Levitan’s Mother

Levitan self-portrait at age 20.

Isaac Levitan self-portrait at age 20.

When you’re writing about people who were born over 150 years ago, they hold secrets that they will never reveal to you. For example, Levitan’s mother died in 1875 when the painter was 15 years old. In fact, she died twice, because we don’t even know her name and she is lost to memory. Chekhov’s sister Maria found it strange that Levitan never talked about his family and his childhood: “It appeared as if he never had a father or mother. At times it seemed to me that he wanted to completely forget about their existence.” Perhaps Levitan simply didn’t want to have to explain how he and his family, as impoverished Jews with no right of permanent residence, came to live in Moscow. But there are other reasons for wanting to know about Levitan’s feelings for his mother. He was an extraordinarily handsome man, a hypersexual manic-depressive. He never married, but had two long-lasting affairs, both with married women who were considerably older than him, relationships which Chekhov, although not a prude, disapproved of.

Readers expect authors to be in command of their subjects. But an author’s mastery is never as unequivocal as he would wish it to be.

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