Was Chekhov an Impressionist?

"The Lake. Russia" (1900), Levitan's last great work.

“The Lake. Russia” (1900), Levitan’s last great work.

This is not a question to be answered in a few paragraphs. It is a thread that runs throughout Antosha and Levitasha, especially since Levitan is usually thought of as a Russian Impressionist painter. Associating Chekhov with Impressionism has always been problematic if for no other reason than the fact that literary Impressionism never existed as a school or movement. But that hasn’t prevented scholars from seeing a connection between Chekhov’s style and the techniques of Impressionist painters. In his study Literary Impressionism, Chekhov and James, Peter Stowall defined Impressionism as “subjective objectivism” compared to the “omniscient objectivity” of Realism. Stowall emphasized that at the center of Impressionism is the act of perception: “What is perceived is determined by how it is perceived.” This immediately brings to mind the technique often used by Chekhov in his late stories—everything that unfolds is seen through the eyes of the protagonists even when the story is told in the third person. This is achieved through the frequent use of variations of the phrase: “it seemed to him that…”

Here, I believe, we are touching on an unwavering, fundamental perspective held by the elusive Chekhov. In February 1886, when Dunya Efros called off their engagement, Chekhov confessed his foul mood to his friend Viktor Bilibin: “Everything in the world is false, changeable, approximate and relative.” Six years later, he put almost the same words in the mouth of the landscape painter Ryabovsky (a parody of Levitan) in the story “The Grasshopper.” Ryabovsky has begun to grow tired of his affair with Olga Ivanova (an even more scathing caricature of Levitan’s mistress Sophia Kuvshinnikova): He “felt that he had already dried up and lost his talent, that everything in this world was conditional, relative and stupid, and that it did not make any sense to be involved with this woman.”

And yet this view that “everything is relative” is not exactly how I would choose to connect Chekhov with Levitan and Russian Impressionism. There is a more specific influence to be found in the way Chekhov saw that Levitan was able to paint landscapes that evoked deep human emotions, and Chekhov, in a similar fashion, began to use descriptions of nature in his stories to reflect the moods, even the spiritual state, of his protagonists.

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