Isaac Levitan

Isaac Levitan Isaac Ilyich Levitan

Along with Ivan Shishkin, Isaac Levitan is recognized for producing among the most exquisite works connected with both the Peredvizhniki School and for ushering in a heyday for Russian landscape painting. Levitan, born into poverty in modern-day Lithuania, came to Moscow as a young boy. Following his orphanage and subsequent homelessness, the young artist used his sorrows to inspire his paintings. He achieved early success, participating in exhibitions as a student joint venture with the Peredvizhniki Group when he was just a teenager and was drawn into the goals of that movement: to develop a uniquely Russian art that might illustrate the beauty of the country's landscape and the tenacity of its people while rejecting European and Neoclassical configurations of aesthetic value.

What we may refer to as the "mood landscape"—a scene shown with realistic precision but charged with a strong emotional and spiritual charge—was his unique contribution to this period of Russian painting. Levitan's unfathomable brilliance was lost to Russian and world art when he passed away in 1900 at 39.


On August 30, 1860, Isaac Levitan was born in the little village of Kibarty, which is today a region of Lithuania but was once a province of Congress Poland, a region of the Russian Empire. His father, Ilya Abramovich, was a well-educated Jew who worked as a linguist for a French construction business before becoming a private instructor for French and German. However, the family was not wealthy. Isaac's mother, a homemaker, found it difficult to take care of her five children: Isaac, Teresa,  Abel, and Emma. Nevertheless, both parents supported their two kids' early artistic interests, and young Isaac frequently used drawing to escape the pressures of his home life. He would sketch the trees and greenery in the neighborhood.

Early Training and Work

The Levitan family relocated to Moscow in the early 1870s for better opportunities. Due to the incredibly low living circumstances, they became accustomed to living on the verge of famine. However, the parents supported their boys' vocations in the arts. Following his brother's directions, Isaac studied at the Moscow School of Painting, Art, and Architecture in 1873 when he was thirteen years old, also known as the "Art School" or the "Moscow School." The Moscow School was much more contemporary and forward-thinking than the Neoclassically oriented St. Petersburg Academy. The progressive painting tendency that opposed the European academic norms supported by Russian official culture was centered in Moscow at the time. Levitan's skill was soon recognized at the School.

The School Board gave him a package of paints and brushes as a prize for his accomplishments during 1874–1875 and as a gesture of recognition for his financial plight. Levitan's mother passed away in 1875, and his father did in 1877. The orphaned children's living situation deteriorated. Isaac lost his house and lived in poverty, while his sisters quickly got married, and Levitan's brothers remained able to secure modest lodging. 

He sometimes slept in the houses of acquaintances or family members or even within the lecture halls of the Moscow School since he was always hungry. The School began waiving his tuition expenses in 1877, partly "due to great poverty" but also in honor of his "exceptional accomplishment in painting."

Like most of Savrasov's pupils, Levitan admired and was strongly inspired by his teacher. For his end, Savrasov favored Levitan and showed a particular concern for his growth. With Savrasov, Levitan became acquainted with Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot's art, which he later adored. According to legend, youthful Isaac learned French to read Theophile Silvestre's 1853 book on Corot. Despite these innovative findings, Isaac was recognized as a depressed young fellow who'd already experienced the pains of orphanage and poverty too soon with his classmates, who occasionally sketched on the outskirts of Moscow.

Levitan displayed five landscape paintings in the second Moscow School show in 1880. The Peredvizhniki and other young painters were supported by renowned art patron Pavel Tretyakov, who bought Autumn Day, Sokolniki, and began closely monitoring Levitan's career. Levitan, who was just twenty years old, had great success with the performance. He went on to routinely take part in both School-sponsored exhibits and performances put performed by the Moscow Society of Art Lovers. Levitan won a silver award for a sketch of a model in 1881, and he also gained money to fulfill a lifelong desire by visiting the Volga area. For artists of the period, this area held great significance since it represented the Russian people's distinctive beauty, history, and personality.

