Levitan’s Lost Letters

The first page of a letter that Levitan wrote to the artist Elena Karzinkina in July 1896.

The first page of a letter that Levitan wrote to the artist Elena Karzinkina in July 1896.

After Chekhov died in 1904, his sister Maria set about methodically to retrieve his voluminous correspondence. The 1974-83 Soviet Academy of Sciences Complete Collected Works and Letters of Chekhov contain 4,468 letters, although some were cut by the prudish Maria and the Soviet censors, and a few were considered obscene and left out entirely. Still, Chekhov’s 12 volumes of letters represent one of the richest treasures of 19th century Russian literature.

Levitan’s correspondence had an entirely different fate. The only collection of Levitan’s correspondence, published in 1956, contains 151 letters, 55 of which were written to Chekhov. I’ve been able to find about 26 more letters published online and not included in the 1956 collection. But all letters written to Levitan, including those from Chekhov, no longer exist. Upon his death in 1900 Levitan instructed his brother Adolf to burn his correspondence, and he dutifully carried out Isaac’s request. Presumably Levitan had no desire for a record of a lifetime of romantic entanglements to live on after him.

When Anna Turchaninova, Levitan’s mistress during the last six years of his life, moved to Paris in the 1920’s, she brought with her 200 letters to her from Levitan. A visiting artist by the name of Smelov managed to talk her out of burning the letters, and she gave them to him. But at some point on the eve of World War II, Smelov handed the letters to someone to type out and they were lost. We have only one letter that Levitan wrote to Turchaninova.

Much of my research in Moscow this summer will be devoted to confirming whether there are any Levitan letters in the archives that have not been published or only published in censored form, and to see whether unpublished correspondence among Chekhov’s and Levitan’s friends and family contain any new information about the relationship between the writer and the artist.

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8 Responses to Levitan’s Lost Letters

  1. Pingback: Chekhov’s gun | Jaye Em Edgecliff

  2. Joe paquet says:

    I am a landscape painter and seeing the works of Issacc Levitan changed my life –
    I am wondering how I could find his letters and or notes on art.
    Thank You,
    Joe Paquet ,USA

    • sergegregory says:

      Hi Joe,
      Levitan’s letters have never been published in English, which is one of the reasons that they are such important source material for the book I’m writing. As far as his thoughts on paintings and art, the only sources are memoirs, especially those of his students during the last two years of his life, and again these exist only in Russian. He never wrote any articles on art. While the focus of my book is on the friendship between Chekhov and Levitan, I’m mindful of the fact that it will also probably be the only comprehensive book in English on Levitan’s life and art, and as such I have a responsibility to discuss his aesthetics and technique for readers like you.

  3. Olga says:

    Hello, will you include any information about Issak’s brother Adolf Levitan into your book?
    Thank you

  4. sergegregory says:

    Olga, yes I do write about Adolf Levitan, although the information on him is scant. He preceded Isaac as a student at the Moscow School of Painting, eventually eking out a living primarily as an illustrator for magazines and journals. The two brothers were not close and were seen together only occasionally at social gatherings. Obviously Adolf lived in the shadow of his more famous brother. Nevertheless, he faithfully executed Isaac’s wishes upon his death. Adolf lived another 33 years, spending his last years in Yalta, continuing to refuse to talk to anyone about Isaac. When Maria Chekhova wrote to Adolph asking if he had any letters from Chekhov to his brother, his response was curt: “The burning of the letters, as I already earlier related to you, was done by me while he was still alive by his order and before his eyes. It was done by me gladly, since I consciously completely agreed with his decision and would have done the same even now.”

  5. Olga says:

    Thanks for your respond Serge,
    as for Avel and Isaak being not close you are mistaken. They were rather close, especially during the years of hardships and poverty. They lived together when studying at Moscow School of Art, they went to school and back together, participated in many Chekhov’s funny events together, attended Vladimir Gilyarovsky’s Stoleshniki together, and together rode trains to Moscow to Art school when they were kicked out of the capital being Jews. It was Avel who supported the family during that hard time earning some money for his illustrations and to put the monument on his brothers grave. He really burned Isaak’s letters but it was done due to his bother’s wish. And he spent all the time at Issak’s bed till his end. There are some written evidences on that (in Russian).

    I don’t think he was jealous to the younger Levitan (and by the way there still is a discussion who of the brothers was younger) because there are so many unopened pages of their lives. Both of them were very reticent and didn’t want to share their private life with the others. Maybe it was due to being Jews and I think you know the bad attitude of many Russians toward Jewish nation that is still very alive.

    The Soviet propaganda did lots of bad things to erase the names of many talented Russians, especially in the art, literature, music and science area. Avel ended his life in Yalta without leaving it after that horrible earthquake of 1927, and he lived in a studio of an old building with the outdoor bathroom and wooden oven. And people are selling flats in the very same house with no idea that there lived the brother of the famous Levitan.

  6. sergegregory says:

    Olga, thanks for your detailed and very interesting reply. You are absolutely correct about how close the brothers were during their school years. However, I have been struck by the fact that after 1885 until Issac’s death in 1900 there is almost no mention of any interaction between the two brothers–there is a letter that Adolf wrote on Isaac’s behalf in 1898 when his brother was ill. On the other hand, we know that Isaac was in regular contact with their sister Teresa and her family, and once his financial situation improved (and even before) provided support to her and her children. If you are aware of any sources that refer to the brothers’ relationship after they left the School of Art, I would be very interested in knowing what they are.

    I am also intrigued by your comment about who in fact was the younger of the two. Semyon Shpitser’s 1908 article based on conversations with Teresa, which provides almost all we know about the early life of the Levitan family, describes Adolf/Avel as the older brother who enrolled in the School of Painting before Isaac did in 1873 at age 13. Are there other sources that dispute this? Is Adolf buried in Yalta in a marked grave with his birth date?

    It is indeed frustrating that there is so little primary source material on the Levitan family. I agree that the fact that they were persecuted Jews might have a lot to do with it. It is striking how reluctant Isaac is to complain too loudly about his second expulsion from Moscow in 1892, even though by then he was already a famous painter with an international reputation.

  7. Joe Paquet says:

    Thank you for you reply – I just found it today.
    If you know of any other sources I might contact to find something more of his working methodology I would be most grateful.
    Additionally I would love to purchase a copy of your book.

    Thank you and all the best to you
    Joe Paquet

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