Isaac Levitan – Russian Master of Landscape Painting

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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. In this post, I cover:

Isaac Levitan, Golden Autumn, 1895
Isaac Levitan, Golden Autumn, 1895

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.
Adolf Levitan, Portrait of Isaac Levitan, 1879
Adolf Levitan, Portrait of Isaac Levitan, 1879
  • 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.
Alexey Savrasov, Rye, 1881
Alexey Savrasov, Rye, 1881
  • 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.
Isaac Levitan, Sunny Day. Springtime, 1876
Isaac Levitan, Sunny Day. Springtime, 1876
  • 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 1900. 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:
Isaac Levitan, Hay-making, 1900
Isaac Levitan, Hay-making, 1900
  • 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.

Isaac Levitan, Eternal Rest, 1894
Isaac Levitan, Eternal Rest, 1894

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).

Isaac Levitan, Lake, Russia, 1900
Isaac Levitan, Lake, Russia, 1900

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.

Isaac Levitan, Spring in Italy, 1890
Isaac Levitan, Spring in Italy, 1890

Below is one of Levitan’s pastels, which features beautiful autumn yellows against a dull backdrop of grays and other weak colors.

Isaac Levitan, Autumn Landscape with Church, 1890
Isaac Levitan, Autumn Landscape with Church, 1890

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.

Isaac Levitan, Blooming Apple Trees, 1896
Isaac Levitan, Blooming Apple Trees, 1896

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.

Isaac Levitan, Forest, 1880
Isaac Levitan, Forest, 1880

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.

Isaac Levitan, Garden in the Snow, 1880
Isaac Levitan, Garden in the Snow, 1880

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.

Isaac Levitan, In the Park, 1895
Isaac Levitan, In the Park, 1895

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.

Isaac Levitan, River, 1888
Isaac Levitan, River, 1888

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.

Isaac Levitan, Silent Abode, 1890
Isaac Levitan, Silent Abode, 1890

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.

Isaac Levitan, Sunny Day, 1898
Isaac Levitan, Sunny Day, 1898

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.

Isaac Levitan, The Trunk of a Blossoming Oak, 1884
Isaac Levitan, The Trunk of a Blossoming Oak, 1884

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.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

62 comments on “Isaac Levitan – Russian Master of Landscape Painting”

  1. Dear Dan,

    First of all, thank you for your e.mails loaded with interesting illustrations, painting from outstanding painters and accompanied by your always authoritative and helpful comments. I am a Basque retired engineer who two years ago begun painting with a painting professor in a private academy. As I am now working mostly with drawing and watercolouring, I would appreciate if you, from time to time, would include artworks from these disciplines accompanied by your always valued comments. Many thanks and best regards. Juan M. Sansinenea

    Reply
  2. Fascinating article, Dan! Thank you for sharing Levitan’s captivating work with us, and for sharing your illuminating and helpful insights. With your articles, you enable me to look at my surroundings, at the world, and at others’ work with fresh perspective. I appreciate your articles: the helpful intention with which you imbue them, the thought you put into them, and the time you take to compose them.

    Reply
  3. Thank you Dan for your research and articles. I didn’t know this painter , thanks to you I discover new ones. Very beautiful work!

    Reply
  4. Hello from Chicago! I so look forward to your posts and I learn a lot simply by closely studying what you point out. I love Levitan’s paintings–I had never seen them before. Learning something new; what a joy! Thank you.

    Reply
  5. Great write up. What’s most interesting is the way you explain the paintings. For learners it,’s great to be shown what to see in a painting. it’s also informative to know about painter’s lives. thank you.

    Reply
  6. His mood is reflected in his paintings. His light use is so great, makes me want to study him. Thank you for sharing this talented artist.

    Reply
  7. Hi Dan, It’s a terrible shame to see someone with so much to offer taken from us so early.
    I can only imagine we he could have done with more time.
    I guess that’s the frailty of life, don’t know what’s just around the corner.
    I appreciate this post as I had never heard of this young man.
    Thanks Dan.

    Reply
  8. Thank you Dan for bringing this Artist, Levitan, to my attention. His work is most appealing to me in style and content and I will do some practice based on some of his paintings. I appreciate all of the work you put into these very informative posts. I enjoy reading them and learning about new artists, (to me anyway), and their style of work.

    Reply
  9. These are truly inspirational! I too had never heard of Levitan previously and am so glad you ’introduced ‘ us! Such a broad array of mediums and focus. Thank you Dan for this piece on Isaac Levitan.
    Happy 4th!

    Reply
  10. Thanks for posting about one of my favorite landscape painters. My first love was Tonalism but shortly thereafter was so stunned by “Eternal Rest”, and Levitan’s ability to paint beautifully in any style, that he remains at the top of my favorites list! Imagine if he had lived another 40 years?

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  11. Thanks for sharing his work! I had never heard of him before, but I love the works of his that you showed and discussed!

