Isaak Ilyich Levitan (1860-1900) was artist - painter, landscape painter, master of a lyrical landscape; teacher at the the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture; representative of realistic school.
Levitan was born in Kibarta, near Verzhbolovo Station, in Suvalk province (today Kibartay, Lithuania) on August 30, 1860 and died in Moscow on August 4, 1900. He is considered perhaps the greatest landscape painter of Russia.
He was born in a poor Jewish family, but was able to study, from 1873 to 1875, at the famous Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture where his talent for landscape painting became evident. He was taught by Vasily Perov, Aleksey Savrasov and Vasiliy Polenov. The influence of the last two on Levitan's work is particularly significant. His first attempts at landscape painting clearly show the influence of Savrasov.
By 1879 Levitan developed his own style and his pictures were enthusiastically received at exhibitions. During the 1880s Levitan explored different styles, trying to follow Ivan Shishkin and the French Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot. This marked a new step in the development of the painter.
About 1883 Levitan became acquainted with the writer Anton Chekhov, whose brother had been a colleague of Levitan at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. This relationship would turn into a life-long friendship.
In the summer of 1884 Levitan made his first trip to the Crimea, and in 1887 to the Volga. In this region he managed to capture the poetry and emotion of the landscape in an unprecedented manner.
In the 1890s Levitan travelled extensively through the Europe. As he was travelling, he sketched the landscapes and familiarized himself with working en plein air. More importantly, he discovered the world of the Parisian Impressionists. A good example of the Impressionist or even Post-impressionist influence on Levitan is one of his last paintings, 'The Lake: Russia' (1899-1900), in which the free and dynamic brushstrokes and the brightness of colors indicate perhaps Levitan's familiarity with the work of Vincent Van Gogh.
The increasing success of the painter was, however, counterbalanced by the growing anti-semitism in Russia. In September 1892, in connection with the expulsion of the Jews from Moscow, Leitan was confined to the village of Boldino in the Vladimir province and was allowed to return only after the intervention of some artist friends. Levitan was prone to mood changes and melancholy, and his emotions were often captured in his paintings. His main goal was to convey the grandeur and beauty of the Russian landscape.
Levitan's early death cut short a very promising artistic career. In 1897 he had been made a member of the Munich Secession and he participated in the group's exhibitions in 1898 and 1899.
In 1898 the Saint Petersburg Academy of Art had given him the title of Academician.
Today, many of Levitan's paintings are kept in The State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, but a small Levitan house-museum in Ples, on the River Volga (Ivanovo Region) also exhibits a small selection of his works.
From 1887 to 1890, Levitan worked during the spring and summer in regions near the Volga, the great Russian river. The painter travelled a great deal along the Volga, but mainly lived in the small village of Pliosse. The Volga made it possible for the Levitan’s gifts to develop, because the vast spaces through which this Russian river flows inspired him with its many different views. 'Fresh Breeze, The Volga' is one of Levitan’s most joyous paintings from his Volga cycle. The dominant tone of this canvas is optimism. The artist makes courageous use of bright and dazzling colours, and his treatment of paint is dense and straightforward. Movement dominates this painting, which is imbued with feelings of great lightness and joy that result from the vast expanses of the Volga scenery. The viewer gets the impression of freshness and power from the wind driving the clouds in the sky and churning the waters of the river.
Levitan is known as one of the most refined and incisive of landscape painters. The concept of landscape as emotion entered Russian painting with his work. He knew how to render the true beauty of nature in all the diversity of its changing states, while at the same time presenting the state of the human soul in its most subtle emotions through landscapes. This was a valuable aspect of the painter’s genius. 'Golden Autumn', a joyful painting, is rather like a farewell song to the final flowering of nature, with the unusual brightness of the colours, the sparkling gold of the birch trees, and the multicoloured earth. This landscape, which was executed brilliantly and with considerable mastery, is characterized by the complexity in composition of colours and the variable density of the paint, which is laid on in thick coloured strokes.
The artist painted a monastery in the middle of the forest, with churches and a steeple floating in the rays of the setting sun. It is a typical Russian monastery, and Levitan based it on his impressions of towns along the Volga and in the city of Zvenigorod. The sky, the forest and the monastery are reflected on the smooth peaceful surface of the water. All of the elements in this landscape blend into a soft, musical harmony. In this surprisingly beautiful and peaceful image, the painter seems to be able to bring to life the concept of an ideal life subject to the laws of supreme harmony, where humanity is at one with the divine and there is no need for anxiety, agitation or futile vanity.
Levitan, the great master of lyric landscape, attempted to find answers to his deep philosophical meditations on the meaning of human existence and the destiny and place of man in the world. 'Above Eternal Peace' is based on an accurate depiction of Lake Oudomlia, near Vychny Volotchek in the Tver region. The work, however, is not perceived as a representation of a specific place. The image is too general, and we can safely say that this nature painting is symbolic and cannot be reduced to a single interpretation. Water and sky surround a small island exposed to wind from every direction, with an abandoned cemetery and a chapel, in the window of which a tentative flame struggles to remain alight. Levitan has been able to go beyond a realistic depiction. The painter’s monumental painterly image leads us to think about life and death, the insignificance of human existence and the frail destiny of man in the face of eternal, majestic nature. Levitan wrote to Pavel Tretyakov about the painting, saying, "This painting represents me completely, all my psychology, all my being."