Levitan and Diaghilev

Levitan's "Stormy Day" (1897) is an excellent example of his evolution towards a more modernist style of landscape painting in the last few years of his life.

Levitan’s “Stormy Day” (1897) is an excellent example of his evolution towards a more modernist style of landscape painting in the last few years of his life.

Sergei Diaghilev is most well-known as the impresario of the Ballets Russes based in Paris between 1909 and 1929. So it may come as a surprise to learn that in the late 1890’s he played an influential role in supporting Levitan’s impulse to start painting in a new style.

Sergei Diaghilev

Sergei Diaghilev

As a young man, Diaghilev first thought of himself as a budding composer, but that ambition was crushed when Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov told him to his face that his compositions were “absurd.” He then moved on to collecting and exhibiting art. As an art critic, he championed Levitan as a Russian painter who could hold his own against the best European artists. In 1897 Diaghilev, seeking to challenge the status quo represented by the Society of Itinerant Painters, sent out a letter to Levitan and his fellow young Moscow artists saying that he was planning to form a new society of artists, and planning exhibitions and a publication around them. While Levitan participated in Diaghilev’s exhibitions and reproductions of his landscapes appeared in the first two issues of Diaghilev’s journal World of Art, he was unwilling to quit the Itinerants–his livelihood depended on sales of his paintings from its exhibitions.

In December 1901, after Levitan’s death, Diaghilev asked Chekhov to write “a few words” about his friend in an article for World of Art. Chekhov replied from Yalta that he wanted to write more than a few words, but was feeling too ill: “I’m sitting with a compress; I recently was spitting up blood.” Later Chekhov promised to send Diaghilev his recollections of a woodcock hunting trip that he and Levitan went on in early spring near Davydov Hermitage. But sadly, he never got to it.

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