With a household full of Chekhov siblings and their guests, all spirited, intelligent men and women in their 20s, the atmosphere at Babkino in the summer of 1886 was both lively and emotionally charged. One day Maria Chekhova was walking along the road leading from the estate towards the woods when she unexpectedly met Levitan. They were chatting for a bit when Levitan suddenly dropped to his knees and declared his love for her. Embarrassed, Maria could think of nothing to say, covered her face with her hands, turned around, and ran off back to the house. She stayed in her room all day, crying. As usual Levitan came to the house for dinner, but Maria didn’t leave her room. When Chekhov asked why Maria wasn’t at the table, his brother Mikhail mentioned that he had seen her crying earlier in the day. Chekhov got up and went to her room. Maria told him what had happened and admitted that she didn’t know what to say to Levitan. Chekhov responded, “Of course, you can, if you want, marry him, but keep in mind that he needs women of Balzac’s age, not those like you.” Maria was 23 years old.
Maria recalled that she wasn’t sure what exactly her brother meant, “but felt he was warning me about something.” Chekhov was alluding to Levitan’s taste for older women who were sexually promiscuous, often adulterous. Maria didn’t say anything to Levitan, who “went about Babkino like a gloomy shadow.” She must have wondered how seriously to take Levitan’s declaration given the fact that it was common knowledge that he was comically prone to falling in love. Mikhail noted that “his affairs went on publicly and were always tumultuous and turbulent. They had all the stupid characteristics of love affairs, even including gunshots. If he found a woman who interested him, he would drop everything to pursue her, sometimes quite literally giving chase, even outside Moscow. He would think nothing of kneeling in front of a woman no matter where he happened to be at the moment, whether in a public park or someone’s house. Some women liked that about him, but some were afraid to be compromised and avoided him, even though they were secretly drawn to him.”
Levitan’s awkward and impulsive declaration to the naïve Maria failed to derail what evolved into a warm, lifelong friendship. The next time he declared himself to her, she jokingly hit him with her shoe. He covered his face with his arms and started crying, but the next day he acted like nothing had happened. Neither Levitan nor Maria ever married, and in her old age she fondly recalled that late in his life when he was already gravely ill, Levitan confessed to her (and not just once), “If I had ever gotten married, it would have been only to you…”