Nad vechnym pokoem (Above “Eternal Rest”). Isaak Il’ich Levitan, 1894. Oil on canvas. The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. (© The State Tretyakov Gallery)

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Levitan, Isaak Il’ich

(1860–1900), Russian painter. Russia’s outstanding landscape painter of the second half of the nineteenth century, Levitan was born in Kubarty, a town in the Lithuanian province of Suvalki. He was educated at the Moscow School of Painting, Architecture, and Sculpture, studying with the landscape painter Aleksei Savrasov and the prominent Russian realists Vasilii Perov and Vasilii Polenov. Early poverty undermined his health, and he died at the age of 40. He nonetheless left an oeuvre of more than 1,000 paintings, among them iconic depictions of the Russian landscape like Vladimirka (1892), Nad vechnym pokoem (Above “Eternal Rest”; 1894), and Svezhii veter. Volga (Fresh Wind: The Volga; 1891–1895). The Moscow collector Pavel Tret’iakov built up a large holding of Levitan’s works, and the Tret’iakov Gallery holds many of his masterpieces. During his short career, Levitan was elected to the Russian Academy of Art. He likewise associated with significant Russian and Western European artistic movements such as the Peredvizhniki (Society for Traveling Art Exhibitions), the Munich Secession, and Sergei Diaghilev’s journal Mir iskusstva (The World of Art).

Levitan’s landscapes, influenced by the French school of open-air painting, emphasized the vastness of a depopulated Russian landscape. Levitan was particularly noted for the elegiac nature of his paintings, exemplified by scenes at sunset or in moonlight. Most critics have seen his work as suffused with melancholy, a noted characteristic of the painter’s own personality.

On the one hand, Levitan’s artistic career exemplified the cultural efflorescence of late imperial Russia. He enjoyed close ties to the leading musical and literary artists of the day, especially Anton Chekhov, a close personal friend. At the same time, he continually struggled with the social consequences of his Jewish origins. In 1879, he had to leave Moscow amid a general expulsion of Jews from the city. In 1892, even as members of the imperial family were buying his paintings, he was briefly compelled to depart along with the thousands of other Jews expelled in that year. Only shortly before his death was Levitan given a permit for permanent residence in Moscow. Levitan seldom dealt with Jewish themes in his art, although he did, on one occasion in the 1890s, design a poster for a Zionist-sponsored concert.

Suggested Reading

Aleksei Aleksandrovich Fedorov-Davydov, Isaak Il’ich Levitan: Dokumenty, materialy, bibliographiia (Moscow, 1966); Aleksei Aleksandrovich Fedorov-Davydov, Isaak Il’ich Levitan: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo (Moscow, 1966); Leland Fetzer and Ita Sheres, “The Jewish Predicament of Isaak Levitan,” Soviet Jewish Affairs 11.1 (1981): 53–63; Isaak Il’ich Levitan, Pis’ma, dokumenty, vospominaniia, ed. Aleksei Aleksandrovich Fedorov-Davydov (Moscow, 1956).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 101, Art and Artifacts, Collection, 18th c.-1980s; RG 735, Joseph D. Lewitan, Papers, .