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Levitan and the silver birch.

Isaak Levitan's paintings are a highlight of the exhibition of Russian landscapes from the age of Tolstoy currently at the National Gallery, London. Averil King traces the use he makes of a key image, the silver birch, which is both a symbol of Russian identity and a link with new developments in landscape painting in France, Germany and Austria.

Isaak Levitan made telling use of the silver birch in his landscape painting. As a motif, it was lyrical, expressive and, above all, calculated to evoke feelings of affection for the Russian Motherland. Whereas his compatriot Ivan Shishkin, a fellow member of the Assocation for Traveling Art Exhibitions (the Pereduizhniki or Wanderers), (1) chose to commemorate the huge coniferous inhabitants of Russia's great forests, Levitau preferred to make this dainty, deciduous species, which grows so freely in central Russia, into a significant ingredient in his paintings, a motif which allows us, too, to appreciate the wider, European context of his art.

An exact contemporary of his lifelong friend Anion Chekhov, Levitan lived from 1860 to 1900. Having trained at the Moscow School of Painting from 1873, he painted in the Crimea in 1886 and on the shores of the Volga between 1887 and 1890. He made several brief tours of Europe, sketching in the French Alps, north Italy and Switzerland, familiarising himself with the art world in Berlin, Paris, Vienna and Munich, and exhibiting with the Munich Secession. He suffered from indifferent health, dying from a disease of the aorta aged only thirty-nine.

Levitan's early painting Birch grove (1885-89) (Fig. 1), painted at the time his friendship with Chekhov was deepening, is a view into a birchwood in springtime. With a low viewpoint and closely cropped both horizontally and vertically, it shows the birches' foliage and their white trunks in dappled sunshine. It is painted in a more Impressionistic style than Levitan had previously employed, and raises the question of how much the artist knew of the endeavours of Monet and his followers. Among his fellow Russian painters, the great master of genre Ilya Repin had lived in Paris from 1873 to 1876, yet had remained largely impervious to the early Impressionists' painterly innovations. More probably, Levitan had learnt about them from Koustantin Korovin (1861 1939), who had been overwhelmed by the lush colouring and free brushwork he had seen in Paris in 1885. In both Korovin's pictures and those of his friend Valentin Serov (1865-1911) the influence of Impressionism is clearly evident; Serov's famous Girl with peaches (1887) had an atmosphere new to Russian painting, suffused with light and fresh, warm colour.


As his career progressed, the silver birch continued to feature in many of Levitan's paintings, often as a compositional device: in The hollow (1898), for example, he uses birches in full leaf, their drooping fronds of summer foliage cascading like a woman's long skirt to frame the composition. In the panoramic, joyous Golden autumn (Fig. 2), painted in 1895 and one of several subjects celebrating the different seasons, Levitan features a grove of autumn birches. Beneath a calm, cirrus-streaked sky a winding river, cobalt-blue, runs among fields lined with the golden trees; a single yellow birch, straight as a sentinel, marks the opposite bank. The birches' glowing autumn foliage and shining white trunks combine with the green of the meadows to lend the picture a festive air. In the distance are several low wooden peasant houses, or izbas, and a dark strip of forest indicative of the vast coniferous taiga covering much of Russia.


The distinctive nature of Levitan's portrayal of the silver birch is made clearer by a comparison with the use made of the motif by his contemporaries. It was quite different, for example, from the epic character of Shishkin's well-loved forest landscapes. Born in 1832, Shishkin belonged to a slightly earlier generation of Russian landscapists. Throughout his work, two themes predominated--Russia's wide, abundant fields and her immense forests. Shishkin was drawn towards the magnificent, towering conifers of the taiga, portraying them in a meticulous, near-photographic style. These reverent commemorations, made at a time when many tracts of woodland were being felled by impecunious landlords, endeared him to a wide audience and met with approval from such critics as Stasov. (2)

Among Shishkin's paintings are some in which the silver birch is allowed to appear. In the birch tree forest (1883) is a charming scene with figures among tall birch trees (Fig. 4); in pictures such as Stream in the forest 1869), birches are interspersed among other deciduous species, their foliage and the dark furrows in their trunks, or lenticols, clearly delineated, so that an effect more solid and monumental than Levitan's much more lyrical representation is achieved.


