Isaak Ilich Levitan

Levitan, Isaak Il’ich


Born Aug. 18 (30), 1860, in Kybartai, in present-day Vilkaviskis Raion, Lithuanian SSR; died July 22 (Aug. 4), 1900, in Moscow. Russian landscape painter. Son of a minor railroad official.

In the early 1870’s, Levitan settled in Moscow. From 1873 to 1885 he studied under A. K. Savrasov and V. D. Polenov at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. In 1884 he first exhibited his works with the Society of Wandering Art Exhibitions (the peredvizhniki —a progressive art movement); he became a member of the peredvizhniki in 1891. Levitan joined the Munich Secession in 1897. Between 1898 and 1900 he took part in the exhibitions held by the journal Mir iskusstva (World of Art). In 1898, Levitan became a teacher at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, where his pupils included P. I. Petrovichev and N. N. Sapunov. He painted in the Crimea (1886 and 1899), in the Volga Region (1887–90), in Finland (1896), and in Italy, France, and Switzerland (1890, 1894, 1897, and 1898).

Levitan’s careful study of nature and idealization of the commonplace reflect the influence of Savrasov. His works combine elements from the plein air painting of Polenov and the masters of the Barbizon school. In the early 1880’s, Levitan gradually replaced the detailed, narrative treatment of motifs and the limited, at times gloomy palette of his early works with broader brushwork, the depiction of the subtle states of nature and the atmosphere, and the emotional unity of forms (An Autumn Day: Sokol’niki, 1879). The series of studies executed by Levitan during this period demonstrate the artist’s transition to a palette consisting of subtle gradations of tone (The Footbridge: Savvinskaia sloboda, 1884, study).

Having enriched his palette while working in the Crimea, Levitan discovered the grandeur of the vast Volga landscape— a subject which became one of his principal themes (Evening on the Volga, 1888). In his works of the late 1880’s he achieved clarity and balance of composition and precision of spatial designs that are inextricably connected by balanced color scheme (Evening: Golden Ples and After the Rain: Ples, both 1889). Levitan painted “mood” landscapes, in which depictions of nature serve as reflections of the spiritual states of man. Nature is poetically transformed and spiritualized by man’s invisible presence. An image of nature is conveyed to the viewer, along with a wide range of universally understood associations and experiences that are either disturbing or lyrically intimate.

Levitan gradually became more interested in painting landscapes that embodied the intrinsic and characteristic features of Russia’s natural scenery than those depicting a specific place. Filled with traditional folk concepts, these works reflect thoughts, feelings, and moods understood by the artist’s contemporaries. In intonation they particularly resemble the lyrical prose of A. Chekhov (Vesper Chimes and By the Still Waters, both 1892).

The theme of the road and its beckoning power, which subsequently became one of Levitan’s central themes, first appeared in the work Vladimirka (1892). In this painting, Levitan expressed his social philosophy by depicting the road tramped by those exiled to Siberia for hard labor. Many of Levitan’s paintings from the 1880’s and 1890’s, with their suffusion of light, transparency of pure colors, and internal dynamics, are to some degree reminiscent of impressionism (The Birch Grove, 1885–89; March, 1895). In the artist’s large compositions these qualities serve as a means of achieving a cheerful clarity of color, which is combined with a precise delineation of form (Fresh Wind: The Volga, 1891–95; Golden Autumn, 1895).

In the 1890’s, Levitan’s painting, in keeping with the common stylistic experiments of Russian artists of that time, was marked by a tendency toward greater generalization and by a two-dimensional, decorative, sharply outlined resolution of composition. The artist also tended to dramatize his landscape (Above Eternal Peace, 1894; Dusk: The Haystacks, 1899; Summer Evening, 1900 —all in the Tret’iakov Gallery).

The unfinished painting The Lake: Rus’ (1900, Russian Museum, Leningrad), an epic and monumental symbol of the homeland, reflects the artist’s striving for a synthesis of imagery and style during his last years. Levitan’s art marked an epoch in the development of Russian landscape painting and greatly influenced the next generation of landscape painters.


I. I. Levitan: Pis’ma, dokumenty, vospominaniia, Moscow, 1956.
Isaak Il’ich Levitan: Katalog vystavki.... Moscow, 1960.
Fedorov-Davydov, A. A. Isaak Il’ich Levitan: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo, vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1966.