“This meticulously researched and readable book is a chronological account of the contacts, friendship, common pursuits, rivalries, and professional work of Anton Chekhov and Isaac Levitan—two pivotal figures in Russian literature and art. Their work marked the end of positivism which reigned in Russia from the 1860s on—much longer than elsewhere in Europe. Their output was marked by lack of political engagement. Chekhov’s stories did not carry ideological freight. Levitan’s landscapes eschewed narrative content.”
Elizabeth Kridl Valkenier, The Harriman Institute, Columbia University
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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.