Itinerant Painters Group Portrait 1899

Peredvizhniki-Petersburg-March-6-1899While 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.

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Levitan: Professor of Art

"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.

“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.”

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Sergei Morozov’s 2,000 Rubles

Sergei T. Morozov

Sergei T. Morozov

When Levitan found out in early May 1897 about Chekhov’s coughing up of blood and 15-day stay at a Moscow clinic, he himself was on his way to the brine baths of Bad Nauheim in Germany for treatment of his heart disease. He told Chekhov that the news made him “damn anxious,” and wonder whether the doctors had made a mistake: “They all lie, even to you.” He suggested Chekhov join him in Europe and “take the mare’s milk,” a common treatment for tuberculosis, offering to loan him money if he needed it. He affectionately signed his letter “your sincerely devoted Shmuel.” For a while, the relationship between the two men had warmed again, their mutual concern about each other’s health strengthening their bond.

Morozov's castle at Uspenskoe outside of Moscow.

Morozov’s castle at Uspenskoe outside of Moscow.

Levitan returned to Russia in early June and the two men immediately made plans to see each other. The painter was spending the summer at his patron Sergei Morozov’s estate outside Moscow, a kitschy neo-Victorian castle designed to mimic the manor of an English baron. Chekhov’s visit was not a success. Levitan’s friendship with and dependence on Morozov grated on Chekhov, whose only patron, Suvorin, was a self-made man, like him, from a peasant family. Chekhov was appalled by the place. He wrote Suvorin: “The house is like the Vatican. The footmen wear white pique jackets with gold chains across their stomachs. The furniture is tasteless. They serve French wines from Levet. The owner has an expressionless face–so I ran away.”

In the fall, following his doctors’ orders, Chekhov left Moscow for Biarritz in the south of France. He let his friends know how worried he had become about the expense of going abroad for treatment. Levitan, behind Chekhov’s back and oblivious to his friend’s dislike of Morozov, convinced his patron to lend Chekhov 2,000 rubles. He wired the money to Biarritz and followed up with a letter that was solicitous but also emphatic to the point of condescension: “My sweet, dear one, I strongly urge you not to be concerned about money matters–everything will be taken care of, and you can sit in the south and take care of your health.” For Chekhov this unasked for beneficence became a major irritant. He told their mutual friend Lika Mizinova in confidence: “I didn’t ask for this money. I don’t want it and I asked Levitan to allow me to return it in such a way, of course, that no one would get offended. Levitan doesn’t want this, but just the same I’m sending it back,” which he did.

At first Levitan seemed resigned to the awkward outcome, although he still was unable to understand why Chekhov and Morozov didn’t hit if off, especially now that both of them were in Nice and could see each other. But when Chekhov and Morozov finally did meet in January 1898, Levitan unleashed at Chekhov, only half in jest, the full fury of his disappointment over the whole incident: “Oh, you striped hyena, you damned crocodile, you spineless wood demon with one nostril, you utter Quasimodo, I don’t know how else to curse you!” He remained very defensive about his friendship with Morozov, assuring Chekhov that his patron was “a good man, just too rich. That’s what’s bad–for him especially.”

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Maupassant’s “Fort comme la mort”

Guy de Maupassant

Guy de Maupassant

When Levitan sought out Maria Chekhova’s sympathy for the messy affair of having both Anna Turchaninova and her daughter Varvara fall in love with him in the summer of 1896, she shot back angrily that perhaps he had been reading too much Maupassant. The novel she had in mind was Fort comme la mort (Strong as Death, 1889), the plot of which uncannily parallels the melodrama of Levitan’s life. Maupassant was very popular in Russia. Dr. Dorn and Madame Arkadina read Maupassant out loud to each other at the beginning of Act II of The Seagull. Olga Knipper was probably not the first person to tell her husband: “You are the Russian Maupassant!”

In Fort comme la mort, Olivier Bertain is a well-established Parisian painter who has been carrying on a long affair with the Countess Antoinette de Guilleroy while maintaining a friendly relationship with her husband (not unlike Levitan’s ménage à trois with Sophia Kuvshinnikova and her husband Dmitri). Now middle aged, the Countess despairs as she notices Bertain’s growing infatuation with her daughter, whose beauty matches hers at the time when Bertain first fell in love with her. The painter is tormented by his love for both mother and daughter, and while roaming the streets in a daze, he falls under an omnibus, most likely intentionally. While Levitan’s friends considered his failed suicide attempt at the Turchaninova estate mostly a melodramatic gesture, Bertain’s wounds are fatal.  On his deathbed, Bertain asks the Countess to take all their love letters out of a drawer and burn them in the fireplace in his presence. Tearfully she complies, in a scene to be repeated three years later when Levitan, near death, watched as his brother Adolf carried out his request to burn all his correspondence.