The Ukrainian Arkhip Kuindzhi (1842-1910) also portrayed Russia's silver birches. Kuindzhi--viewed as something of a rediscovery in the exhibition of Russian landscape painting at Groningen and London (3)--brought to the subject an idiosyncratic sense of lighting and bold composition. First winning commendation for his pictures of the lush, wooded Ukrainian countryside at dusk or after nightfall, Kuindzhi used paints of his own manufacture to exaggerate the natural tonality of a scene and create harsh contrasts of primary colours. (4) Consequently, his Birch tree grove (1879), was highly dramatic. Here Kuindzhi deployed his characteristic 'cosmic' lighting and simplification of shapes. A weed-laden stream meanders away from the viewer through grass which is rendered lime-green by the bright sunlight, while the trees behind suffer from bulbous outlines not really reminiscent of the birch. Levitan's Birch grove, painted a little later and generally considered to be a plagiarisation of Kuindzhi's composition, is in fact a great deal more sensitive to the intrinsic beauty of these pretty, slender trees.

Levitan was a contemporary of Claude Monet, who from around 1880 was increasingly preoccupied with landscape painting. Unsurprisingly, both artists sometimes took the same subject, but whereas Monet tended to chance upon topics which appealed to him, for instance the row of poplars lining the river Epte in 1891, the Russian's selection of content was more considered. Since the time when he and Chekhov had roamed the countryside near Chekhov's rented dacha at Babkino on the river Istra in the mid-1880s, Levitan had carefully sought out motifs typical of rural Russia, employing such emotionally resonant passages to make his images immediately persuasive.

A single silver birch is sometimes used as an accent in the design. Stillness, painted in 1898, shows a village sleeping below a clear sky, with a crescent moon reflected in the still water of a nearby river. Neatly tended fields line the hillside which leads to the forest. On the river's near hank, almost at the edge of the composition, stands a lone, slender birch, its trunk glowing silver white in the moonlight. The tall, sinuous shape of the winter birch is used to consummate effect in Levitan's famous Spring flood (1897) (Fig. 5). In this joyful evocation of the Russian spring, he shows a calm expanse of shining floodwater left behind after the violent descent of ice and snow from nearby hills. The water is framed by graceful birch tree trunks: bare of leaves but shining in the early spring sunshine, they arch towards a pale blue sky.


It is unlikely that Levitan was ever concerned to model himself on Monet, whose work was still, even by the 1890s, little regarded in Moscow and St Petersburg. The occasional exhibitions of French painting staged in these cities included only insignificant examples of the work of the Impressionists.

It is surely coincidental that Monet's rows of poplars are echoed in Levitan's Moonlit night: main road (1897) (Fig. 6), where two lines of trees stand at either side of a long, straight road extending into the distance much as in Hobbema's avenue. Here the silver birches are at their most ghostly, their pale trunks glistening, their foliage cast into darkness. This very ordinary subject is transformed by its subtlety of tonality; for Levitan had become a master of rendering the gradations of light as the sky darkens at dusk and moonlight establishes itself.

Levitan occasionally draws close to an area of Monet's production in such paintings as Moonlit night (1899), a depiction of a drift of birches lit by moonlight which bears comparison with Monet's early-morning views of the Seine near Giverny of the mid-1890s. Levitan was capable of achieving an extraordinary atmospheric verisimilitude, the quality of light here approaching that of Monet's misty, evocative scenes of water fringed by summer foliage. However, while the Russian preferred to paint at dusk or on clear nights, Monet, perhaps mindful of the working methods of the earlier landscape master he so much admired, Jean Baptiste-Camille Corot, rose at dawn so that he could watch the first hazy light settle on the river.

Levitan's wide knowledge of European art was not unique among Russian artists of his time, but, since he did not share their widespread mistrust of western aesthetics, it was reflected to an unusual degree in his output. His teachers Perov (6) and Polenov (7) had both studied in France but were not substantially influenced by what they had seen; Repin, as we have seen, paid scant homage to artistic events there. If Levitan--who had first visited Paris in 1890--was more influenced by the work of the Barbizon painters, the French naturalist school and the gentle landscapes of Stanlislas Lepine, Leon Germain Pelouse and Albert Rigolot than by Impressionism, it is undoubtedly true that from about this time his brushwork became more flickering and his palette paler and brighter. However, unlike his contemporaries Korovin and Serov, whose work was clearly influenced by developments in France, Levitan combined attention to French painting with influence from Austria and Germany, derived from his visits there.

