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Quiet Cloister  by Levitan 1890 (WikiArt.org.)

Isaac Ilyich Levitan (30 August 1860 – 4 August 1900: aged 40) was one of Alexei  Savrasov‘s (1830 – 1897) students. Savrasov created the “lyrical landscape.” As for Levitan, he aimed to produce “mood landscapes,” a form of “lyrical” landscapes.

From Lithuania to Moscow

Levitan was born in Lithuania, now Russia. He was the son of Elyashiv Levitan, and the grandson of a rabbi. In 1870, the Levitan family moved to Moscow and, three years later, Isaac entered the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. Levitan’s mother died in 1875 and his father fell ill and died two years later, in 1877. Levitan’s family was then impoverished.

Autumn Day. Sokolniki, 1879

Impoverishment did not prevent 17-year-old Levitan from attending school.  He was awarded a scholarhip. His teachers were Alexei SavrasovVasily Perov and Vasily Polenov. Isaac Levitan’s paintings soon proved favourites in group exhibitions and, in 1880, famous philanthropist and art collector Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov, the founder of the Tretyakov Gallery, purchased Levitan’s Autum DaySokolniki, shown below.

Autumn day, Sokolniki, 1879 - Isaac Levitan

Autumn Day by Isaac Levitan (WikiArt.org)


The Peredvizhniki

Alexei Savrasov, Levitan’s mentor, had joined the Peredvizhniki, in 1870. Members of the Peredvizhniki, or wanderers, were a group of landscape painters, wishing to free themselves from the restraints of Academic painting. In Russia, however, artists and writers also wished to avoid government censorship. Levitan joined the movement in 1991. In 1884, Levitan participated in a travelling exhibition by members of the Peredvizhniki and, in 1891, he joined the movement in 1891. This organization would be succeeded by the Association of Travelling Art Exhibits. (See Peredvizhniki, Wiki2.org.)


In the forest at winter by Levitan, 1885 (WikiArt.org)

An attempt on Alexander II’s life: Jews deported

Russian Jews were the victims of pogroms, massacres. So Levitan had to leave Moscow when Alexander Soloviev attempted to assassinate Tsar Alexander II, in May 1879.[1] The failed attempt triggered a “mass deportation” of Jews living in Russia’s larger cities. Levitan’s family left for Saltykovka, a suburb. (See Isaac Levitan, Wiki2.org.) Levitan was soon returned to cities. In 1898, two years before his death, Levitan, then famous, would be elected to the Imperial Academy of Arts.

Levitan loved the “lyrical charm of the Russian landscape.” (see Levitan, Wiki2.org.)  Moreover, as a gifted artist, he befriended élite members of the world of art and literature. In 19th-century Russia, talent was often recognised. Moreover, artists and authors formed communities where ethnicity and creed had little significance, which benefited both artists and authors. Levitan had already met author Anton Chekhov and artist, or future artist, Nikolai Chekhov. In the early 1880s, Levitan provided illustrations for the magazine “Moscow,” published by the Chekhov brothers. (Levitan, Wiki2.org.) 

Levitan and Anton Chekhov became very close friends. Isaac Levitan spent his last year and died at Anton Chekhov’s home in YaltaCrimea. Anton was a medical doctor who died of tuberculosis in 1902, two years after Levitan’s death.


Sunset. Forest Edge by Levitan, 1890 (WikiArt.org.)


Spring. High Waters by Levitan, 1897 (WikiArt.org.)

“Lyrical” & “Mood” landscapes

We have seen that Russian musicians composed programmatic” music or music that told a story: words and music. Savrasov’s “lyrical” landscapes and Levitan’s “mood” landscapes were an attempt to unite painting and poetry.

In 19th-century Europe, musicians composed Symphonic poems. The Symphonic poem is “a piece of orchestral music in a single continuous section (a movement) in which the content of a poem, a story or novel, a painting, a landscape or another (non-musical) source is illustrated or evoked.” (Symphonic Poem, Wiki2.org.) In other words, it is “programmatic.”

The Symphonic poem

The Symphonic poem can be associated with Symbolism in art as well as French literature. Symbolism was a European rather than national movement. The Symphonic poem is the German Tondichtung, first used by Carl LoeweFranz Liszt coined the term “Symphonic poem.” 


A discussion of Isaac Levitan differs, to a rather large extent, from a dicussion of The Five. Although Pavel Tretiakov wanted to create a Russian Art Gallery and members of the Peredvizhniki painted the Russian landscape, athey did not attempt, at least not primarily, to give their art an Eastern appearance. Orientalism pervades 19th-century art, but in Russia, Orientalism was expressed by composers mainly. I suspect, however, that Russian communities of artists and writers would include composers. All were creative minds. Ilya Repin portrayed the Slavic composers, meeting at the Moscow Conservatory.

As for “mood” and “lyrical landscapes,” these could stimulate more than one sense, as in synesthesia, but they could simply be evocative and melancholic. Romanticism was an important movement. Vanishing points, are a common feature in the visual arts. But when roads and lanes vanish into the distance, we know not where they lead.

At the end of Rachmaninoff’s All-night Vigil, Vespers, 🎶 one can hear a basso profondo or profundo. This vocal range is more common in Russia and Eastern Europe than in most countries.

Love to everyone

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Church in Plyos, 1888 (WikiArt.org.)

Feodor Chaliapin sings Jules Massenet‘s Élégie (op. 10 no. 5)


Moonlit Night by Levitan (WikiArt.org.)

© Micheline Walker
8 December 2018