were confined to living in the Pale of Settlement, Levitan himself exiled from Moscow because he was an “unbaptized Jew”. He died at the age of thirty-nine of a severe heart-related disease. Some critics believe these misfortunes had an impact on Levitan’s evolution as an artist. The restricted environs of the Pale meant that he often depicted vast expanses and epic panoramas. Towards the end of his short life, his works increasingly contained light, a sign of his internal peace and tranquillity. 

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