Jewish Journal

A Dank Levitan!

by Milad Doroudian

June 5, 2014 | 1:34 am

From a small shtetl in the middle of Lithuania to the Moscow Art Academy and Tsar Alexander’s magnificent exhibition halls, Isaac Levitan’s story might seem just like any other rags-to-riches tale, but it is far more than that. Known as the modern founder, at least between art historians, of emotional landscaping, Levitan took the trade to the next level. His painting encapsulates the beauty of nature, as well as its inherent connection to the human soul.

Not just another romantic Jewish artist, Levitan used his brush to paint angelic scenery, not only to achieve beautiful aesthetics, but rather to depict mood and emotion. The best example of this can be seen in his painting “Water Lilies” which does seem to soothe and relax one’s heart, if not for at least a moment.

“Water Lilies” by Isaac Levitan, 1895. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Still, being born in unthinkable poverty in Eastern Europe’s Jewish World did not seem to have too much an of effect on Levitan’s seemingly beautiful art. No, his brush does not allude to the political and cultural mishaps of Europe’s late 19th century, but rather its natural beauty. Something, which mind you, was rare amid the rapidly changing world around him. However let us not forget that this was Russia, where the peasant ruled supreme.

The historical Pale of Settlement, in which his humble Lithuania, and humbler yet shetle resided was one filled with hardship, from unrelenting poverty, to benign drudgery. Still people got through it somehow. Such was the story of Levitan’s own parents, who although did not have the means to live a comfortable life still provided their son with both a secular and proper Jewish education at home. Being nurtured in the home of two intellectuals, Levitan began to be interested in painting from a very young age, undoubtedly with no lack of support from his parents.

In his 20’s Levitan traveled to Moscow to study art, but when both of his parents died within a year he no longer received financial aid to pay his tuition. However his sheer talent saved him when the school faculty decided to let him study on account of his skills in painting landscapes, and even offered him a scholarship. Levitan’s days of poverty were only beginning.

It took him years to find clients who would buy his work, mainly because it was rather difficult for him to actually get an exhibition at which to advertise it. Once he did in the 1880’s and became a man of sustainable means, he simply continued on painting, unlike many artists whose spirit would be quenched by new found riches.

Levitan’s spirit soldiered on unrelentlessly in his mission to depict the Russian landscapes, the one he had read in the romantic literature of the time. The expression of mood and love through mere landscapes might indeed seem a bit too romantic, but his brush itself did not lie. In fact, his brushstrokes with their undulating patterns created imagery that represented the epitome of realistic painting. 

"Untitled" by Isaac Levitan, 1895. Source: Wikimedia Commons

To be honest, I do not blame Levitan for steering away from urban landscape, or human subjects for that matter. It is reasonable to infer that he most likely found his peace among nature and its representation. This was something that never changed in his habit, all the way until his premature death in 1900.

Yet what are we to learn from a man whose perplexity is in itself mystifying? Why would one continue to paint beautiful and wide Russian landscapes, but not once touch the urbanite jungle of Moscow, or even St. Petersburg? To be honest I do not know, but if it meant that he would not achieve the same degree of beauty in his supposed urban works rather than the rural ones, I am glad he did not go for the former.

Levitan was, like many of his Jewish and non-Jewish contemporaries, a staunch romantic and advocated of beauty, simply for the sake of beauty. Something which we lack today. So, "A dank Levitan!" for leaving such an alluring and magnificent legacy in the world of art.

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Milad Doroudian is a history student at the University of British Columbia and a writer. He is currently working on a book on the Jassy Pogrom of 1941, and is an active...

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