Levitan's father Ilya, who was descended from a family of poor but intellectual Lithuanian Jews, had been a translator. The artist was proficient in German and in 1894 and 1897 he visited Vienna, his second visit coinciding with discussions relating to the formation of the Viennese Secession, during which he perhaps made the acquaintance of Gustav Klimt. (9) In Austria the Romantic school of landscape had given way to a uniquely Austrian development known as poetic or atmospheric realism, whose best-known exponent was Emil Jakob Schindler (1842-92). Familiar with the work of the Barbizon painters, Schindler's many views of the Danube and the country's mountain and woodland scenery were often based on unpretentious themes, his sensitivity to atmospheric and meteorological changes giving his paintings great subtlety.

Perhaps just as significantly for the Russian visitor, symbolism was now quite often used. Austrian artists such as Carl Moll included subtle but distinct symbolic elements into their scenes of forests, pools and lakes. Moll (1861-1945), trained by Schindler and for a while his follower, was well aware of the work of Fcrnaud Khnopff and his use of symbolist references derived from Belgian symbolist poetry, whereby the inclusion of water (especially ponds and pools) was understood to stand for a female presence. Moll's evocative Twilight showed a small boat floating on a forest pool among densely packed and seemingly regimented tree trunks.

In this part of Europe there was a fascination with the forest. Artists such as Theodor von Hormann, Prince Eugene, the Pole Antonin Slavicek and later Klimt himself, painted sombre, secretive pinewoods, beechwoods with trees standing in rich red beechmast around quiet pools, and birch forests, whose white and silver light was cleverly evoked. Klimt's landscape paintings, more numerous than is generally supposed, (10) included a small series of warmly coloured, intimate woodland interiors dating from the 1880s. When he turned again to landscape in the late 1890s, Klimt's paintings often comprised small groups of trees, his use of them instinctively and emphatically decorative. Orchard (1896/97), After the rain (1898) and Orchard at evening (1899) all took low viewpoints and the trees, or their trunks, are spaced at careful intervals to lead the viewer's eye through the composition.

Although these unpeopled fin-desiecle landscapes have, like Levitan's, qualities of simplicity and stillness, the inclusion of symbolic elements in the work of many Viennese Secession exhibitors was absent from his paintings. Yet his observation of their work, and of tire output of the poetic realists, contributed to his range and diversity. It was perhaps in Munich, however, that he saw landscape pictures which sharpened and refined his vision of the Russian terrain.

Levitan was first invited to take part in the Secession exhibitions in Munich by Aleksandr Benois in the spring of 1896. It was Benois who encouraged the small Russian participation in Munich, Valentin Serov and Apollinari Vasnetsov also being represented. Levitan was to exhibit with the Secession in 1896, 1898 and 1899 and, conscious that this venue attracted much international attention, was careful to send examples of his best work.

Curiously, both poplars and the silver birch featured large in the work of the members of the two small but flourishing landscape schools in Germany. The area around Worpswede, near Bremen, with its straw-roofed houses and sandy hills had attracted the young artists Fritz Mackensen and Otto Modersohn to move there in 1889. Modersohn especially was inspired by the Barbizon school to seek natural, original and unspoilt subjects and his series of eight rural scenes exhibited at Munich's Glaspalast in 1895 had been exceptionally well received. In these the silver birch, which grew profusely around Worpswede, was often shown reflected in moorland canals or right up against the picture plane (Fig. 7), its golden-brown autumn foliage and sturdy white trunks lit by the sun.


Secondly, the old moorland village of Dachau, north west of Munich, had for some while functioned as a kind of German Barbizon, generating a number of moody and stylistically quite innovative pictures. The area's mysterious, low-lying marshy moorland and traditional village life caught the imagination of Fritz van Uhde, who moved there in 1888; he was soon joined by Ludwig Dill, Alfred Langhammer and Adolf Holzel, who together established the Neu Dachau school of painting. Frequent mists and fogs lent the moorland an especially eerie atmosphere; its poplars and birches, half-lost in the mist, were ideal subjects for inventive, semiabstract representation. Dill and Holzel in particular sought to compress the shapes of the trees into more generalised patterns. The former, painting the poplars which lined the meandering streams, achieved a peculiarly mysterious effect as the trees loomed out of the mist, while in works like his Birches on the moor Holzel reduced the silver birches to a haze of foliage and glinting white trunks.

