Isaac Levitan, The Lake. Rus, 1899-1900

Isaac Levitan, The Lake. Rus, 1899-1900

Polyphony in Isaac Levitan’s Landscapes

Published: July 10, 2013

Libretto For The Cries of Life:
Polyphony in Isaac Levitan’s Landscapes
within the context of the artistic and intellectual currents of 1860s Russia

An Opera in Three Acts
With Accompaniment: “Vera Pavlovna’s Ninth Dream” by Victor Pelevin[1]

  By Corinne Hughes



What frightened her most of all was that there was no door in the wall, and now she had no idea what to do with all those memories which involved the door. But even this ceased to be important when Vera suddenly realized that she herself had changed. It was as though part of her soul had disappeared, a part that she had only just become aware of, in the same way that some people are tormented by pain in amputated limbs. Everything still seemed to be in the right place, but the most important thing, which lent meaning to all the rest, had disappeared. Vera felt as though it had been replaced by a two-dimensional drawing on paper, and her two-dimensional soul generated a two-dimensional hatred for the two-dimensional world around her.[2]

– Victor Pelevin, “Vera Pavlovna’s Ninth Dream,” in A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia

Isaac Levitan, The Lake. Rus, 1899-1900
Isaac Levitan, The Lake. Rus, 1899-1900


 “By his very nature, the individual…must become conscious within himself of the will which his nation demands, and give expression to it,” said German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History in the late 1820’s at the University of Berlin.[3] In these lectures, Hegel proposed history to be developing towards a union of abstract ideals, such as justice and truth, and the subjective particularities of human life.

Hegel’s ideas were influential to Russian thinkers of the nineteenth century and, in turn, Russian artists. Struggling for an ideal, but founded in a reality which made such ideals seem impossible, Russia grappled with liberty, progress, and its place in history. With the rise of critical realism towards the end of the nineteenth century, artists brought this struggle to their canvases. In Russia, national identity was bound to the land, thus allowing for landscape art to be symbolic of a national spirit or consciousness. One individual landscape painter conscious of such a spirit was Isaac Levitan, but the demands of his nation, Russia, were complex. What he gave expression to through his paintings pulled from the national tension between pessimism and faith.

Isaac Levitan, Self Portrait, 1880
Isaac Levitan, Self Portrait, 1880

Act I: The World of Levitan’s Youth

During the 1860s, one of Russia’s most formative decades, Levitan grew up in a quiet, poor Jewish community in what is now Lithuania. At the age of ten, his father moved the family to Moscow in hope of making a better living, but soon after, he and his wife died, leaving Levitan orphaned. Even after Levitan was accepted to the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture with exempted fees due to extreme poverty, he spent a considerable amount of time homeless, sneaking onto the school grounds to sleep at night.[4] Though he missed out on the “spirit of the 1860s” as Russian historian Elizabeth Valkenier describes the decade, he certainly was aware of the repercussions.[5]

Politically, the decade of the 1860s was ruled by reforms. On the one hand, the emancipation of the serfs and reforms of the military and judicial system were groundbreaking, but they proved inadequate to relieve the distress felt by society, a distress rooted in questions of morality and liberty. The propulsion of westernization begun by Peter the Great in the seventeenth century had waned. The Russian gentry found themselves disturbed by the comfort of the status quo. They could no longer “see” themselves in the world around them, thus feeling a kind of homelessness of their identity.

The rise of rationalism cannot be overstated at this point. History, evolution, and the natural sciences broke down the authority of cultural traditions and faith. Russian intellectuals turned to the past to find some first, root cause to the oppressive state of the autocracy, and from this the peasant commune came to be a source of idealization, a place to inherit customs and practices, which they believed remained unchanged through time. This existential dilemma and breakthrough was not to be taken lightly. Factions of activists from the Russian gentry left the cities to go “to the people,” to live among the peasants in the countryside. Other factions believed the peasantry needed to be “liberated” and took more violent action against Russian officials. During a time of such strife, art was questioned for its necessity and legitimacy.

Isaac Levitan, Sunny Day, 1876

As early as 1853, the spark for aesthetic discourse was ignited. The recently graduated Nicholas Chernyshevsky (1828-1889) published his master’s dissertation, The Aesthetic Relations of Art to Reality. The piece explores the relationship between art and reality, critiquing the then-reigning Hegelian ideology which held the beauty of art, a unification of the ideal and the real, above the beauty of nature. For Chernyshevsky, art was simply a representation of reality with a utilitarian role in society to explicitly educate. He advocated for a realistic aesthetic composed of anti-autocratic themes. For his growing expression of such revolutionary ideas in the journal The Contemporary (Sovremennik), Chernyshevsky was arrested in 1862 and placed in the Peter and Paul Fortress before being exiled to Siberia in 1864.

