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Isaac Levitan, Russian Poet of Nature

Before the Storm, 1890

Born August 30, 1860, Isaac Ilyich Levitan was a Russian landscape painter. Born in Congress Poland to a Jewish family, Levitan would study art in Moscow where he would become friends with Anton Chekov and his brother, Nikolay who was also an artist. Levitan's work has a unique mood that is very distinct from the Impressionism of France and the Classicism of Russia...sometimes compared to Monet but still different. Levitan has a rare presence with astute attention to detail and a fascination with light at different times of day. At times highly accurate, while in his more personal work deeply Impressionistic and imbued with rich tone and color. There is something about Levitan that lingers in your mind long after seeing his a way that is individual and personal, not attached to a specific genre or movement, but to the world around him.

In Before the Storm, Levitan captures a moment so stunning it seems to defy words...of sunlight piercing through an expanse of cumulonimbus clouds against a dark sky. The landscape below is bare and simple, yet the warm greens lead our eye upward toward that incredible sky. After a while we notice a tiny, solitary figure walking along a path. By making the focus on the clouds and the contrast in tones ranging from yellows to blue-greys to even yellow-grays...Levitan reminds us that the mundane can be completely enthralling at the right moment. We can almost taste the moisture in the air. This is the kind of drama that landscape painters of today seem to have either forgotten or never learned at all...If Beethoven could paint, this is probably what it would have looked like. Stunning.

Evening Study, ca. 1800's
I love how minimalist this study is yet so present. That glowing sunset with the textures of trees in the foreground and the suggestion of greenery on the ground. A lone bird flying to add visual interest to the vast expanse of sky. Levitan conjures the feeling of déjà vu, like we have seen this before yet seeing it for the first time...seeing it simultaneously through his eyes as well as our own. There is no formal focal point or compositional technique here to learn. This is a painting you feel. You stand there until the light falls beind the horizon...if this doesn't inspire an artist to go outside and paint, nothing will.

Isaac Levitan-Paysage de Crimée-Musée Levitan
House-museum of Isaac Levitan, Plyos ca. 1800's
Here we see a light that is both warm and overcast, a kind of visual oxymoron and yet...Levitan has captured it for us. Look closely at the clouds and you can see where Levitan's asute eye shines...warm green-grey tones against warmer ones that seem simplistic yet must have taken an eternity to paint with such attention to values. What a wonderful palette. And the waves cresting on the shore he captures quite nicely also. Warm greens and orange tones in the foreground to add visual contrast. Look closely and now there are two figures near the rock watching the waves. This is what great Art does: it invites us in. Engages us.

Fog Over Water, 1890
This dream-like moment that Levitan captures here is so much more than mere painting study or Impressionist landscape art, but deeper...subconscious. Levitan conveys stillness with...mysterious energy and the magic of nature at night. Look at how simple those brushstrokes of the sky and water are, and those trees are merely suggested and lures us in. The moonlight spilling on the pond and illuminating the edge of grass...this is magic. Levitan is making us aware of how little we understand nature or ourselves, and to explore the hypnotic beauty in that mystery. Truly inspiring.

Issak Levitan - The Oak
The Oak, ca. 1880's
Here we can see how skilled a draftsman and Classical an artist Levitan was, that being pin-holed into the Impressionist label was not of interest to him but allowing the subject to speak to him on how it wants to be painted. These incredible textures and luscious greens would not be quite the same if it were painted in loose, broad brushstrokes. And yet even within this painting, Levitan achieves his textures and details by paying careful attention to edge control and shapes, and by indicating textures with the contrast of both dry brush and thicker paint, by bright opaque areas next to transparent shadows. He imbues this tree with such personality and character it almost seems as if it could speak. The disarming simplicity in this composition is that despite placing the tree almost dead center of the painting, by using a pool of sunlight to "spotlight" this uniquely beautiful tree, with limbs curving upward as wants to move or dance. Levitan discovers personality in a scene where most would blink and move on, and yet this is the heart of all painting: to really open our eyes.

Evening on the Volga, 1888
Incredible presence. Look at how that row of boats gradually leads the eye along the shoreline in a gentle arc to the water, with the bright, crisp whites. The deep blue sky above obscures the sun and hints at a possible rain storm. Yet the feeling here is serene and calming. Effortless. The way the top part of the sky opens up is much more than the proverbial silver lining...this is about transformation. Levitan reminds us that the greatest moments are ones of quiet contemplation, and even no contemplation but merely experiencing the moment...transitory and hauntingly beautiful, that we don't need all the answers, but appreciation of what is in front of us.


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