Levitan Meets Tolstoy

The archives of the Tretyakov Gallery are just down Lavrushinsky Lane from the museum itself.

The archives of the Tretyakov Gallery are just down Lavrushinsky Lane from the museum itself.

Among the unpublished memoirs at the Tretyakov Gallery archive, I came across an interesting anecdote about how Levitan once met Tolstoy, albeit very briefly. In the late 1880’s Levitan was living, on and off, in a furnished room in the low-rent “Anglia” apartments on Tverskaya Street. Across the hall from him lived Alexander Prugavin, a friend of Tolstoy, who would occasionally drop by. Knowing this, Levitan asked Prugavin whether he could come over and meet Tolstoy; he was especially eager to find out what the great writer and wise oracle thought of landscape painting. Prugavin encouraged Levitan to come by, saying that Tolstoy always enjoyed meeting new people.

Sometime later Prugavin and Tolstoy were deep in a conversation when there was a knock at the door. Levitan came in and Prugavin introduced him to Tolstoy, who as usual looked intently at the young artist’s face as they shook hands, then resumed his conversation with Prugavin. Soon afterward Tolstoy said, “Well, I have to go. They’re waiting for me.” As Prugavin showed Tolstoy to the door, he noticed that Levitan looked unusually embarrassed and agitated. After Tolstoy left, Levitan said, “I’m guilty. I scared off Tolstoy. If I hadn’t come, he wouldn’t have left here so quickly.” Prugavin reassured him that Tolstoy had only dropped by on his way somewhere else. Levitan told Prugavin that he was still curious to know what Tolstoy thought of landscape painting and asked him to bring the question up when the opportunity arose.

At some point Prugavin did ask Tolstoy, “What do you think about landscape painting?”

“A landscape?” Tolstoy answered with a question. Shrugging his shoulders, he pronounced: “In my opinion, it’s just background for a picture.” Prugavin was so taken aback by this unexpected, dismissive response that he decided not to tell Levitan what Tolstoy had said about “this form of painting to which he gave all of his soul and made the goal of his life.”

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