In that same year, Ivan Turgenev’s Father and Sons introduced the world to “nihilism.” Chernyshevsky quickly responded to Turgenev’s novel while still a political prisoner, publishing the novel What is to be Done? Chernyshevsky’s hero, Rakhmetov—strict, puritanical, and celibate—inspired countless Russian revolutionaries thereafter, but into this arena entered the young and troubled Dmitry Pisarev (1840-1868), criticizing the hero as unrealistic. Pisarev did not believe it was necessary for individuals to excessively restrict themselves in order to contribute to society, but he did believe in restricting the arts. Pisarev published articles in Russian Word (Russkoye Slovo), a rival to The Contemporary.

In his article “The Realists” (1864), Pisarev describes the tension between aesthetics and realism. Aestheticism is equal to “unaccountability, routine, and habit,” whereas realism is “consciousness, analysis, critical thinking, [and] intellectual progress.”[6] For Pisarev, progress was linked with realism and required accountability, something he felt art might strip from society. Artists had a public duty to educate. The value of their works became defined by the content; art for art’s sake was no longer art at all.

By the end of the 1860’s, a Russian school of art was forming – fueled by nationalism and realism. In this way, the abstract notion of a deeper spiritual or national consciousness would only resonate in art in so much as it naturally existed in reality.

Isaac Levitan, Autumn Day Sokolniki, 1879
Isaac Levitan, Autumn Day Sokolniki, 1879

Unfolding all the complexities of the 1860’s in Russia is unnecessary here, but complex it was. Thinkers, revolutionaries, novelists, and artists began a call-and-response discourse of ideas, raising issues which were not resolved within the decade or, arguably, ever. Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910) grappled with aesthetics decades later. He proposed a moral responsibility for artists imposed by conscience. In the heavily-researched, polemic text What is Art? (1898) he penetrates the history of beauty to resolve the paradigm of art:

The whole of human life is filled with works of art of various kinds, from lullabies, jokes, mimicry, home decoration, clothing, utensils, to church services and solemn processions. All this is the activity of art. Thus we call art, in the narrow sense of the word, not the entire human activity that conveys feelings, but only that which we for some reason single out from all this activity and to which we give special significance.[7]

Such prevalence of communication needed to be understood universally, but Tolstoy proved helpless to determine how.

Act II: Enter the Artists

In addition to these widespread publications, efforts to reconcile the meaning of art with questions of what should be represented and why coincided with a desire to reflect social and political issues in art more freely. In short, the paintbrush began to catch up with the pen. In 1863, fourteen students refused to participate in the final Gold Medal competition at the Imperial Academy of Art in St. Petersburg, leaving the school to form an art-cooperative. The Academy was a conservative institution; to these students, it was a monarchy ruling over artists’ “training, exhibiting, employment, and commissions.”[8] However, seceding was not a light decision. By forfeiting their gold medal opportunities, they would not be given the title “Class Artist” or a civil service rank, meaning that they could be conscripted into the military at any time.[9]

The art cooperative was a prelude for the formation of a broader, more radical collective of artists, which included some of the same artists. Formed in 1870, the Association of Traveling Art Exhibits, or The Wanderers (perevizhniki as they are known in Russian) sought to free art from bureaucracy and widen the public engagement. They took their art to the provincial cities, some of which had never seen an art exhibition. The themes represented included history, social commentary, portraiture, and landscape. More than any other genre, landscape challenged the realist aesthetic over time, but it was also compelled to by art critics who challenged artists to see beyond the landscape towards the soul of Russia.

Alexei Savrasov, The Rooks Have Come, 1871

Painter and art critic, as well as a founder of the Wanderers, Ivan Kramskoy agreed with Chernyshevsky on invoking greater realist aesthetics in art, but Kramskoy heavily criticized Ivan Shishkin‘s paintings for their precision of detail. He believed Shishkin needed to transcend the reality set before him, something for which Levitan would be praised later. Kramskoy wanted to be invited into a world, rather than be shown a static landscape. Art historian Mark Roskill explains that “vagueness from which a few selected elements emerge” invite the viewer to literally “construct” meaning from “what has become indistinct and evanescent.”[10] Transcending the landscape meant leading the viewer into the national space as a place of legend and myth.[11] The aesthetic of realism could not function on the same terms in landscapes as other genres. Realism had to be formed from the relationship between the viewer and the image, a relationship formed from cultural memory and kinship.

Other art critics, such as Ivan Dmitriev, leaned towards more radical, Pisarev-inspired approaches to art, advocating strict realism but also seeing landscapes as indulgent and useless in regard to the needs of society. For Dmitriev, even the most realistic depictions of nature neither inspired anti-autocracy nor answered any questions of vital importance.

