The photo portrait of Levitan on the left is one of the most expressive taken of him and has been widely published. However, when and where the photo was taken are often misattributed (“Babkino, 1898”) or left vague (“1890’s”).
The photo on the right is a vital clue to solving the mystery. It is a portrait of Levitan’s mistress Sophia Kuvshinnikova and her husband Dmitri, taken at the same time on the same steps of the same dacha. This considerably narrows the possible times and places that the photo could have been taken—it had to be during a summer when the three of them were together at or near the same dacha.
I assumed it was taken at the dacha at Zatishie (Tver Province) next to Lika Mizinova’s family estate, Pokrovskoe, in the summer of 1891. There are several references to Dmitri Kuvshinnikov visiting his wife and Levitan while they stayed there. The journalist Evgraf Konchin, in researching his book Levitan Mysteries (Загадочный Левитан, Moscow, 2010), found the original photo of the Kuvshinnikovs in the archives of the Moscow Literary Museum. On the back, written in faded pencil, were the words “Vladimir Province.” This led him to conclude that the photos were taken the following summer in 1892 in the village of Gorodok near Boldino in Vladimir Province. Levitan and Sophia Kuvshinnikova arrived there in May, and Konchin maintains that Dmitri Kuvshinnikov stayed there for several days during the summer at the home of a physician colleague.
The existence of the photos also allows us to make an educated guess about who took them. Either Dmitri or Sophia took the portrait of Levitan; Levitan, in turn, photographed the Kuvshinnikovs.
Evening Bells (1892)
Alison Anderson’s novel The Summer Guest is an elegy and a delicate mystery, in which Anton Chekhov appears as a muse and an elusive friend. Katya Kendall, a Russian émigré who runs a failing small press in London, hires Ana Harding to translate a newly discovered diary by Zinaida Lintvaryova, a blind doctor terminally ill with a brain tumor. The Lintvaryova family rented the dacha on their estate to the Chekhov family for the summer in 1888 and again in 1889. The diary chronicles Zinaida’s friendship with Chekhov, who trusts her with a secret: he is working on a novel.
During the Soviet era, Katya falls in love with her future husband Peter in the presence of a Levitan painting. Having just met, they stand before Evening Bells at the Tretyakov Gallery:
It was a river scene, with two churches on the far side, a cluster of towers and onion domes. A road led down to the river and then away from the other side, almost as if a horse and carriage could drive across the river unimpeded. There was a small jetty with some fishing boats, and a larger boat conveying people to the other shore. There was an evening light with clouds, a gentle summer serenity.
Katya turned to Peter and said in Russian, We’re in the picture. We are on this side of the river, obviously, and we have to find a way to get to the other side.
More about The Summer Guest
Osip Braz, Portrait of A. P. Chekhov (1898)
Copies of Antosha & Levitasha are available at the National Portrait Gallery Bookshop in London in conjunction with the gallery’s exhibition Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky (March 17 to June 26, 2016). The exhibition includes Osip Braz’s portrait of Anton Chekhov. Isaac Levitan played an important role both in convincing Chekhov to agree to sit for the painting, which was commissioned by Pavel Tretyakov, and in convincing Tretyakov to accept the final painting as a suitable likeness. Chekhov himself told a friend that the portrait made him look like he had just inhaled a lot of horseradish.
As of September 2016, Antosha & Levitasha can be found in over one hundred college and university libraries throughout the U.S. To find the library closest to you, go to WorldCat and type in your zip code: WorldCat Search
Thanks to the University of Washington Bookstore in Seattle for sponsoring my presentation and book signing on January 27, 2016. About 50 people attended a slide show on Levitan’s paintings and their impact on Anton Chekhov.
NIU Press (always in stock)
Book Depository (UK)
Barnes & Noble
Additional Ordering Information
Call: (800) 621-2736
Fax: (800) 621-8476
UK and Continental Europe
John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Voice: +44 (0)1243 779777
Fax: +44 (0)1243 820250
Ivan Kramskoy’s portrait of Alexander Lensky as Petruchio in “The Taming of the Shrew” (1883). Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
Alexander Lensky, an actor and manager of the Maly Theater in Moscow, frequently attended Sophia Kuvshinnikova’s soirees, where he became friends with both Levitan and Chekhov. On several occasions Lensky performed dramatic readings of Chekhov’s stories and one-act plays. In late 1889 Chekhov sent Lensky a copy of his play The Wood Demon in the hopes that he would produce it at his theater. Lensky’s response was brutally frank: “Stick to writing stories.” Chekhov took the rejection in stride, thanking Lensky for reading his “vile little play,” which he put back in his drawer (the play would later be reshaped into Uncle Vanya).
Their friendship was already beginning to show signs of strain when in the spring of 1892 Lensky read Chekhov’s “The Grasshopper” and saw himself as “the fat actor” briefly mentioned in the story. Levitan, who had far more reason to be upset by how he was so obviously caricatured in “The Grasshopper,” showed Lensky the letter (now lost) Chekhov wrote him defending himself. Lensky angrily rejected Chekhov’s explanations as “false and strained.” Apparently Chekhov had tried to dismiss his story as just a trivial little “something” that he had been asked to write for the first issue of a new journal. Lensky stoked Levitan’s sense of outrage about what Chekhov had done: “And for the sake of this he had no pity on his acquaintances, among whom he was accepted gladly, with love, and he had no pity on the person he ‘loved’ [Levitan], making him out to be a vulgar Lovelace! I just don’t understand.”
For eight years Lensky refused to speak to Chekhov.
Isaac Levitan (1897)
I’m revising my manuscript in preparation for submitting it to an interested academic publisher for evaluation. I have also updated the About the Book section to include a one-paragraph summary of each chapter. In the meantime, please submit any questions or topic suggestions you may have about Chekhov, Levitan, and Moscow cultural life of the late 19th century. If it’s something I can address, I’ll respond with a posting.
If you’re interested in being notified about the publication of the book and how you will be able to obtain a copy, I encourage you to sign up to follow this blog, if you haven’t done so already.
Levitan sketched “Haystacks on a Moonlit Night” on cardboard in half an hour and placed it in the niche in Chekhov’s fireplace in Yalta.
Levitan arrived at Chekhov’s newly constructed “White Dacha” in Yalta on December 24, 1899 to celebrate Christmas and the dawn of a new century. One day during his visit, Levitan was sitting on the couch in front of the fireplace in the study while Chekhov paced around the room complaining to his friend about how much he missed the landscape of northern Russia. He had said much the same thing to Lika Mizinova during a previous stay in the Crimea. “Our northern nature is sadder, more lyrical, more Levitan-like,” he wrote her. “Here, it’s neither here nor there, like poetry that is good, rich-sounding, but cold.”
Chekhov standing in his study in Yalta. Levitan’s sketch is visible on the left above the fireplace.
Impulsively Levitan decided to bring a bit of northern Russia into Chekhov’s study. He turned to Chekhov’s sister Maria, who was also in the room, and asked her to bring him some cardboard. He cut a piece of the board to fit the dimensions of the cavity in the fireplace, took out his paints and started to draw. Within a half hour he was done and set the painting into the cavity, where it remains today. Levitan left Yalta on January 2nd feeling surprisingly revived. The next and last time the two friends saw each other was in May 1900 in Moscow as Levitan lay dying.