People had widely divergent opinions of Sophia Kuvshinnikova, who was Levitan’s mistress from sometime in the late 1880s until 1894. Chekhov found her to be a social gadfly and couldn’t forgive her for cuckolding her husband, a hard-working and unassuming police doctor. He satirized her in his story “The Grasshopper,” which ended his friendship with Levitan for almost three years. Tatiana Shchepkina-Kupernik was more sympathetic, charmed by her audacious taste in clothing and the bohemian energy of her Sunday salons.
Unfortunately, we have no record of Levitan describing to anyone what attracted him to Kuvshinnikova, who was 13 years older than him. Kuvshinnikova’s memoirs of Levitan, published after his death, have not a shred of flamboyance. On the contrary, aware that to many she was chiefly known as his mistress, she was eager to present her bona fides not just as a worthy student of her master but as a painter to be taken seriously in her own right.
To get a clearer, unmediated sense of her personality, I read what remains of a diary she kept in 1883 held at the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art in Moscow. The fragment, which spans 20 days in January, only exists because she turned the book she wrote it in into an album, encouraging her soiree guests to add sketches, poems and cartoons. The diary was written before she met Levitan, but 11 years after she married Dmitri Kuvshinnikov, during a period in which she was staying at her father’s estate in Yalutorovsk in Siberia and recovering from an unspecified illness. She seemed not to care that others (Chekhov among them) could read her intimate thoughts, including a brief infatuation (if not a love affair) with a married political exile. Some among their friends concluded that Dmitri acted more like a guardian than a husband, but there is also evidence that her behavior caused him much pain.