Regardless, landscape art remained popular and highly valued, implying that for many there was clearly a deeper connection between society—urban or not—and the land which bound everyone together. During the first Wanderers exhibition in 1871, 22 out of the 46 canvases were landscapes.[12]

One of the most radical of these landscapes at the first Wanderer’s exhibition was Alexei Sarasov’s “The Rooks Have Come.” The view from a hillside overlooking the partial image of a small village is blocked by a few scraggly, thin birch trunks filled with rooks. The background, a great expanse which so often was the delight of landscape paintings at that time, was completely interrupted. The rooks signify the not-quite-nearness of spring. One can almost hear the cracking of the birches as the birds land, feeling the cold down to the bones. For progressives, there was no reason for such a display. One local publication, Cause (Delo), criticized his piece and the entire landscape genre.[13]

Fyodor Vasilev, Morning, 1872-1873

The development of Russian identity through landscapes void of human figures became evermore popular in the final decades of the nineteenth century, possibly beginning with Fyodor Vasilev (1850-1873). Vasilev never completed any formal artistic training, though he exhibited with the Wanderers after befriending Kramskoy. In a way, he brought to visual art what another untrained artist, Modest Mussorgsky, brought to Russian music. He was not bound by any technique or ideology. He experimented with color, lighting, and, at times, completely eschewed composition, such as in “Morning.” His passion was for the mood of the landscape, transcending the simple, natural figures of the scene. Similar to Savrasov, there is a lyrical sentimentality to his paintings, but his attention to detail was quite different from that of his fellow artists.

A year later, Kramskoy criticized Fyodor Vasilev’s Wet Meadow, saying that the atmospheric quality of Vasilev’s paintings, avoiding any realistic portrayal of figures or structures left viewers far too lost. “People’s faces wore the expression of crushed peas; they were stupefied about how to treat this phenomenon,” wrote Kramskoy to Vasilev, who was not present for his painting’s exhibition.[14] However, devoid of vivid details, Vasilev’s compositions entered the realm of pure imagination, which surely was the transcendence Kramskoy was seeking in artists at the time. What, perhaps, was missing were specificities for viewers to gather together for meaning.

Fyodor Vasilev, Wet Meadow, 1872
Fyodor Vasilev, Wet Meadow, 1872

On the other end of the spectrum was Ivan Shishkin (1832-1898), a founder and avid exhibitor with the Wanderers. A well-known landscape artist by the 1870’s, his work in the following decade was rich with experimentation, showing a scientific eye for nature. Meticulously defining as much as possible in his expansive portrayals of forests, he was coined “the accountant of leaves.” Though lacking fantastical elements, Shishkin’s composition still possessed emotionally-charged ideas. As early as 1872 in “In the Depths of the Forest,” he brought the viewer deep into the forest, allowing for haunting and consuming characteristics to be attributed to nature. His final work, “Mast-Tree Grove” was painted on a massive canvas, pushing the frame of the image outside the field of vision for the viewer. As art historian Henk van Os notes, the only other country producing such monumental landscapes at this time was the United States. Both countries wanted to “show the viewer the inescapable and overpowering greatness of one’s country.”[15]

Ivan Shishkin, Mast-Tree Grove, 1898
Ivan Shishkin, Mast-Tree Grove, 1898

One of the more experimental landscape artists of the nineteenth century completed just a few exhibitions before retreating from the extensive criticisms of society to form his own school. Arkhip Kuindzhi painted vast expanses, with striking contrasts in color and lighting which means viewed as almost frightening. His compositions lacked any visual motifs, such as roads, lakes, or rivers. Without these lighthouses to guide viewers through the great sea of Russian landscapes, viewers were often confused as to how to see his world. Walking his own path, Kuindzhi threw the tension between realism and transcendence out the window. Color was more of a subject than the land, building moods rather than stories. “Moonlit Night on the Dnieper” was exhibited on its own, shrouded in a black curtain, emphasizing the luminous moonlight. The minimal use of color was a daring act for the time, creating an almost abstract composition propelled by the imagination of the viewer.


Arkhip Kuindzhi, Moonlit Night on the Dnieper, 1880.
Arkhip Kuindzhi, Moonlit Night on the Dnieper, 1880.

In order to fully appreciate why Savrasov, Vasilev, Shishkin, and Kuindzhi were radical to their genre and time, as well as how Levitan was radical in relation to them, it is necessary to understand what made them not just artists or landscape painters but Russian artists and Russian landscape painters. Cultural traditions, history, politics, philosophy, or even language itself could be arguable elements which would justify the particular Russian-ness of these landscape artists, but they do not explain the fundamental essence of landscape paintings, which is the union of personal experience with a national or cultural consciousness. As historian Christopher Ely noted, the “visual experience of nature…is a cultural experience.”[16] Landscape art is always looking back in time “to the experience that brought it into being, such as pertinent knowledge of literature and lore, or travels and journeys.”[17] Landscape in Russian literature has been widely explored by scholars, but how this literary history resonates in visual art is not always literal. The struggle of landscape artists was that of any intellectual. The tension created by critics over the technique which best expressed the national space was the same tension dominating Russian intellectuals grappling with morality and liberty. Kramskoy called for artists to dig deep, to search for an expressible revelation of what not only is, but what could be.

