Isaac Levitan

saac Ilyich Levitan
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.


4 Replies to “Isaac Levitan”

  1. I have been captivated by Russian / Soviet art since I discovered the book The Wanderers – Masters of 19th-Century Russian Painting many years ago. I love how – to me – the barriers between realism and impressionism seem to break down within the Soviet era of Russian art. And I feel that the work of the Wanderers – the Itinerants – set a solid foundation for what followed. I also find it interesting how strongly the political factions were involved in the struggle over the identity of the Soviet Art. A good book on this struggle is Socialist Realist Painting by Matthew Cullerne Bown (Yale University Press, 1998)

    Now, with that digression out of the way, I’d like to say that my two favorite Russian / Soviet paintings are Issac Levitan’s “Silence’ painted in 1898 – a moonlit river landscape. And Panteleimon Kozarezov’s “On the Don” (no date given) – a low angle view of workers being towed in a boat on the wide Don river at dawn. Each of these paintings are fine mood-setting paintings and they can serve as inspirations for storytelling.

    I’ve yet to find this second painting on line. I have a copy of it in the August 1994 Overland Gallery Sale Catalog – Soviet Impressionism 1930 – 1980.


  2. I saw some of Levitan’s paintings two years ago at the From Russia exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. You might find some useful extra information from the website for the exhibition which is still up.

    I’ve also just started work on investigating Russian landscape artists in more depth so many thanks for this post!

    I’m going to highlight your post tomorrow on my new blog The Art of the Landscape which is featuring the development of landscape art and notable landscape artists.

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