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)
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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.
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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.
While organizing my notes for the chapter covering 1899, I came across the following chronological listing: “March 6. Levitan was photographed in St. Petersburg in a group of 19 Itinerant painters.” I went online to find the photograph using the Russian search engine Yandex. The photo shown above was one of two portraits taken that day. Levitan is seated second from the right. Why am I not surprised that he chose to be next to the first female to be elected the Itinerant Society, Emily Shanks, a Moscow-born artist from a prominent English family? In 1897 Chekhov’s sister Maria applied to attend classes at the School of Painting, but even with Levitan attempting to pull strings, she was rejected.
The occasion for and the location of the group portrait was the opening of the 27th Itinerant Exhibit held at the Imperial Society for the Encouragement of Arts on Bolshaya Morskaya Street. The exhibit included nine landscapes by Levitan. Also included was the enormous picture visible behind the painters in the photograph: “Russian Troops Under Suvorov Crossing the Alps” by Vasily Surikov. The painting is currently on display at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.
Ever since his student days Levitan organized his life around the Itinerant exhibits held every year in St. Petersburg, Moscow and in several provincial cities. They were the primary venue for displaying and selling his paintings. Most years Levitan sketched and painted plein air from May through September, then worked in his studio in the fall and winter to finish pieces that he intended to have ready for the Itinerant exhibits in St. Petersburg and Moscow from March to May.
“The Last Rays of the Sun” (1899). As I stood in the Tretyakov Gallery looking at this painting, with its flat planes of muted colors moving towards abstraction, I found myself wondering what direction Levitan’s art would have taken had he lived another 20 years. He died in 1900 at the age of 39.
While Levitan is not well known outside of Russia, there is a small group of people in the U.S. and abroad who have long been inspired by his work: plein air painters. Unfortunately it’s very rarely possible to see his paintings outside of Russia, where the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg each have a room devoted to him. In addition, Levitan himself left behind no notebooks, recollections or testaments about his work. He never published any articles other than a brief obituary of his mentor Alexei Savrasov.
The only accounting we have of Levitan’s own thoughts on his aesthetics and techniques is to be found in the memoirs written by students who attended his advanced landscape studio course, which he taught at the Moscow School of Painting during the last two years of his life. For Levitan there was an unmistakable poetic justice in being invited in 1898 to teach at the school. Fourteen years earlier the school had humiliated him by granting him a second-class degree that deemed him unqualified to teach painting. And now they were asking him, newly appointed as a member of the Academy of Arts, to assume the same position held by his teachers Savrasov and Vasily Polenov.
Levitan did not teach fundamentals. He treated the studio as a forum for instilling in his students the sensibilities and intellectual approach that he felt were necessary to succeed as an artist. Levitan repeatedly underscored that great landscape paintings shared the common traits of simplicity and expressiveness. In fact, simplicity was the key to achieving expressiveness, to visually distilling the essence of a landscape. He advised his students to paint with fewer colors and avoid putting any colors on their palette that they didn’t intend to use. He told them to avoid large-scale sketches, which only introduced “a lot of nonsense.” A small study was the best way to capture the essence of what a painter saw even if the final work was going to be large.
Levitan was proud of having achieved the status of academician and professor. He couldn’t resist taunting Chekhov: “Praise for me is beginning to overshadow yours. What do you think about that?” Chekhov joked that this probably meant he would no longer be able to address his friend using the informal “you.”