In April 1897, when Levitan was being treated in Italy for his heart disease, Elena Karzinkina wrote to him that she was rereading Fort comme la mort. At the time, Karzinkina and Levitan were engaged in a delicate dance about their relationship and feelings for each other, which were far from clear. He told her Maupassant’s novel was “a wonderful piece.” She told him that she felt the novel made it clear that in love a woman is more affectionate than a man. The Countess is more constant in her love for Bertain, while he, with a painter’s eye for ideal beauty, cannot resist transferring his affections from the mother to the daughter. Levitan felt that it was unfair to generalize from the exceptional case of the Countess:

Maupassant depicted a woman in a long novel who knows and feels that her love is a last love (she is not very young!), and that’s why she hangs on to it with all her being. You recall, she looks for signs of growing old–she doesn’t want to appear that way more than her beloved…she’s terrified and indeed it is terrifying! When the meaning of life is based on love, then the approach of old age is like death! Old age and fading beauty are unwanted. It’s tragic, but it’s true.

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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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Averil King’s “Isaak Levitan: Lyrical Landscape”

Averil King is the only writer to have produced a book in English on Levitan. Her "Lyrical Landscape" is readily available. Harder to find are several out-of-print and expensive English translations of monographs on Levitan by the respected Soviet-era art critic Alexei Fyodorov-Davydov.

Until now, Averil King is the only writer to have produced a book in English on Levitan. Harder to find are several out-of-print and expensive English translations of monographs on Levitan by the respected Soviet-era art critic Alexei Fyodorov-Davydov.

Until my book comes out in the fall of 2015, King’s book is the only readily available work in English on Levitan. It was first published in 2004, expanded in a beautiful new edition by the Antique Collectors’ Club in England in 2011, and reprinted with minor changes in 2015. King is a sensitive interpreter of Levitan’s paintings and, as an expert on late 19th century European art, is able to place his work convincingly in the context of his Russian and Western contemporaries.

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Sophia Kuvshinnikova’s Diary

Sophia Kuvshinnikova in an exotic outfit of her own creation.

Sophia Kuvshinnikova in an exotic outfit of her own creation.

People had widely divergent opinions of Sophia Kuvshinnikova, who was Levitan’s mistress from sometime in the late 1880s until 1894. Chekhov found her to be a social gadfly and couldn’t forgive her for cuckolding her husband, a hard-working and unassuming police doctor. He satirized her in his story “The Grasshopper,” which ended his friendship with Levitan for almost three years. Tatiana Shchepkina-Kupernik was more sympathetic, charmed by her audacious taste in clothing and the bohemian energy of her Sunday salons.

Unfortunately, we have no record of Levitan describing to anyone what attracted him to Kuvshinnikova, who was 13 years older than him.  Kuvshinnikova’s memoirs of Levitan, published after his death, have not a shred of flamboyance. On the contrary, aware that to many she was chiefly known as his mistress, she was eager to present her bona fides not just as a worthy student of her master but as a painter to be taken seriously in her own right.

To get a clearer, unmediated sense of her personality, I read what remains of a diary she kept in 1883 held at the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art in Moscow. The fragment, which spans 20 days in January, only exists because she turned the book she wrote it in into an album, encouraging her soiree guests to add sketches, poems and cartoons. The diary was written before she met Levitan, but 11 years after she married Dmitri Kuvshinnikov, during a period in which she was staying at her father’s estate in Yalutorovsk in Siberia and recovering from an unspecified illness. She seemed not to care that others (Chekhov among them) could read her intimate thoughts, including a brief infatuation (if not a love affair) with a married political exile. Some among their friends concluded that Dmitri acted more like a guardian than a husband, but there is also evidence that her behavior caused him much pain.

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Status Report

Isaac Levitan

Isaac Levitan

Since I’ve been silent for a while, I thought now would be a good time to write about my progress. I’ve just finished writing the first draft of Chapter 8, which covers the very tumultuous yet creatively productive year 1895. In early January, Chekhov and Levitan are reconciled after more than two years of not speaking to each other. By summer Levitan is so distraught over his simultaneous affair with Turchaninov mother and daughter that he melodramatically attempts to kill himself. Chekhov is summoned to care for him and what he sees at the Turchaninov estate inspires the characters, setting and structure of the play he’s working on–The Seagull–and also influences the writing of the story “The House with a Mezzanine.” Despite recurrent bouts of depression, Levitan paints two major pieces “March” and “Golden Autumn,” surprisingly bright and serene works reflecting a movement towards Impressionism.

Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov

I’ve written over 60,000 words, which is roughly equivalent to about 180 pages. I expect to write five more chapters and an epilogue by the end of this year. Once I’ve completed the first draft, I plan to go back over the manuscript from the beginning–it is only then that I feel I will have a true sense of 1) the significant threads and themes that join the lives of Chekhov and Levitan, 2) the depth of characterization to provide on those in their circle of friends, and 3) the level of description required so that readers have a clear sense of Moscow cultural life between 1880 and 1900. The second draft will also incorporate the results of my archival work in Moscow this past summer.