Interestingly, noted in an article by professor of environmental studies, Jane Costlow, the Russian perception of nature was quite unique from its European counterparts. In Europe, aesthetic theory focused on the psychology of beauty shaped by the Alps and the Italian countryside. In turn, real scenery began to be judged by what viewers saw in landscape paintings, forming a canonical national landscape. The development of looking at nature as a source of pleasure or intrigue was still developing in Russia during the nineteenth century. At this time, Russia was a vast empire of multiple terrains and ethnicities. The national norms, which could potentially be iconic of the national space, were vast, level plains, villages, and cold, severe environments. Perhaps consequently, Russia spent much less time glorifying nature when compared to Europe, instead developing nature as a complex entity. Costlow takes great care to consider the being of trees in Russian culture, and the landscape as peopled, not separated from humanity.[18] Thus, nature’s fate is man’s fate. In this regard, Levitan separated himself from other landscape artists of his time. Without glory, he put hope into the land by inviting viewers into the liberty they sought.


‘Vera,’ she asked, “have you never thought about how our will and imagination form these lavatories around us?’

‘I have thought about it,’ Vera answered, ‘ I’ve been thinking about it for ages and I can’t understand it. I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say that we ourselves create the world around us and the reason we’re sitting in a public lavatory lies in our own soul. Then you’ll say there really isn’t any public lavatory, there isn’t anything but a projection of inner content on to external object, and what seems like a stink is simply an exteriorized component of the soul.’ [19]

Isaak Levitan, The Vladimirka Road, 1892

Act III: Levitan’s Journey

What inspires an artist to bring certain ideas and images to a canvas is built upon all the chance and possibility of any life. Levitan was no different. All the same, the leverage of a few fortunate events cannot be understated, the first being his acceptance into the Moscow School. On the whole, Levitan spent twelve years studying at the School. His first few years were quiet aside from earning a “box of paints and brushes” for a “good showing.”[20] His interest in landscapes earned him admittance into Savrasov’s studio, the “most advanced in the School.”[21] As a teacher, Savrasov was as memorable as his most famous painting, “The Rooks Have Come.” He brought delight to the work of the artists, inspiring his students to study nature first-hand and work in the open air. If an oak blossomed, the class was rushed outside to observe the tight buds bursting with new blooms. In the spring, students were taken to the countryside to “enjoy the awakening land emerging from the melting snow.”[22]

A year after joining Savrasov’s studio, Levitan had his first exhibition in the students’ section of the 5th Moscow exhibition of the Wanderers.[23] In 1879, art collector Pavel Tretyakov purchased Levitan’s “Solniki Park. Autumn” (1879) at the School’s student exhibition. Tretyakov collected close to 2,000 works of Russian art before his death, many of which were painted by members of the Wanderers. His patronage helped artists to sustain, and also came to represent a sign of prestige for artists.[24] For Levitan, Tretyakov’s acquisition of his painting was a sign of growing public recognition.

From 1882-1883, another turn of events changed the fate of Levitan’s career: the School hired Vasily Polenov, another landscapist of the time. Polenov was known for his “European,” plein-air techniques, including the use of bright colors, colored shadows, and free strokes. His Palestinian studies were particularly inspiring for young landscape artists of the 1880’s because, though only sketches made on the spot, they proved equal in aesthetic value to any work of art developed in a studio.[25] Levitan made it a point to never show a work until it was “finished,” thus his sketches were never exhibited. Even so, Polenov’s plein air influence was far-reaching in Levitan’s career.

Isaak Levitan, Dull Day at the Volga, 1888
Isaak Levitan, Dull Day at the Volga, 1888

Another side to this rich atmosphere of passion and talent was the close teacher-student relationship which formed between Levitan and his professors. With his quick sale to one of the most well-known art collectors, Levitan was quickly proving himself to be an equal as an artist. Surprisingly, the School did not agree. Given the title of “commissioned artist” upon graduation, Levitan was allowed only the opportunity to work as a teacher of art or in the civil service rather than as a full time artist. On the other hand, fourteen years later in 1898, Levitan would be awarded the title of “academician” by the School and “again [enter] its doors as the head of the landscape studio.”[26]

Walking out of the School’s doors proved fruitful for Levitan. He immediately spent time in the Crimea. The following year, he set off for the Volga region. Still quite poor, he travelled by low-class means and stayed with peasant families. Loneliness soon set in, provoking Levitan to question his own motivations. At this time, he wrote his most quoted lines in a letter to a friend: “Can there be anything more tragic than the feeling of endless beauty in everything around you, to observe hidden mysteries, to see God in everything and not to be able, realizing your inadequacy, to express all these great emotions adequately and fully?”[27] Levitan looked at nature with all the literature and music of his days, all the history of his nation, and all the memories of his life, but what did the Volga River mean to him?

