Levitan and Russian Impressionism

Levitan's "Quiet Abode" (1890)

Levitan’s “Quiet Abode” (1890)

Konstantin Korovin, Levitan’s classmate at the Moscow School of Painting, recalled that their teacher the Itinerant painter Vasily Polenov introduced them to French Impressionism in their landscape class. But Impressionism didn’t make much of an impact on Russian painters in the 1870s and 1880s. It was seen as mostly gimmicky effects and splashy techniques reflecting the superficiality of the French temperament. The dominant Itinerant movement in Russia, even among landscape painters, demanded that art reflect thoughts, feelings, spirituality, if not a political or social philosophy.

One of the first qualities that Chekhov saw in Levitan’s paintings was “truth,” a turning away from romanticized notions of nature toward something more honest. When the writer and family friend Maria Kiselyova criticized Chekhov for showing us a “pile of dung” in one of his early stories, Chekhov responded: “Literature is accepted as an art because it depicts life as it actually is…. Limiting its functions….would be as deadly for art as requiring Levitan to draw a tree without any dirty bark or yellowed leaves.”

But Chekhov also came to recognize that nature in Levitan’s paintings aroused strong emotions in the viewer. In the story “Three Years,” the unhappily married Yulia Sergeevna stands before a painting at an exhibition at the School of Painting that is remarkably similar to Levitan’s “Quiet Abode.” She is emotionally overwhelmed: “…it suddenly seemed to her that she had seen those same clouds that stretched across the red part of the sky, and the forest, and the fields long ago and many times; she felt lonely, and she wanted to walk, walk, walk down the path; and where the sunset’s glow was, there rested the reflection of something unearthly, eternal.” However much Levitan started to use some of the optical techniques seen in French art, it was his steadfast emphasis on trying to evoke the lyrical and the spiritual in nature that stamped his Impressionism as distinctly Russian.

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