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):

Vladimirka Road by Isaac Levitan.

March by Isaac Levitan.

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

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

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”.

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):

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

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):


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

Chuguchak Doors

Vereshchagin. Chuguchak Doors


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.