Aside from the historical background of the river, the Volga was already a source of national pride for Russia by the time Levitan walked along its shores. During Catherine the Great’s reign (1762-1796), poets Ivan Dmitriev and Nikolai Karamzin wrote the first praises of the Volga River as a “symbol of Russia,” referring to it as “Tsaritsa” (“Little Tsar”) and unifying the image of nature with a beloved, yet forceful, power.[28] Later under the reign of Tsar Nicholas I, two brothers named Grigorii and Nikanor Chernetsov were commissioned by the Ministry of the Imperial Palace to travel the length of the Volga River in a boat “outfitted to help them sketch and paint their impressions.” Their purpose was to capture the beauty of this region. Their adventure must have stirred the young blood of budding landscape artists in decades to follow. Their journals were condensed into a “travelogue” called The Parallel Banks of the Volga and published under Tsar Alexander II.[29] In 1860, the poet Nikolai Nekrasov used a similar tone of admiration towards the Volga River in his poem “On the Volga” (1860), though in the final stanzas, he described of an encounter with barge haulers. This sudden, disruptive shift reversed the “child’s pastoral world” and brought social issues into the context of nature.[30] A decade later, the Russian artist Ilya Repin brought these barge haulers to life in his incredible painting “Barge Haulers on the Volga.”

Isaac Levitan, Evening on the Volga, 1887-1888.
Isaac Levitan, Evening on the Volga, 1887-1888

Altogether, Levitan spent significant parts of three consecutive years in various parts of the Volga region. In his isolation, he turned to the Volga with the weight of all previous artistic impressions only to create his own. Here, Levitan began to develop what would later be referred to as “mood landscapes.” For example, in “Evening on the Volga,” the restriction of his color range creates a melancholic atmosphere. The gray cloudiness in the sky is separated from the similarly gray water only by a thin strip of white light, which reflects the clearing up above. The viewer knows not whether the clouds are on their way or coming to pass, but the centralized position of the strip of white light in the water leads the eye up towards that clearing in the sky. Additionally, there is a second reflection taking place between darkness and light. The shadowy silhouette of the shoreline in the foreground frame the lower border of the painting in direct contrast with the upper, bright frame of the clearing in the sky, something King refers to as an invitation into “contemplation of the infinite.”[31]

During this same time period, Levitan was also working on the small painting “Birch Grove” for the whole of four years. The level of depth is remarkable. The hundreds of brushstrokes representative of leaves and blades of grass should have earned him a nickname similar to Shishkin’s “accountant of leaves.” The painting begins and ends in a grove so rich with life it cannot be contained by the canvas. It seems to spill out and consume the viewer much like Shishkin’s paintings of forests, but the gloom of those forests is displaced. The brightness of light trickling innocently through the birch leaves captures an active moment filled with life. The simple title allows for any viewer to personalize the painting, thus marking a transition from a sense of place towards a broader sense of nature, where humanity is not defined and there is no specific story to tell.

Isaac Levitan, Birch Grove, 1885-1889
Isaac Levitan, Birch Grove, 1885-1889

In “Birch Grove,” an aspect of Levitan not always appreciated by art critics or historians comes to life: his love for the world of ideas. Levitan travelled quite a bit during his lifetime and befriended people across all disciplines, including art and science. He read works by art critic Vissarion Belinsky, the writer Alexander Herzen, and the previously described Chernyshevsky. One of the greatest historians of Levitan’s life and works, Alexei Feodorov-Davydov, describes Levitan’s Volga studies as an “unceasing quest for archetypal images,” and following this he went on to paint his most “philosophical” pieces.[32] Aside from the river motif, it would seem his most archetypal images were defined in the works which followed his exploration of the Volga region, such as the church in “Those Evening Bells” (1892) or the road in “The Vladimirka Road” (1892). The culmination of these motifs formed one of his greatest masterpieces,

“Above Eternal Rest,” where the viewer finally sees the intellectual complexity of Levitan come to life. The quintessential Russian church, old and perhaps crumbling from the onslaught of weather over the generations, faces an endless vista weighed down by the rich world of the sky. The tone of the colors is, again, melancholic and yet the endurance of the spiritual element provokes a mood of hope and strength.