In 1883, Levitan visited Savrasov to present him with a picture that he intended to enter in a contest. On the canvas' back, Savrasov inscribed "Big Silver Medal" and signed his name. Levitan's application is thought to have been rejected by the school committee when they read the discredited teacher's statement. Levitan stopped going to class, feeling depressed. The School committee denied him a First Rank Artist grade annually later; instead, they awarded him an "unranked artist" credential that only allowed him to practice as an art instructor.

Mature Period

Even though he left the Moscow School tumultuously, Levitan's career was booming. He was approved as a productive member of the Peredvizhniki's general assembly in early 1884. In the Society's eleventh exhibition, Levitan made his debut as a full Peredvizhniki member. He quickly established himself as one of the Wanderers' second generation's most outstanding artists and exhibited every year alongside them after that. Levitan had become a constant at Polenov's rural home from outside Moscow, visiting his morning watercolor and nighttime painting sessions. Polenov was also a member of his circle of artistic contemporaries.

Jews seem to have been once more driven from Moscow in September 1892, and Levitan was given the go-ahead. By the end of the year, he could only return home thanks to the urging of his colleagues and art collectors. Through the efforts of the artist and Peredvizhniki Society Committee member Pavel Bryullov, he was granted official permission to come back in January 1894.

Late Period

Levitan experienced tragedy in 1895. He was horrified to learn that he had a major cardiac condition. According to another of his biographers, he made two suicide attempts "as a result of worsened neurasthenia." He underwent medical care overseas after having a heart attack, particularly at an Italian Alpine resort where the magnificent views left him speechless.

Following in his role models' footsteps, he started teaching in 1898 at the Moscow School, where he was named Head of the Landscape Studio. Although his health was not improving, he persisted in working hard, painting, sculpting, and creating landscapes with serene light.

He traveled and went to shows. He particularly went to the 28th Peredvizhniki exposition opening because he wanted to see his pupils' work shown beside their own. He was a well-liked educator who took a keen interest in his students' futures.

Levitan carried on making works to the end of his existence. His most recent paintings demonstrate his grasp of contemporary worldwide painting patterns and signs of personal experimentation. But his condition became worse. He passed away on July 22, 1900, at 39, and was laid to rest in a Jewish cemetery in Moscow. His bones were moved to the Novodevichy Ceremony in 1941, where he was laid next to his lifelong friend Anton Chekhov.

The Legacy of Isaac Levitan

Because of his achievements in the Russian landscape genre, Levitan is regarded as one of the most significant artists in recent Russian history. When the Russian Empire had to decide between westernization and shared culture, he, like his instructor and mentor Savrasov, put the Russian peasants at the center of his work. This in itself was a powerful gesture. However, the depth, profundity, and poetry of Levitan's works speak volumes about his passion for his own country, making his legacy in the history of Russian landscape painting special. He impacted his students while serving as a teacher at the Moscow School, changing the course of Russian landscape painting.

Not that Levitan's legacy is exclusively patriotic, either. His talent for using the environment to evoke feeling and spirituality elevates his works to the status of conceptual and phenomenological works, reflecting universal musings on eternity, environment, and humanity. His legacy is given further depth by his brief career, unusual life path, and high output level.

Major Artwork

  • Autumn Day, Sokolniki
  • The patron Tretyakov's first purchase from Levitan was this painting, which he completed at 19. It uses a straightforward but effective compositional setup, with the two converging lines created by the paths and the tree line's respective borders meeting in the middle of the canvas.

  • Birch Grove
  • This painting shows a beautiful day in a birch tree woodland. Small flecks of dark green juxtapose with tiny spots of brilliant yellow, enhancing the canvas' brilliance. The branches' white shine out, adding vertical lines to the scene.

  • The Vladimir Road
  • The Vladimirka, or Vladimir Road, which departs from Moscow and leads to the metropolis of Vladimir, is depicted in this artwork. Levitan and his mistress Sofia were out hunting when they stumbled onto the road. He chose to paint the picture because he was moved by how bleak it seemed. He depicted it as he initially saw it: barren and lifeless on a gloomy day.

  • Above the Eternal Peace
  • This piece is among Levitans' most well-known. It depicts a church perched on a hilltop gazing down on the shore of a sizable lake from above. A little island amid the lake and a cemetery are nearby the church.

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