Isaac Ilyich Levitan (Isaak Il’ich Levitan) was one of the greatest of Russian landscape painters, one of the greatest Russian painters in general, and one of the great landscape painters in the history of art.
Born into a poor family, he managed to begin study at the Moscow School of Painting and Sculpture when his family moved to Moscow in the late 1860’s. While at school, he lost both of his parents within two years of each other and was left without resources, but was allowed to continue at the school, his tuition waved, because of his extraordinary talent.
He was greatly influenced by his teachers, Alexei Savrasov and Vasily Polenov. The latter shared a penchant for light-filled plein air painting with the French painters of the Barbizon School, who would also be an influence on Levitan.
Levitan didn’t paint urban landscapes, preferring the lyrical countryside, and created his own branch of the Russian style of landscape known as “the landscape of mood”. His occasional forays into the sunny and brightly colored fields made popular by the Impressionist painters are balanced by many paintings of cloud filled or overcast skies, great shadows across the land and dark masses of trees, though often with hints of breaking light, or impending change.
You will sometimes see Levitan mentioned in concert with the Russian Impressionist painters. Though he had an appreciation and talent for handling color and light in keeping with the young French painters, he rejected Monet’s Impressionism. He remained essentially a realist, but his later work was emotional and romantic in a way that is suggestive of Symbolism. For an excellent article on this direction in his work, and Levitan in general, see Michael Hirsch’s “Good Evening from Isaac Levitan” on Articles & Texticles. There is also a good article on Gurney Journey, titled “Plein Air and Poetry“, comparing one of Levitan’s studies with the finished piece.
Levitan’s place in Russian culture has been compared to that of the writer Anton Checkov, who became one of his closest friends. Levitan exhibited with the Peredvizhniky (Itinerants), a group that included his teacher Vasily Polenov, along with Ivan Kramskoy, Ilya Repin, Ivan Shishkin, Vasily Surikov and other great Russian realist painters.
Levitan was prolific, leaving behind over a thousand works.