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

During his study for this painting at Lake Udomlya, he noted in his journal how he spent his days reading the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhaur.[33] Schopenhaur is best known for his work The Will as Representation (1818), which described human will as always leading towards suffering, a dismal view of life indeed. Levitan’s works adhered to no particular thinker though. If anything, they brought the struggle for truth to the canvas rather than trying to define any truth. In his paintings, nature was a grand, eternal entity beyond the comprehension of humanity. He balanced this grandeur with a symbol for Russians to identify with, always welcoming them into this enigmatic world. Thus, though the future was not known and the past was not resolved, there was a sense of liberty in the present. Perhaps, if Levitan’s works were to adhere to any thinker, it would be the free-minded Herzen.

Alexander Herzen (1812-1870) emigrated from Russia in 1847 and never returned, believing his homeland to be too confining to publically discuss notions of liberty. He is often referred to as “the father of socialism,” inspiring that later movement of the Russian gentry to “go to the people.” One of his most famous works From the Other Shore (1848-1850) was written in response to the revolutions of 1848 in Europe. For Herzen, the failure of these revolutions signified a great misunderstanding of Hegel’s view of progress. The course of past and present events would not eventually lead to a human utopia, and there was no law to abide by in order to gain access to this particular future. Predictions could not be made, and with this, the liberation that knowledge brought to the world was useless. Life was still a culmination of chance. Herzen believed this realization was true liberation.

Herzen’s ideas allowed for nature to be liberated as well, writing how “she has no desire to wrong what exists; let it live as long as it can, while the new is still growing.”[34] As for the future, “she [Nature] does not concern herself with the future at all.”[35] Why should she? As Isaiah Berlin notes in one of his essays on Herzen, nature as an “infinitely rich, infinitely generous cosmic process” cannot be confined to the categories, purposes, or utilities created by humanity.[36] Nature is free and “does not disdain what is transient, what lives only in the moment.”[37] As much as Herzen places the present and the individual at the forefront of reality, he places nature above both. Nature “does not lament his [humanity’s] passing, for change as it may, nothing escapes her large embrace.”[38] His provocation for the possible is tempting, but so is his idea of nature as an absolute in the history of humanity. Human life may be a culmination of chance and possibility, but above all humanity is part of a greater history, one which may never fully be understood.

Isaac Levitan, The Lake. Rus, 1899-1900
Isaac Levitan, The Lake. Rus, 1899-1900

Levitan spent the final year of his life working on “The Lake. Rus,” which was painted over a number of canvases never to be completed. Feodorov-Davydov interpreted this piece to be symbolic of Russia as “she ought to and deserves to be.”[39] King thought it a “celebration of beauty of the Russian countryside.”[40] The interpretation of works of art is an exhaustive task, but it can be said that Levitan did not simply celebrate nature. He dove into nature and struggled over how to understand the existence of humankind in relation to nature. His incompletion of this painting reveals that struggle.

On the whole, the canvas supplies a delightful expanse of color and light with a sense of movement. The quality of reflection by the lake expands on his earlier works, “Evening on the Volga” and “Above Eternal Rest.” Here there is not a confrontation of darkness and light or a complex variety of weather overpowering the vast, monotonous scene below. Instead, the sky and the world below are equals in vibrancy and possibility. Furthermore, the vague impression of detail brings equality to the evidence of humans in nature. The land is delicately peopled with a village, a church, and signs of agriculture, representative of many aspects of human society. At the forefront, the water is speckled by water lilies, the lapping of small waves, and a collection of grass. Levitan also makes it a point to show the lake at a curve rather than in full. The view begins on the surface of the water and ends in the unknown beyond the canvas. Other villages pop up in the distance and the clouds of the sky seem to go on forever. Perhaps around the curve in the lake there are other villages and more clouds, the coming of a storm, or even something unimaginable. Without any particular narrative, the painting is free for the viewer’s imagination to complete.

Surprisingly, an interest in the title of the painting has been overlooked by art critics and historians. Omeljan Pritsak’s controversial essay “The Origin of Rus” may suffice to supplement anyone’s curiosity, but Levitan’s concept of “Rus” is not especially a historical reference. Unfortunately, the title of his painting is usually mistranslated as “The Lake. Russia,” but the intentional use of “Rus” cannot be ignored. Historically, Rus is another name for the Varangians, or Vikings, who settled the Slavic territory between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea in hopes of expanding trade. Rus is also a reference to the medieval polity of Kiev, often referred to as Kievan Rus. In this way, “Rus” as an idea is representative of that desire by the Russian gentry in the 1860’s for root causes, a root in history to connect to the present in order to form an identity. Of course, even this desire is not specific to one decade. In Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842), the narrator yells out into the great expanse of history:

Rus! Rus! I see you, from my lovely enchanted remoteness I see you…Why do I constantly hear the echo of your mournful song as it is carried from the sea through your entire expanse?…And since you are without end yourself, is it not within you that a boundless thought will be born?”[41]

Levitan further developed the concept of “Rus” as a source of idealism, an absolute to draw from without end. His final work was boundless in composition, historical context, and even ideology. Whatever liberty his society sought, he welcomed them into it only as a world of unknown or rather a world of possibility. They could treasure the familiar signs of their homeland, such as the church and even the vastness of the environment, but where they would end up was shaped by their individual lives in the present time in which they lived.

