VOLUME 60, NUMBER 2, Summer 2016
Serge Gregory. Antosha & Levitasha: The Shared Lives and Art of Anton Chekhov and Isaac Levitan. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois UP, 2015. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index. viii + 248 pp. $39.00 (paper).
Writer Anton Chekhov and landscape painter Isaac Levitan led parallel lives. Bom in the same year, 1860, they both grew up in poverty as members of a marginalized class. Gifted with extraordinary powers of observation and expression, they became acknowledged masters of their crafts. Their personal, romantic, artistic, and professional lives were intertwined: Levitan proposed marriage to Chekhov’s sister; both endured a health crisis in the late 1800s and sought treatment in Western Europe; they died childless four years apart at the peak of their fame, in the month of July (1900 and 1904). In this superb book, Serge Gregory shows that these biographical parallels are the merest surface of an emotional and creative relationship that shaped the two artists’ works, and the future history of literature and art, in profound ways.
Noting that Chekhov’s life has been thoroughly chronicled by scholars, Gregory structures his book as both a biography of Levitan—the first in English—and a study of his relationship with the writer. This leads to fresh sources: Levitan’s letters to friends; memoirs and letters by patrons and fellow artists; and documents relating to the Russian visual arts at the end of the nineteenth century. Through meticulous scholarship and fine writerly craft, Gregory offers a riveting story of two creative geniuses at work.
A fine-grained picture emerges in spite of irreparable gaps in the epistolary legacy. Gregory reminds his readers that Levitan’s brother Adolph fulfilled Isaac’s deathbed request to destroy all of his correspondence (220-21). Thus we have fifty-five letters from Levitan to Chekhov, but none in the other direction. Gregory has to reconstruct the relationship based on Levitan’s letters and on peripheral references in writings by Chekhov and others. This literary detective work is complicated both by the storms of history, whose casualties include over two hundred letters from Levitan to Anna Turchaninova, his companion late in life, and storms of a personal nature. Maria Chekhova, for example, destroyed all but three of a large stack of letters she had from Levitan (222).
Gregory points out that Levitan’s was the stronger artistic influence. He argues convincingly that it was Levitan who inspired Chekhov to use landscape as a metaphor for human emotional experience. The artist also served as a prototype for many fictional characters. Chekhov’s influence, though equally profound, took a social and practical form. He welcomed the orphaned Levitan into the lively and warm circle of his family and friends, and hosted him at his summer dachas and at his home in Melikhovo—places whose natural environment served the painter as the subject for many of his best works.
Chekhov’s readers will learn a great deal from Gregory’s analysis of Levitan’s influence both personal and artistic, on such major works as The Steppe, “The Grasshopper,” “The House with the Mezzanine,” The Seagull, and “Lady with the Dog.” Only rarely did Levitan paint human beings. It was Anton Chekhov’s brother Nikolai, for example, who painted the female figure into Levitan’s 1879 canvas, Autumn Day. Sokolniki (10). At a time when the culture demanded ideologically committed art in all genres, Levitan’s works lacked social and political reference points and refrained from telling a story. Chekhov drew upon Levitan’s work for the landscapes he describes in his narratives, adding the missing human element. Gregory makes it impossible to view these landscapes simply as backdrops; he shows that Levitan’s spiritual and lyrical sensibility permeates not only the settings, but also the characters and plots of Chekhov’s works.
Having described Levitan’s early years of study in the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, Gregory takes his readers to Babkino, the estate outside Moscow where the Chekhov family rented a dacha in 1885-1886. Levitan, who suffered from what we would now call bipolar disorder, had failed to earn a first-class degree, which limited his professional options. Young Doctor Chekhov invited him to spend the summer in the area. Gregory shows that “at Babkino, Chekhov came to understand more deeply what Levitan already knew—we perceive nature subjectively, ascribing to it qualities that reflect our state of mind” (30). This insight plays a momentous role in Chekhov’s turn to serious writing, a process propelled by Dmitry Grigorovich’s letter of praise and encouragement of March 1886.
Levitan’s influence dominates Chekhov’s 1888 masterpiece, The Steppe, which Gregory aptly characterizes as “not so much a landscape painting as a landscape film” in which Chekhov “found a way to use his imagination and precise observation to make the natural world reflect human feelings” (50-51). Notoriously, Levitan figures at the center of Chekhov’s art in quite a different way in “The Grasshopper” (1892), which transparently tells the story of the artist’s very public love triangle with the married painter Sofia Kuvshinnikova. Gregory traces the story’s origins to bantering epistolary interactions among all parties during the summer of 1891: “Left alone, Chekhov had plenty of time to stew over his sense of being abandoned by two of his closest friends, and to resent Kuvshinnikova’s role in keeping them away” (84).
Levitan’s influence is pervasive. In 1886 he writes Chekhov from Yalta, describing the experience of looking down at the sea from a cliff above the city: “Here was eternal beauty; here was where man feels his complete insignificance!” (36). The most famous passage of “The Lady with the Dog” (1899), situated in this very spot, seems to quote Levitan’s words. The language Levitan often used to describe his bouts of depression spills over into the pervasive “boredom” experienced by Chekhov’s characters. And Levitan it was who shot the bird(s) who would become the central metaphor of The Seagull.
In addition to this vivid picture of Chekhov’s and Levitan’s potent personal and professional relationship, Gregory’s readers will gain valuable insights into the context in which they worked: the politics and economics of artistic production; the competing movements in the arts at the time; and, memorably, the pervasive and toxic anti-Semitism that affected Levitan at every step of the way — including in Chekhov’s circle. Critics refused to believe a Jew could create a truly Russian art—counter to the evidence before their eyes. In spite of these indignities, Levitan felt at home only in the Russian countryside —a fact for which we are eternally grateful. Gregory’s book should be required reading for Chekhov and Levitan scholars, for anyone interested in the history of Russian art and literature, and for general readers.
Carol Apollonio, Duke University