March 01, 2011

The Artist Beside Himself

in february 1901, a few months after the artist’s death, an exhibit of several hundred paintings by Isaac Levitan opened in Moscow and later moved to St. Petersburg. By then it was clear how great was the artist who had painted these landscapes and how important was his place in Russian art.

However, for much of Levitan’s short life (he died at age 40) he lived in grinding poverty. Most of his youth was endured in hunger, and, having no place else to stay, he often spent the night in the School of Painting and Sculpture, where he was a student. When he reached adulthood and became an established artist, he at times went barefoot in summer for lack of shoes and paid his landlady with what were then worthless sketches. In addition to hunger, he was plagued by disease, which took his father and mother to an early grave and brought his own end before his genius was fully realized.

During his life and after his death, Levitan was an object of controversy, and to some degree he remains so today. A Jewish boy who came to Moscow from a remote Lithuanian shtetl, he naturally was subjected to constant insults and humiliation. Given the artist’s rather Semitic features, it is easy to imagine that he often encountered hostility on the street, in taverns, and even at school. Levitan was twice forced to leave Moscow, in 1879 and 1892, during periodic mass expulsions of Jews from the ancient capital, and it was only thanks to the intercession of friends that he was able to return. By then, the fact that Levitan primarily painted Russian nature had already made him a contentious figure. How dare a Jew take the beauty of Russia as his subject matter? What could he possibly understand about it?

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