How Levitan was able to find success in his transcendence of both the realistic aesthetic and the societal turmoil of his time can be attributed to the deep, emotional affect his paintings had on viewers. Herzen believed suffering and pain to be a “warning cry of life,” meaning that one’s endurance of pain was reflective of a will to live.[42] For Russian society during Levitan’s lifetime, his paintings served as a “warning cry of life” after the onslaught of issues suffered by the people. The vision of this cry must have been relieving and inspiring, but also a bit frightening. His paintings are imprecise in their quality and meaning. Not only are they reflective of his personal transcendence of the landscape, but also of the viewer’s opportunity to transcend as well. Upon their first appearance to the public, they must have been overwhelming, but Levitan reassured his viewers with familiar Russian motifs amidst a vague recognition of place. The viewer would never be lost in unfamiliar territory but rather invited to explore something new, to begin a journey; one need only courage.


It all began on that afternoon when Vera thought for the first time, not of the meaning of existence, as she usually did, but of its mystery. This resulted in her dropping her rag into the bucket of murky, sudsy water and emitting a sound something like a rather quiet “ah.” The thought was quite unconnected with anything in her surroundings. It simply manifested itself in a head into which nobody had invited it, leading to the conclusion that the long years of spiritual endeavor spent in the search for meaning had been wasted–because meaning was itself concealed within mystery. Vera nonetheless somehow managed to calm herself down and go on washing the floor.[43]



Berlin, Isaiah. “Herzen and Bakunin on Individual Liberty” in Russian Thinkers. Edited by Henry Hardy and Aileen Kelly. New York, Penguin Books: 1978, 82-113.

Churak, Galina. “Landscape Painting in the Tretyakov Collection” in Russian Landscape. Edited by David Jackson and Patty Wageman. Schoten, Belgium: BAI, 2003. 123-145.

——. “Private Art Collecting: 19th Century Russia” in The Wanderers: Masters of 19th-Century Russian Painting. Edited by Elizabeth Kridl Valkenier. Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1990), 61-80.

Costlow, Jane. “Imaginations of Destruction: The ‘Forest Question’ in Nineteenth-Century Russian Culture.” Russian Review 62, no. 1 (January 2003): 91-118.

Edie, James M., James P. Scanlan, and Mary-Barbara Zeldin, eds. with collaboration of George L. Kline. Russian Philosophy, vol. 2, The Nihilists, The Populists, Critics of Religion and Culture. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1965.

Ely, Christopher. This Meager Nature: Landscape and National Identity in Imperial Russia. DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002.

Feodorov-Davydov, Alexei. Isaac Levitan: The Mystery of Nature. Bournemouth, England: Parkstone Publishers, 1995.

Gogol, Nikolai. Dead Souls. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Lectures on the Philosophy of World History. Translated by H. B. Nisbet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Herzen, Alexander.From the Other Shore.” In From the Other Shore, and The Russian People and Socialism: An Open Letter to Jules Michelet, Cleveland: The World Publishing Co, 1956, 3-162.

King, Averil. Isaak Levitan: Lyrical Landscape. London: Philip Wilson Publishers: 2004.

May, Rachel. “Guest Editor’s Introduction: On the Idea of ‘Russian Nature.’” Russian Studies in Literature 39, no. 2 (Spring 2003): 4-23.

——. “Narrating Landscape, Landscaping Narrative.” Russian Studies in Literature 39, no. 3 (Summer 2003): 65-87.

Os, Henk van. “Russian Landscapes: A Premier” in Russian Landscape. Edited by David Jackson and Patty Wageman. Schoten, Belgium: BAI, 2003, 13-42.

Pelevin, Victor. “Vera Pavlovna’s Ninth Dream” in A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia. Translated by Andrew Bromfield. New York: New Directions Book, 1998, 36-58.

Roskill, Mark. The Languages of Landscape. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University, 1997.

Tolstoy, Lev Nikolaevich. What is Art? Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. London: Penguin Group, 1995.

Valkenier, Elizabeth. Russian Realist Art: the State and Society: the Perevizhniki and Their Tradition. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1977.



