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February 28, 2006

Peripheral Artists (4): Isaak Levitan

Donald Pittenger writes:

This is another installment in a series of posts dealing with 19th Century artists who lived far from Paris and other major artistic centers and are footnotes in the Paris-centered dominant art history narrative of the period 1860-1950.

I tend to be indifferent to landscape paintings, yet I was struck by some landscapes I saw in St. Petersburg's Russian Museum. On investigation, nearly all were painted by an artist unknown to me named Isaak Levitan.

Levitan is most certainly not unknown to Russians. It's a shame that artists of his caliber were essentially ignored by the Western art establishment for the past 100 years.

His life was short (1860-1900) and unpleasant in many ways. Levitan was born in Lithuania and as a boy moved with his family to Russia proper. His mother died when he was 15, his father two years later. The only silver lining to the poverty he was plunged into was that it qualified him for a scholarship at the Moscow College of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.

During one of Russia's spasms of anti-Jewish sentiment Levitan, and other Jews, were forced to leave Moscow. But his artistic reputation was waxing and influential friends were able to intervene so that he could return. His friendship circle eventually included famed opera singer Fyodor Shalyapin (also spelled Feodor Chaliapin) and writer Anton Chekov.

Nearly all of Levitan's paintings were landscapes without human figures. Although he must have been aware of artistic developments in France, these seem to have had little or no influence on his style.

We also need to consider the nature of the land Levitan had to work with. Moscow-area topography does not offer the spectacular scenery of Grand Canyon and Yosemite or even the somewhat milder wonders of the California coast and Catskills that inspired major American landscapists. The land around Moscow ranges from flat to rolling hills. There are a few higher hills, and things get almost Alp-like (in a very flat context -- Catskills would loom over these hills) part-way along the route to St. Petersburg.

So Levitan dealt with a lot of sky and not much terrain variation, leaving him to work with vegetation, water features and village or farm buildings. Towards the end of his career, the Volga River became a focus of his work.

Levitan was diagnosed with a severe heart condition in 1897 and he died in 1900 not long before his 40th birthday.


Levitan - Self-portrait drawing.jpg
Isaak Levitan self-portrait.

Levitan - landscape.jpg

Levitan - Moon.jpg
Landscape with moon.

Levitan - Evening on the Volga.jpg
"Evening on the Volga."
Likely one of his later paintings.


As usual, small digitized reproductions don't do justice to the actual paintings. In a museum setting with plenty of nearly grist for one's attention, Levitan's painting stand out as special. If you have the opportunity to see his work, seize it; you probably won't be disappointed.



posted by Donald at February 28, 2006


Dear Donald,

Yes, Levitan was a wonderful artist. Like so many other great realist and naturalist painters of the late nineteenth century, we dont hear enough about him. Artist who didn't participate in the retroactively constructed, inexorable path to mid-twentieth century modernism are often ignored. It has been a requirement that artists of Levitan's era participate in the dismantling of the tradition of their craft for them to be included in art historical conversation. Many fine painters who drew delicately and finely, and who made subtly toned and colored canvases have been hidden from us.

It is so nice to see you making the effort to bring some attention to them.


Posted by: Jacob Collins on February 28, 2006 09:37 PM

Isaak Levitan is a titan in landscape painting. He was able to pass beyond simply accurate rendering, or going after emotion by painting the grandiose. He was able to capture the MOOD of the landscape. I think he was able to more easily achieve this BECAUSE he worked with simple, everyday scenery. There are advantages and disadvantages to almost everything, and the advantage of painting the ordinary is that you can more easily convey the quiet, subtle aspects of a subject, rather than being overwhelmed by something spectacular.

Don, if you want to become more of a fan of landscape painting, you must do a little yourself, especailly in plein air. I love doing this type of work. It is the ultimate challenge. Levitan did plein air studies which he used for his larger studio works. Working from life, especailly in plein air is a humbling experience, yet highly rewarding. It really opens up your eyes, and you notice so much more, and not just when painting

BTW, my favorite Levitan landscapes are "March" and "In a Birch Grove". Check Levitan out at

Is that the Jacob Collins of the Water Street Atelier? If so, nice to hear from you. You do excellent work. Realism is coming back strongly, no?

Posted by: Brian Minder on February 28, 2006 09:56 PM

I think Jacob and Brian (and Donald, of course) all have it right about Levitan. Very moody, magical stuff, all of it arising out of mundane, even unpromising material. Reminds me a bit of John Kensett, another spell-caster for what that's worth.

Hey, if the Jacob Collins who left a comment above is indeed Jacob-Collins-the-painter, that's one tiptop painter, a giant in the New Classicism scene. Check out his dazzling work here and here. If it's another Jacob Collins, pleased to meet you too!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 1, 2006 12:46 AM

Dear Brian and Michael,

Yes, its me. Thank you both very much.for the kind words about my paintings.


Posted by: Jacob Collins on March 1, 2006 11:35 AM

It has to help a bit to have a wife bringing in a few shekels, eh? Re:Levitan. Lyrical Landscapes by Averil King. Available at Amazone. Not sure what Jacob means by "retroactively constructed, inexorable path to mid twentieth century modernism" but it sound good. I think little is known about him because A) he was from russia, not exactly the prime focus of western art tastemakers (read critic, salon judges, museum heads etc) B) he lived only fourty years which means he had about twenty productive years which means he produced a relatively small oeuvre and C) anyone producing art in the late 1900s and not participating in the french salon system was no body.

Posted by: rico on March 1, 2006 11:24 PM


Have you ever seen the work of Abram Arkhipov? His paintings are wonderful, and he was another late 19th century russian realist. The russian painters of this era are remarkable, as were their contemporaries in Europe and America.

Also, for those of you who enjoyed this post, there is a new book on Levitan's work, "Isaak Levitan: Lyrical Landscapes" by Averil King. Its available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Posted by: Brian Minder on March 1, 2006 11:54 PM

I have never had the good fortune to see any of Levitan's actual canvases, but when I discovered his work while web surfing a year or two ago, my thought was: how incredibly provincial is our list of great artists! Here is a fabulous talent that even most sophisticated museum-goers is this country have never heard of.

Sometimes I think an artist is only appreciated by virtue of having spent a career in Paris. Another example: Nicolai Fechin, a Russian who emigrated to the United States and worked in Taos, New Mexico. With all due respect to Georgia O'Keeffe, Fechin was the real luminary of the high desert. At least you can see some of his actual paintings in the U.S., albeit mostly in Santa Fe and Scottsdale galleries.

Posted by: Rick Darby on March 2, 2006 03:37 PM

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