I decided to take a break from the archives and go see the Levitan paintings at the Tretyakov. In 1879 the business magnate and art patron Pavel Tretyakov paid 100 rubles for Levitan’s painting “Autumn Day, Sokolniki,” which he saw at a student exhibition. Levitan was only 19 years old, and Tretyakov would go on to buy over 20 more paintings by Levitan for as much as 3,000 rubles. “Autumn Day” depicts a wide path gently curving through Sokolniki Park, a favorite haunt for landscape art students on the outskirts of the city. His classmate Nikolai Chekhov, Anton’s brother, convinced Levitan that the painting was insufficiently expressive, that the path was waiting for someone to inhabit it. So he added a woman in a black dress walking pensively along the path.
I spent several hours in the Levitan Room making detailed notes on each painting—there are about 25 in the room. Having spent more than two years looking at reproductions, it was interesting to take note of what caught my eye when looking at the originals. One was the quality of light in them. Many of the paintings depict the “magic hour,” when the sun has already gone behind the trees or hills, creating long shadows where there is still direct light and a muted, pastel tone to the sky. I was also struck by reflective qualities of the water, often dark and opaque. The water is like a black mirror, murky yet still reflecting the sky and the nearby reeds or trees.
It’s very clear from his later pieces that Levitan was moving towards embracing Impressionist techniques. One late piece “Stormy Day” depicts a sky that is pure Van Gogh, although Levitan’s colors are darker, more muted. Had he lived (he died very young at 39), he would have evolved towards greater abstraction, already evident in the painting “The Last Rays of Sun” (1899)—village huts, a road, a gate, all painted in very flat blocks of varying sepia tones.