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Isaak Levitan (1860-1900)

What can be more tragic than to feel the boundlessness of the surrounding beauty and to be able to see in it its underlying mystery... and yet to be aware of your own inability to express these large feelings…

Isaak Levitan

Russian nature is beautiful, poetic, sensitive, sad, stern, unpredictable, mild, cruel, spiritual and breathtaking… Nobody could express these feelings better than the great landscapist Isaak Levitan, who never looked for exotic and pretentious subjects for his paintings but remained faithful to simple poetic motifs of his native land because his heart was always burning with love for this country…

Isaak Ilyich Levitan was born in 1860 in Kibarty, a small town in Lithuania, to the family of a blue-collar railroad worker. From 1873 to 1885 he attended the Moscow College of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in Moscow, Russia. He studied under the famous Russian painters Savrasov and Polenov. From 1884 he displayed his paintings with the Society for Movable Art Exhibitions (Wanderers) and became a member of the Society in 1891.

The greatest role in the forming of Levitan's creative personality belongs to his favorite teacher Alexey Savrasov, the most lyrical among Russian landscape painters of the 1860s-1870s, who influenced many well-known artists of Levitan's generation - Mikhail Nesterov, Konstantin Korovin and others. Of course, Levitan's passionate love for poetry and music, his persistent studying of pleine-air, the sunny paintings of Vasiliy Polenov, who also taught at the School, the works of the French painters of the Barbizon school, of Camille Corot were of great importance for the young artist. As any great talent did and does, Levitan submitted all the influences to his personality, and even his early works are very individual. Levitan's attitude towards nature and the poetry of his art were in many points akin to the works of Anton Chekhov, who became his friend from the late 1870s.

From 1898 Levitan taught landscape painting at the Moscow College of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. In 40 years of his life, Isaak Levitan painted many landscapes which were later recognized to be among the finest masterpieces of Russian art. The natural simplicity of motif and composition of Levitan's landscapes is a hallmark of his artistic genius.

It was evident from the very outset of Levitan's career that he had an extraordinary ability to awaken deep human feelings by the means of landscape painting. Although people usually are not present on his canvases, his landscapes unfailingly speak of humanity. Levitan's paintings tell us something about ourselves, as they touch the chords of our inner spirit. Nature is always presented in them through the prism of very personal human experience. Therefore Levitan's landscapes are often called philosophical and psychological. The complexity of the human soul and the destiny of man can be rightfully considered the true subjects of his paintings. These pictures were particularly loved by the Russian intellectuals of the time, for they represented the purest specimen of the 'mood landscape', most popular in Russia at the end of the 19th century.

In his early years Levitan painted views of various places in the Moscow area. One of the best works from this period is Autumn day. Sokolniky. This early canvas is the artist's elegy to the gray autumn day in one of the Moscow parks.

During the second period of his artistic career Levitan was drawing his inspiration from the Volga. The painter spent several summers in a row on the banks of the great Russian river. Plyos, a small town on the Volga, was undoubtedly Levitan's favorite spot. Levitan painted greatly multiform canvases which served as an invaluable contribution to the advancement of realistic landscape painting in Russia. From 1892 to 1895 Levitan divided his time between the towns of Vladimir, Vyshny Volochek, and the Tver region. The works of this period are considered to be the most powerful philosophical reflections of the painter on the destiny of man. The canvas Deep Waters conjures up images of folk tales about the drowned. The Vladimirka Road, a rare example of social historical landscape, depicts the route which was customarily used for leading prisoners to exile in the Siberia. The Eternal Rest which speaks of the irreconcilable dualism of life and death, about the controversies of life, about the transience of human being, gained almost monumental scale and philosophic character. But not all the paintings of this period present such a grim perspective on human destiny. A joyous hymn of life is heard in such works as March, The Fresh Wind. The Volga, and The Golden Autumn.

In 1897, Levitan felt sick, a severe cardiac disease was revealed. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the permanent menace of death, he worked with a particular intensity and inspiration. His latest works are distinguished by a confident mastership, richness of technical methods, and new stylistic trends. One can feel the influence of ancient Russian art, which attracted him at the period, and that of modern style, and the newest searches in French painting, which Levitan always took a lively interest in. Nevertheless, Levitan did not join modern art and remained true to realism, utterly alien to mythologizing and stylization. Most characteristic in the late 1890s were numerous paintings of quiet twilights, moonlit nights, sleeping villages (Haystacks. Twilight. (1899), Sunny Day. (1898) and many others). To the very end of his life Levitan took an active part in artistic life; he took part in organizing the Moscow Club of Literature and Art, showed his pictures at numerous exhibitions of such associations as World of Art and Munich Secession.

The last large canvas by Levitan is titled The Lake. Russ. Perhaps this monumental work finds a parallel in Rachmaninov's second piano concerto. The artist's goal in the painting was to create an image that would be a summation of all that from the artist's point of view was characteristically Russian: the great expanses of land and water, the white silhouettes of churches, the great clouds driven by the wind, and the rustling reeds. The canvas remained unfinished. The work on it was stopped by the painter's death. Isaak Levitan was buried at the Novodevichiye cemetery in Moscow. The famous Russian opera singer Fyodor Shalyapin, a friend of Levitan's, spoke of the art of the painter: "It has brought me to realization that the most important thing in art is this feeling, this spirit, this prophetic word that sets people's hearts on fire. And this prophetic word can be expressed not only in speech and gesture but also in line and color." Leo Tolstoy once said, "The basis of human happiness is the possibility to be together with nature, to see it and to talk to it". Levitan was granted this happy feeling as hardly any other human being ever was. He also knew the joy of recognition by his contemporaries and of friendship with the best among them. Levitan ranks among the most appreciated and loved of Russian artists.