The great Russian landscape painters

With landscape season in full swing I thought I’d do a post about my favorite historic landscape painters. I’ve added the names in Cyrillic in case you want to check Google images for more work.

First and foremost, Isaac Levitan (Исаак Левитан):

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March by Isaac Levitan. Oil on canvas, 60 x 75 cm, 1895.

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Birch Forest by Isaac Levitan. Oil on canvas 1885-1889

Isaac Levitan has been my favorite landscape painter from the first time I saw his work in reproduction. A few years ago I went to Russia and was almost in tears in front of the original paintings (though that could have also been the vodka hangover). His technical prowess is astonishing when you see the paintings in person. Some of his brush work would be gimmicky in the hands of anyone else. For example, in one painting of an old wood barn, he laid on impastos, then glazed them, then lightly wiped off the glaze so the darker color stayed just in the ‘valleys’ of the impasto. It works from a distance, but, amazingly, it works also if you ‘sniff’ (in the words of Gilbert Stuart) the painting. I’ve never seen anyone who could pull that trick off, and I have tried it myself a few times with terrible results.

“In Birch Forest”, pictured above, half of the painting appears to have been done with the same unmixed transparent green pigment, and the changing hue and high chroma in the glazing on the whites of the tree-trunks is alone worth the trip to Moscow.

The variety of his subjects and compositions has always inspired me. But most of all, the sense of meaning he instills in every painting. When you look at his landscapes there is something so much greater than just simply the view being depicted. His best landscapes are filled with a profound philosophical meaning beyond anything I’ve seen painted before. For me, this is art at its highest level. Recalling the French academicians with their hierarchy of painting which held landscape in third place, I think “they never saw a Levitan”.

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Isaac Levitan’s By the Mill-Pond. Oil on canvas 1891

There is an interesting article here on Levitan’s By the Mill-Pond.

Ivan Shiskin (Иван Шишкин):

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A Rye Field by Ivan Shishkin. Oil on canvas, 107 x 187 cm, 1878

The baby bear paintings I can do without, but the painting above is one of my all time favorites. I love the personality in each of the trees. My wife wants a large landscape for our apartment (we can’t afford one of mine) so I plan on copying it. If I had to have any painting on my wall it would be this one.

Vasily Vasilyevich Vereshchagin (Васи́лий Васи́льевич Вереща́гин):

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Vereshchagin. Hazreti Shakh-i-Zindeh Mausoleum in Samarkand. 1869-70

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Vereshchagin. Chuguchak Doors

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Vereshchagin, The Taj Mahal at Agra

Here is a painter I had never heard of until I visited Russia. His work was incredible when I saw it in the museums. They didn’t have the artist’s names in English so I copied down the Cyrillic characters on a piece of paper and took it to bookstores afterwards, only to find that books on Vereshchagin are few and far between. The reproductions I’ve found on the internet are also less than ideal so you’ll just have to take my word for how good this guy was. Apparently he was an officer in the Russian army and traveled across Asia on campaign, painting  these gems. I assume they were painted from life, as it is hard to imaging how else he could have done them.

The paintings of Samarkand in Uzbekistan were especially stunning. One of my favorites was a stetch of the Medrasah Shir-Dhor at Registan place in Samarkand. (It was also interesting to see difference between the small plein air sketch in which the place looks like a quiet historic site with a few market stalls, and the larger, dramatic studio painting with camels, heads on poles and raving Central Asian warriors).

His later studio work from Munich of large, crudely painted battle scenes I was less fond of, but I can imagine how someone with the sensitivity to create the plein air sketches above could have been affected by the brutality and horror of nineteenth century military campaigns.

The great Russian landscape painters was last modified: January 8th, 2013 by Marc Dalessio

9 comments

  1. Great post, I love Isaac Levitan’s work and he died so young as well.
    The other interesting thing is that he was Jewish, although it did not seem to effect his schooling or ability to work. Being a Jew in Russia in that period was not easy, to say the least.

    Alexey Savrasov his teacher was pretty good himself…

    The more I look into the Russian landscape painters of this period I realize how much great painting we in the west have been missing. I would love to see his work in person.

  2. A great post indeed. It reminded me of the Russian Landscape exhibition at the National Gallery in London in 2004. I was most impressed by the work of Shiskin. Levitan was represented with 11 works as well. The exhibition was accompanied by a fantastic catalogue which I cherish.
    PS; Great blog Mr. Dalessio

  3. So happy to find this website, what a pleasant surprise. I was just watching tv, rudy maxa’s show re hermitage museum, got inspired to finally look up on web russian ptg at tretyakov gallery etc. Typed in levitan in google–he’s one of my favs…very poetic, and you’re right, full of meaning—there is a spiritual, humanistic focus to his landscapes, as well as such beauty of light and shade. So it’s a fulfilling experience to view them. Your examples on this site are great. I became enamored with Repin originally, and got books on Russian 19th c art. Few exhibits in NY. Why Why? Did see one at Guggenheim several years ago, including Barge Haulers and 1 or 2 Levitans. I also like Serov very much. Thanks again so much for your remarks and picture examples.

  4. A quick note on Vereshchagin. There are some decent reproductions of his work in the book “the Orientalists” by Kristian Davies. It’s an excellent book filled with good reproductions by some excellent painters who are all but forgotten (sadly). It’s also nice to see that genre getting some respect for a change as the author does delve into why he thinks modernist art critique on orientalism has been so harsh.

    I believe Vereshchagin as well as many of the orientalists used photography as a source in creating their paintings. Due to the complexity of the subject matter, the climate conditions and various other obstacles I think it was probably a necessity. For me it doesn’t diminish their accomplishments , assuming they did of course use photos in the process.

  5. Hi there, I was wondering if any of you knew of a relatively new russian landscape painter. I saw his work in a gallery in Hawaii back in 04. His work was realistic and captured the light in the cottage window magically. You could really feel the coldness of the dusk scene and the promise of warmth in the cottage I couldn’t afford the piece then but would love to see more of his work. Any help would be appreciated; send me an e-mail at [email protected]

    Thanks in advance.

  6. Lovely post. You’d probably also enjoy the work of Kuindzhi, an even more talented and dramatic late 19c Russian landscape painter.

  7. The exhibition of Russian landscape paintings in London in 2004 remains one of my most tresured memories. Almost without exception, they appealed straight to the heart, producing a wave of damp-eyed emotion. I am astonished that these masterpieces have remained virtually unknown in the West for so long. Shishkin, Levitan and Kuindzhi’s works remain my favourites. One day, I long to travel to Russia to see them again.

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