[1] Victor Pelevin, “Vera Pavlovna’s Ninth Dream” in A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia, trans. Andrew Bromfield (New York: New Directions Book, 1998). This short story by Pelevin parodies Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s novel What is to Be Done? in which the title of the fourth chapter is “Vera Pavlovna’s Fourth Dream.” Chernyshevsky’s Vera dreams of an agrarian utopia achieved by revolution, but Pelevin’s Vera is a lavatory worker, thus her revolution is a flood of excrement. The formed utopia is lifeless and Vera is left screaming, “What is to be done?” Pelevin stresses in his story the great cost of a reality created by the will and imagination of a suffering woman.

[2] Ibid, 52.

[3] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, translated by H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 81.

[4]Alexei Feodorov-Davydov, Isaac Levitan: The Mystery of Nature (Bournemouth, England: Parkstone Publishers, 1995), 9.

[5] Elizabeth Valkenier, Russian Realist Art: the State and Society: the Perevizhniki and Their Tradition (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1977), 17.

[6] James M. Edie, James P. Scanlan, and Mary-Barbara Zeldin, eds. with collaboration of George L. Kline, Russian Philosophy, vol. 2, The Nihilists, The Populists, Critics of Religion and Culture (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1965), 89.

[7] Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, What is Art? Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (London: Penguin Group, 1995), 41.

[8] Elizabeth Kridl Valkenier, “The Art of the Wanderers in the Culture of Their Time,” in The Wanderers: Masters of 19th-Century Russian Painting, ed. Elizabeth Kridl Valkenier (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1990), 1.

[9] Valkenier, Russian Realist Art, 5.

[10] Mark Roskill, The Languages of Landscape (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University, 1997), 233.

[11] For a wonderful introduction to the literary development of Russian “nature,” please see: Rachel May, “On the Idea of ‘Russian Nature’” in Russian Studies in Literature 39, no. 2 (Spring 2003), 4-23. Also see: Rachel May, “Narrating Landscape, Landscaping Narrative,” in Russian Studies in Literature 39, no. 3 (Summer 2003), 65-87.

[12] Valkenier, The Wanderers, 14.

[13] “In general, we do not very much like artists who have chosen landscape for their exclusive and only specialty…Such one-sidedness is strange to us…Landscape is necessary to the artist as a background, as a decoration…But by itself landscape is pointless.” As quoted in Valkenier, Russian Realist Art, 77.

[14] As quoted in: Christopher Ely, This Meager Nature: Landscape and National Identity in Imperial Russia (DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002), 185.

[15] Henk van Os, “Russian Landscapes: A Premier” in Russian Landscape, ed. by David Jackson and Patty Wageman (Schoten, Belgium: BAI, 2003), 34.

[16] Ely, 13.

[17] Roskill, 236.

[18] Jane Costlow, “Imaginations of Destruction: The ‘Forest Question’ in Nineteenth-Century Russian Culture,” Russian Review 62, no. 1 (January 2003): 100.

[19] Pelevin, 46.

[20] Feodorov-Davydov, 9.

[21] Averil King, Isaak Levitan: Lyrical Landscape (London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2004), 27.

[22] van Os, 38.

[23] Feodovov-Davydov, 9.

[24] For more insight into the complexity of art collecting in 19th century Russia, please see: Galina Sergeevna Churak, “Private Art Collecting: 19th Century Russia” in The Wanderers: Masters of 19th-Century Russian Painting, ed. Elizabeth Kridl Valkenier (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1990), 61-80.

[25] Feodorov-Davydov, 10.

[26] Ibid, 12.

[27] King, 34.

[28] Ely, 35.

[29] Ibid, 76-77.

[30] Ibid, 161.

[31] King, 36.

[32] Feodorov-Davydov, 26.

[33] Galina Churak, “Landscape Painting in the Tretyakov Collection” in Russian Landscape, ed. by David Jackson and Patty Wageman (Schoten, Belgium: BAI, 2003) 141.

[34] Alexander Herzen,From the Other Shore” in From the Other Shore, and The Russian People and Socialism: An Open Letter to Jules Michelet (Cleveland: The World Publishing Co, 1956), 33.

[35] Ibid, 37.

[36] Isaiah Berlin, “Herzen and Bakunin on Individual Liberty” in Russian Thinkers, ed. Henry Hardy and Aileen Kelly (New York: Penguin Books, 1978), 93.

[37] Herzen, 33.

[38] Herzen, 69.

[39] Feodorov-Davydov, 18.

[40] King, 18.

[41] Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 220.

[42] Herzen, 22.

[43] Pelevin, 37.

About the author

Corinne Hughes

Corinne Hughes studied art and literature at the Evergreen State College in Washington. She participated in three SRAS programs, a semester in Irkutsk for language immersion and then another semester in St. Petersburg to engage more in cultural studies, and finally more Russian language abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan prior to graduation. Her long-term goal is to promote international communication and collaboration between artists in the United States, Russia, and Eurasia.

Program attended: Challenge Grants

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