Isaac Levitan was born in 1860 in what is now Lithuania. The family moved to Moscow soon after his birth and he attended to Moscow School of Painting and Sculpture from the age of 13. When he was 15 his mother died, then two years later his father died too and he was left destitute. He had nowhere to live and sometimes even slept in the classrooms at art school. Despite his extreme poverty, the school kept him on because of his talent and he was granted a full scholarship. He painted enchanting “mood landscapes”. In his thirties he was found to have cardiac problems, which only increased his determination to paint to his best ability and to his highest output rate. Some of his “best” work was produced in his last years. At the age of 39 he passed away. He was friendly with Chekhov and is thought of very warmly by Russians.
I love so many of his paintings it is hard to choose just one, but I’ve decided to go with a study of “Evening Bells” from 1892. It’s oil on canvas 87cm x 108cm.
The first thing the eye is drawn to is the onion-domed church. It is strikingly square and bright in contrast to the surrounding nature. It shines white and reflects the yellow evening sun rather than absorbing it like the golden trees. It also bridges the border between land and sky – emphasising its role as the meeting point between people and God.
This painting to me is all about meetings of two worlds. This can be seen in his depiction of the clouds. Yellow and purple – opposing colours on the colour wheel running parallel to the contrast between day and night and juxtaposed as one turns into the other. Something of the transient mood of dusk is captured.
A welcoming archway has a path that runs down to the river and seems to continue running out to the onlooker in the very foreground, inviting a connection between the onlooker and the painting. It is as if there is an invitation to walk down the path, cross the river, and walk up to the church into the evening sun, as currently the onlooker is situated in the shadow. It is certain that the other side of the river looks much more appealing. There is even an empty rowing boat waiting. Next to the empty rowing boat is one with a single person in it, perhaps he or she waits for company.