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Origins of “The Seagull”

Left to right: Lika Mizinova, Maria Chekhova and Anton Chekhov

Left to right: Lika Mizinova, Maria Chekhova and Anton Chekhov

While Chekhov and Levitan were renewing their friendship in January 1895, Lika Mizinova sat alone and despondent in Paris caring for her two-month-old infant. Frustrated by Chekhov’s rejection of her love, she had started an affair with the writer Potapenko and followed him to Paris, ostensibly to take voice lessons. After the birth of their child, the married Potapenko abandoned Lika, never to see her again.

In January Lika wrote Maria Chekhova telling her that she was her only friend. Regardless, Lika found herself unable to confide in Maria about the birth of her child. Instead, she talked about her homesickness and the latest gossip from Moscow, including the news of Levitan’s reunion with Chekhov (“How surprising!”) and rumors of Levitan and Kuvshinnikova trying to make up (“If this reconciliation takes place, you can only throw your hands up and no longer be surprised by anything in the world!”).

But sometime in late January in Moscow, Maria saw Potapenko, who told her about the child. Now Lika bared her soul to Maria: “It’s been almost a year that I’ve forgotten what it means to have peace, happiness and other such pleasant things. From almost my first day in Paris there began torment, lies, concealing, etc.” (Potapenko’s wife also lived in Paris.) Maria told Chekhov about the “distressing” letter she had received from Lika.

That spring Chekhov began working on a play that would evolve into The Seagull. Percolating in his imagination was Lika’s hapless affair with Potapenko. But it was not until after he was summoned to an estate on the shore of Ostrovno Lake to care for Levitan after another tragicomic suicide attempt (Anna Turchaninova and her eldest daughter had both fallen in love with him) that the theme, structure and setting for the play solidified. There, Chekhov witnessed Levitan melodramatically throwing a seagull that he had just shot at Anna Turchaninova’s feet. In The Seagull Potapenko is transformed into the writer Trigorin, who jots down an idea for a story that comes to pass in the course of the play: A young girl “lives on the shore of a lake since childhood; she loves the lake like a seagull, and she is happy and free like the seagull. But by chance a man appears, sees her and having nothing better to do, destroys her, just like this seagull.” Lika recognized herself as that “young girl.” After the play’s premiere in October 1896, she wrote to Chekhov: “… everyone here is saying that The Seagull is taken from my life and also that you did a good job on a certain someone,” implying that Trigorin was an unflattering portrait of Potapenko.

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Pavel Chekhov’s Diary

Chekhov's father, Pavel Egorovich, was born a serf.

Chekhov’s father, Pavel Egorovich, was born a serf.

One of the most valuable primary sources from Chekhov’s Melikhovo years (1892-1898) is the diary kept by his father, Pavel Egorovich Chekhov. His children found his laconic, seemingly random entries to be unintentionally hilarious. Here’s a sample: September 7, 1894: “Rain the whole day. They didn’t give Roman the wallpaper at the station. The stove-builders finished the stove in the living room. The horses were in the garden at night.” But actually Pavel Chekhov’s precise listings of who came and went at Melikhovo make it possible to accurately date the sometimes inaccurate accounts in the memoirs of those who visited Chekhov.

Here is Pavel’s diary entry for the momentous day when Tatiana Shchepkina-Kupernik brought Levitan to Melikhovo to be reunited with Chekhov after more than two years of not speaking to each other: January 2, 1895: “It’s snowing, 8 degrees. They brought a stove with pipes for the kitchen. Antosha went to have lunch with the Priest. T.L. Shchepkina-Kupernik and I.I. Levitan arrived after we had already gone to bed.” Shchepkina-Kupernik described the meeting in her memoirs: As they approached the house Chekhov “came out, looking like he had been drinking. He peered into the darkness to see who was with me–there was a brief pause, and suddenly they both flung themselves towards each other, very, very strongly clasped each other’s hand–and…started talking about the most everyday things: about the road, the weather, Moscow, as if nothing had happened. At dinner, when I saw how Levitan’s beautiful eyes were wet and glistening and how Chekhov’s normally pensive eyes were radiating happiness, I was terribly pleased with myself.”

The irrepressible Tatiana Shchepkina-Kupernik was instrumental in both initiating and ending the quarrel between Chekhov and Levitan.

The irrepressible Tatiana Shchepkina-Kupernik was instrumental in both initiating and ending the quarrel between Chekhov and Levitan.

Shchepkina-Kupernik had visited Melikhovo for the first time the previous month. Since Pavel Chekhov was away, the mischievous Shchepkina-Kupernik, obviously with Chekhov’s encouragement, took to adding entries to the diary in his absence, imitating his father’s style: December 4: “Weather is clear. Marinade turned out to be outstanding….” December 5: “Ate wonderful pancakes.”

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