Isaac Levitan (1860 - 1900) was a master Russian painter known mostly for his remarkable and diverse landscapes. He is one of the first artists I look to whenever I am in need of landscape painting inspiration. In this post, I take a closer look at his life and art.
Key Facts About Isaac Levitan
- Isaac Levitan was born to a poor Jewish family in Kybartai, which was part of the Russian Empire at the time. Levitan and his family later relocated to Moscow, where Levitan began his artistic studies.
- He enrolled in the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in 1873. His brother Adolf had already been studying there for two years. Below is a portrait by him featuring a young Isaac Levitan.
- He worked with many other master Russian landscape painters, such as Alexei Savrasov, Vasily Perov, and Vasily Polenov. Below is one of Savrasov's paintings which shows similarities with Levitan's work, particularly the subtle colors and delicate brushwork.
- His mother passed in 1875 and his father shortly after in 1877. Levitan slipped into poverty and was basically homeless, spending several nights at the Moscow School of Painting. Due to this hardship and his artistic talents, the School provided him with a scholarship to continue studying.
- In the same year of his father's death, Levitan started to gain recognition for his work. He exhibited with a group of Russian realist artists who went by the name Peredvizhniki (or the Wanderers). He won two silver medals for his paintings Sunny Day. Springtime (shown below) and Evening and Sunny Day. His painting below, and many of his other early works, lean towards realism and almost feel a bit tight. As he gained experience, he got more relaxed and impressionistic.
- In May 1879, there was an assassination attempt on Alexander II and all Jewish people living in large cities in Russia were ordered to leave. However, at the request of his teachers, collectors, and fans, Levitan was permitted to return to Moscow to continue his artistic endeavors.
- He continued to exhibit his art, paint with other masters like Konstantin Korovin, and continue to gain recognition for his work. Here is a great timeline of his life, which chronicles some of his achievements and travels.
- By the early 1890s, he was internationally famous for his work. He was elected to the Imperial Academy of Arts in 1897 and subsequently named head of the Landscape Studio in 1898.
- He lived a short but fulfilling life, passing away from illness at the relatively young age of 40 in 1890. He suffered from a heart condition for most of his life and it must have taken its toll, along with the hardship he suffered as a child. He left behind no family, but a great legacy and hundreds of artworks which continue to inspire. Below is his last painting, which he was unable to finish:
- He had an asteroid named after him: 3566 Levitan. It was discovered by a Soviet astronomer named Lyudmila Zhuravlyova in 1979.
A Closer Look at Isaac Levitan's Paintings
One thing you will notice about Levitan's landscape paintings is how diverse they are in terms of style and subject. His academic training allowed him to be such a versatile painter and, like many of the other Russian masters, it appears he was not timid about experimenting with his style and technique. Some paintings are delicately rendered and realistic, whilst others are bold and impressionistic.
Eternal Rest (below) has a sense of calmness about it. The water appears still and the colors are somber. There is a powerful contrast at the top of the painting, where the sunlight is shooting over the dramatic clouds which line the horizon. The building at the bottom, which appears relatively small and insignificant, gives a sense of scale in the painting.
The painting below is in stark contrast. The colors are rich and you get a sense of the strong sunlight coming from overhead. Blues dominate the painting, with small, orange accents in the distance.
Levitan did a fantastic job with the reflections in the water. Notice how light colors of the clouds are darker in the reflections. You will often find that reflections pull all the colors towards a middle-value range (the lights look a bit darker and the darks look a bit lighter).
I remember first coming across this painting on a website and being stunned by the use of color. It prompted me to explore more into Levitan's work, which was relatively unknown to me at the time. There is a strong sense of atmospheric perspective in this painting, with the colors getting weaker and cooler as they recede into the distance.
Below is one of Levitan's pastels, which features beautiful autumn yellows against a dull backdrop of grays and other weak colors.
Blooming Apple Trees is a delicate and complex painting. Levitan was clever in the way he simplified much of the "noise", but not so much that the subject loses form. For the trees, he picks up the important shadows and branches. He also uses more detail for the nearest trees. The grass, house, and background are really nothing more than simple color shapes.
Also, notice the tight value range which Levitan painted within; most of the painting stays within a high-key (light colors), with a few dark accents scattered throughout.
The painting below shows the importance of negative space. Those gaps in the trees break up an otherwise dark and monotonous area. They also play an important role in giving context and form to the trees.
Below is a pleasant study in gouache by Levitan (he practiced many different mediums, but seems to have specialized in oils). This shows an effective combination of broad washes of color along with line drawing on top.
Below is a great example of taking a complex subject and simplifying it into basic shapes, lines, and colors. You can see parts of the light background through gaps in the trees. The dappled light hitting the grass also provides for a nice feature.
Below is just a small study by Levitan, but it appears incredibly realistic. That is what happens when you get most of the values and important details right.
Silent Abode looks to have been painted just before sunset (or just after sunrise). Levitan used soft, pastel colors for the lights and imposing, near-black colors for the darks: a powerful contrast.
I love the stark contrast between light and shadow in the painting below. It also looks as though Levitan used thick, impasto paint for the lights, contrasted against thin and weak darks.
The Trunk of a Blossoming Oak is an interesting composition looking up at an oak tree towards the sky. The strong, black shadows give form to the otherwise basic tree. The background is nothing more than a simple arrangement of green and blue shapes. This mimics the way we see in life: we focus on something and everything else blurs out.
Tip: Make sure you don't get into a routine with the compositions you paint. Mix it up from time to time. Paint an awkward composition and break the rules.
(If you want to learn more about the principles of art, you might be interested in my Painting Academy course.)
Thanks for Reading!
Thanks for taking the time to read this post and I hope you learned something new! If you want to learn more, come join me in my Painting Academy course, I go into much more detail on the fundamentals.
Draw Paint Academy