What Attracted Chekhov to Levitan?

Portrait of Konstantin Korovin by Valentin Serov (1891)

Portrait of Konstantin Korovin by Valentin Serov (1891)

As a medical student grounded in science and the practical world, Chekhov wasn’t by nature enamored of artists. He had the example, close at hand, of his brother Nikolai who squandered his life through dissipation and indifference to his talent. In September 1883 in his regular column “Fragments of Moscow Life” for a Petersburg weekly, Chekhov wrote a sketch about the Moscow School of Painting on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. He chided the school’s students: “They draw, don’t care about sciences, sinfully love to drink schnapps, don’t cut their hair, don’t get any farther in anatomy than the neck bones…in general, they’re nice folks. But they do have a specific feature that distinguishes them from other students: they quickly flower and quickly fade.” Chekhov the satirist chastised the students with too broad a brush and a definite lack of prescience: “Where are Ellert, Ianov, Levitan and tutti quanti? Where are they now?”

What then attracted Chekhov to Levitan in their student days? Konstantin Korovin’s memoirs, written many years later as impressionistic sketches for emigre newspapers in Paris in the 1930’s, provides some insight. Korovin was Levitan’s classmate at the School of Painting, and the two of them were recognized by both their fellow students and teachers as unusually gifted artists. It was obvious to Korovin that Chekhov and Levitan saw in each other a common work ethic and seriousness of purpose unusual among their bohemian peers. Both found themselves at odds with the prevailing notions of political activism and didacticism. Chekhov’s writing lacked, to use Rosamund Bartlett’s phrase, “any kind of ideological freight.” Levitan’s refusal to even consider making genre paintings expressing an “idea” put him at odds with the dominant aesthetic of the Itinerant movement. One of Levitan’s teachers disdainfully called “Autumn Day. Sokolniki” nothing but “colorful trousers.”

One day Korovin and Levitan were hunting outside of Moscow. They noticed a group of school boys taking an interest in them. Levitan said, “See. They’re looking at us. Because we are hunters! If they knew that we were painters, they wouldn’t want to know us…It’s just the way it is. I’m telling you the truth. We’re not needed. They don’t understand us.” Levitan told Korovin that he could never love a woman who didn’t understand why he felt compelled to paint a gray day or a muddy road: “My sketch, this tone, this blue road, this sadness in a shaft of light beyond the forest. This is me, my spirit. It’s in me. And if she doesn’t feel it, then who are we? Strangers. What will I talk to her about? Antosha understands this.”

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This entry was posted in Circle of Friends, Konstantin Korovin, Moscow School of Painting and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to What Attracted Chekhov to Levitan?

  1. Brilliant Post!
    Where may I be able to find this book? I

    • sergegregory says:

      Thank you! I hope other readers of the blog agree. I will be in Moscow in June and July doing final archival research for the book. Most of the manuscript is already written and I hope to have a final draft for submission to potential publishers by this December. The main purpose of the blog is to generate reader interest in the topic.

      • Please, when you do publish this book. Make sure you make the appropriate information available on your blog on where we might be able to purchase it.

        I am also in the process of doing research for a book, and I know the hardships that comes along with it.
        I wish you the best of luck.

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