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  12. My favorite landscape artist. Amazed that so many people reading this had not heard of him! The early Russian artists around 1900 are so wonderful, people need to do more research, some wonderful books out there on Russian artists.

    Reply
  13. I am grateful for seeing this ….Levitan is new to me and his ability relate to us what he experienced on the days that he worked on his paintings is remarkable…..Thank you so much …

    Reply
  14. Hi Dan,
    thank you for introducing me to Levitan. In all my years, I have never heard of him nor seen any of his paintings, or remember seeing any. I can really his style for clouds, mine look like wrinkled pancakes. Will study and practice his style.
    Thank you for all your knowledge and sharing it.

    Reply
  15. Great article Dan! Levitan is one of my favorite landscape artists. I’ve seen his original paintings at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow! They’re spectacular! Thanks for introducing him on your website.

    Reply
  16. Thanks so much for such a great history of Levitan the Legend! He’s one of my favourites but your post taught me many new things about his life and work.

    Reply
  17. This has been an inspirational post. Just wonderful.

    I particularly loved Forest and In the Park. It’s tragic that such a great talent passed so young.

    Thank you for this!

    Reply
  18. He was totally brilliant, my favourite. Thank you so much for your comments and help. Feel very inspired. Kind regards Carol

    Reply
  19. Thank you for inspiring me to research Isaac Levitan further. He IS an outstanding painter of landscapes, so much so that he will be the subject of my monthly Art History class here in the UK. My presentation will be made tomorrow (21/01/2021) but because of COVID 19 will be online via ZOOM. Thank you again.

    Reply
    • Would it be possible for me to join your monthly Art History class, Isaac Levitan is one of my very favourite artists and I would love to know more about him and his techniques.

      Reply
  20. Thank you for introducing me to Isaac Levitan’s work. Your comments made me appreciate them much more.
    Best wishes.

    Reply
  21. These are all beautiful. Until I saw your post I had never heard of him as an artist but he was exceptionally great. Thank you For sharing it was almost like walking through an art gallery.

    Reply
  22. Thank you for sharing his beautiful artwork, I have never heard of him before but now I know I will investigate him further. So sad he passed at an early age. Can’t wait to see who you find for us next!

    Reply
  23. Thanks for sharing about this artist. I really love his work, especially the vibrant sunny landscapes. He was so talented even at a young age. There may have been an error in the timeline. He would have passed away in 1900 at the age of 40.

    Reply
  24. Eternal Rest is amply named. Such a beautiful painting and one of my favorites. Thanks so much for these master study reviews. They are amazing.

    Reply
  25. I look forward everyday to your emails! Thank you for sharing. I am going through a slump right now amd can’t seem to get anything right. Your emails inspire me to stick with it.

    Reply
  26. I heard about Isaac Leviton for the first time but his pictures well represent the Mother Russia esp. Silent Abode with the onion domes of the Russian Orthodox churches on the background. I like his colour palette and how well he expressed the mood from the bright vibrant optimistism to the darkness of the forest (picture Forest).
    The picture the Blooming Apple Trees from 1896 caught my attention because a similar picture was painted by Camille Pisarro (I do not know the year) called Plum Trees in Blossom with a tree in the foreground and a building on the background. Sir Winston Churchil had had an inspiration from spring when he painted the alley of trees in blossom in the country.

    Reply
  27. I think that this artist would be a great one to follow if alive. I like the compositions that are very simple but with a lot of detail where needed. Love his depth perception in many of the paintings. Above all he also keeps the colors to a minimum but uses them to their best advantage.

    Reply
  28. Thank you for this article on Levitan. Wonderful renderings of light and shade, beautiful colours, and lively compositions, drawing us in to his special places. So sad he died young.

    Reply
  29. Thank you so much for this 🙂 How on earth have I missed this amazing artist? I think it’s true to say that not enough is known about Russian artists generally and, up until now, I have not ‘twigged’ to Levitan. I shall now look up a lot more about him. Some years ago we visited Moscow and went to the Tretyakov Gallery where there surely must be some of his paintings, but they didn’t register on my radar at the time. Thank you for filling in that yawning gap!

    Reply
  30. I feel like I just spent some time outdoors! What wonderful art! I am not sure that I would have ever fallen upon Levitan’s work had it not been for your newsletter, Dan. And I would have really missed out! Thanks so much for this introduction! I am drawn by his perspectives and his obvious love of nature.

    Reply
  31. Wow, this was a fascinating article. I have never heard of the artist but love his work. This is my favourite
    presentation of landscape painting. Your story attached to these articles is fabulous. Thank you for
    sharing your insight.

    Reply
  32. Oh quite beautiful! I confess I have not heard of this incredible artist, so many talented artists that we know so little about.
    I am learning so much each day, with it comes frustration and impatience, I call myself the impatient artist, but I do learn each day and am so passionate about Art that I will continue. I started painting 15 years ago, life got busy, but now am working on mastering watercolours, a most frustrating medium but also so fulfilling when it is successful!
    Absolutely love your insight and knowledge and your easy teaching. Thank you !

    Reply

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