It is difficult to quantify the effect of Levitan's exposure to the output of such landscapists. Although his journeys were planned to enable him to see the work of artists based in Europe's main artistic centres, his correspondence rarely refers to individual works or even to their exponents. The variety and subtlety of his late paintings and his improved sense of design indicate that he had carefully observed certain expressive and compositional techniques used by Secession artists. In his 1899 watercolour Fog: Autumn (Fig. 8) (by this date he quite often worked in watercolour or pastel), a small group of silver birches forms the entire subject matter of the picture. The delicate structure of their branches and the trees' pale, harmonious colouring are beautifully conveyed as they emerge from a swathe of autumn mist.

The late painting Rainstorm (1899) (Fig. 9) is one of Levitan's most poetic. It is an autumn scene set in the depths of rural Russia where several forlorn birches are lashed by rain and whipped by wind. The beauty and delicacy of the summer birch has vanished as the elements take control, the tall, frail trees acting as uprights in the emotive composition. This painting, unusual among Levitan's work, well exemplifies his talent for creating 'mood landscapes' which so powerfully convey sensations of sadness, desolation, calm or joy.


(1) The Association for Travelling Art Exhibitions was formed in 1870 as something of a break, away group from the oppressive teaching routines of the Academy. It held exhibitions in Moscow, St Petersburg and many provincial Russian cities from 1871. Among its stated aims were the creation of a wider audience for contemporary Russian painting and new markets for its members' work.

(2) Vladimir Vasilievich Stasov (1824-1906), prominent and influential critic end writer who vehemently opposed the trivial content of much western painting. Stasov championed an art that was uniquely Russian and which realistic, ally and unreservedly portrayed Russian life and landscape.

(3) The exhibition "Russian Landscape in the Age of Tolstoy' was at the Groninger Museum, Netherlands, from 13 December 2003 until 18 April 2004; it is currently at the National Gallery. London, until 12 September 2004.

(4) Kuindzhi's contemporaries were sceptical about the quality of his pigments. Ivan Kramskoi (1837-87) considered that his paint specifications were unscientific and would not last: 'He puts paints together which are organically antagonistic to each other and ... will fade or change' (letter to A.S. Suvorin, 15 September 1880, quoted in John Bowlt's The Silver Age, Newtonville, Mass., 1979).

(5) The winter 1896 exhibition of French Painting in St Petersburg and Moscow was dominated by pictures in an academic style, for example by Ingres; it included works by the Barbizon artists Corot and Millet and only small works by Monet. Renoir and Sisley. In November 1898, the exhibition of Russian and French painting in MosCow's Popov Arcade showed mainly peasant subjects still painted in an academic style by Jules Breton and Jean Charles Cazin. Dlaghilev's first World of Art exhibition, staged in St Petersburg from January to March 1899, did, however, introduce a few significant examples of French painting: Degas' Return from the races. Jockeys and Woman ironing were shown, as well as Renoir's La Loge. Yet only two insignificant landscapes by Monet were included.

(6) Vasily Perov (1832-82) lived in Paris from 1862-64, concentrating on painting the city's poor in dismal environs. He was Levitan's first teacher at the Moscow School of Painting from 1873.

(7) Vasily Polenov (1844-1927), both teacher and friend to Levitan, studied in Germany, Italy and France from 1872-76. Admiring in particular the work of Paul Delaroche, he nonetheless advocated working en plein air, producing attractive sketches in the Near East, which he visited in 1881, and views of the Moscow countryside.

(8) The artist's reading Included the works of Nietsche and Schopenhauer. With his letter to Chekhov dated 7 February 2000 from Bad Nauheim, where he had been taking treatment. Levitan enclosed a cutting from a German magazine about the treatment of TB.

(9) Levitan wrote to a friend end fellow Wanderer, Nikolai Kasatkin, reporting that he had visited the Viennese Secession on 6 April 1897, the day on which formal discussions relating to its formation were inaugurated.

(10) Among Klimt's 200 or so extant works, about 60 are landscapes.

Averil King is a freelance writer with a particular interest in nineteenth-century painting. Her book Isaak Levitan: Lyrical landscape was published earlier this year by Philip Wilson Publishers.
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Author:King, Averil
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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