The Quiet Abode won great fame for thirty-year-old Isaac Levitan. It was the milestone, after which they started talking about Levitan not only as a successful artist, but also as a maître and exponent of the national spirit.
A quiet blissful evening covers the river and the forest, hiding a small hermitage in its greenery. The paints are translucent and clean, you can even mistakenly decide for a minute that it is an early morning. Wobbly wooden walkways stretch across the river. It seems that you will cross them, you will find yourself under the shadow of an ancient monastery — and all misfortunes and sorrows, all sinful and vain will remain far behind. In the troubling decades of lack of faith, the Quiet Abode was perceived as a rare symbol of Russian grace.
Arthive has collected documents and interesting facts about one of the most famous paintings by Levitan.
“Fresh air” against “sheepskin coats and oiled boots”
“It seemed as if they had removed the shutters from the windows, opened them wide, and a stream of fresh, fragrant air rushed into the stale exhibition hall, where it smelled so disgusting from an excessive number of sheepskin coats and oiled boots...” This expressive statement belongs to Alexandre Benois and describes his impression from the appearance of the Quiet Abode at the 19th Travelling Exhibition (1891).
To find out which works made such a painful impression on Benois (and, seriously, to evaluate the context of the first apparition of the Quiet Abode in the public), we looked into the catalogue of the 19th exhibition of the Association of Itinerant Art Exhibitions. Indeed, “sheepskin coats” and “oiled boots” were found in abundance there. For example, the genre paintings of Vasily Maksimov, After mass and At Her Own Border were exhibited in the same year as the Quiet Abode, as well as the Cranes Flying painting by Levitan’s friend Alexei Stepanov with a horde of peasant children in bast shoes and homespun coats, the Taking the Snow Town by Vasily Surikov, the Village Icon Painter by Abram Arkhipov, Waiting for the Best Man by Illarion Pryanishnikov, the now forgotten peasant paintings by young Bogdanov-Belsky and many other paintings of everyday life. These works, different in quality, were united by the socially-accusatory tendency characteristic of the Itinerants, so that the miriskusnik Benois had his reason to grimace in disgust. The Levitan’s painting, just like them, referred to typical Russian realities, and on the contrary, gave a sense of the world order harmony.
How did the audience accept the Quiet Abode?
As reflected by the memoir and biographical literature, they were enthusiastic. It was said that two writers, young Chekhov and old Grigorovich, stood in front of the picture for a long time, when the third one, Alexei Pleshcheev, joined them and said that the Levitan’s picture is on the lips of all enlightened Moscow citizens. The newspapers, which suspected Levitan to “be over” as an artist who “have painted out” not long ago, forgot the old and vied with each other to trumpet that the brilliant landscape painter had just reached the prime of his talent.
An epistolary evidence has also survived — a letter from Anton Chekhov to his sister Maria dated 16 March 1891: “I was at the Travellling Exhibition. Levitan celebrates the day of his magnificent muse. His picture makes a splash. Grigorovich was very eloquent about the exhibition, when he explained me the merits and demerits of the paintings; he is delighted with Levitan’s landscape. Polonsky finds that the bridge is too long; Pleshcheev sees a discord between the picture title and its content: ‘Excuse me, he calls it a quiet abode, but everything is cheerful here’... and so on. In any case, Levitan’s success is not an ordinary one.”
How did melancholic Levitan manage to achieve the utmost serenity in the Quiet Abode?
Indeed, Levitan did not convey the mood of the picture at once. He was called the hailer of melancholy and sadness, he rarely managed to plunge into the state when “everything is cheerful”.
Levitan’s friend Sofia Kuvshinnikova told how in the second half of the 1880s she and Levitan came to draw sketches near Zvenigorod, to Savvina Sloboda, an area with marvellous views of the bends of the Moskva River, a kind of Russian Barbizon, but even there the artist suffered from another attack of painful melancholy characteristic of him.
“Levitan suffered greatly when he couldn’t express everything that wandered vaguely in his soul on canvas,” said Kuvshinnikova. “Once he was in a particularly hard mood, abandoned his work, said that everything was over for him and he had nothing else to live for, that he still deceived himself and imagined himself as an artist in vain... The future seemed bleak to him, and all my attempts to dispel these heavy thoughts were unsuccessful. Finally, I convinced Levitan to leave home, and we walked along the bank of the pond, along the monastery mountain. It was getting dark (...) Shadows ran along the side of the mountain and covered the monastery wall, and the bell towers lit up in the colours of the sunset with such beauty that Levitan was captivated by involuntary delight. Enchanted, he stood and watched as the heads of the monastic churches slowly turned more and more pink in these rays, and I happily noticed the familiar light of enthusiasm in Levitan’s eyes. Levitan definitely experienced some kind of a breakdown, and when we returned home, he was already a different person. Once again he turned to the monastery, pale in the twilight, and thoughtfully said: ‘Yes, I believe it will give me a big picture someday.’”
So, the Quiet Abode is a picturesque image cast of the Moscow suburbs?
No! Unlike many of his full-scale works, this painting by Levitan is not a “portrait” of a particular area, it rather summarizes Levitan’s impressions of different locations. Having got the first strong impetus for a painting in the Moscow region, Levitan never painted the intended picture. He only remembered the feeling of peace and the anticipation of happiness that had gripped him and replaced the depression. But for the Quiet Abode to come into being, it took several more years. Levitan undertook a journey along the Volga with Sofia Kuvshinnikova, lived in the picturesque Volga town of Plyos, made expedition trips to other Volga settlements, until one day, not far from the town of Yuryevets, Levitan saw the Krivoozersky monastery and finally found the motive he needed. Therefore, the Quiet Abode is a synthesis of the impressions in the Zvenigorod and the Volga towns of Plyos and Yuryevets.
The controversial bell tower
The Quiet Abode borrowed its five-domed temple with onion domes from the Krivoozersky Monastery, but there was no such conical bell tower there as in the picture. Experts have long argued about where Levitan took the bell tower. For example, Levitan’s biographer Sofia Prorokova argued that Levitan had seen such a hipped-roof bell tower on Cathedral Hill in Plyos, and art historian Alexei Fyodorov-Davydov objected that it was rather the bell tower of the Resurrection Church in the Reshma village near Kineshma. Both points of view have their supporters. Often the success of a landscape can be determined by the degree of the debate about what kind of terrain and area did the artist reflect in it.
Is Chekhov’s literary description of the Quiet Abode a step towards reconciliation with Levitan?
In the spring of 1892, exactly one year after the mentioned Chekhov’s letter to his sister about Levitan’s “splash”, a scandal ensued. Levitan read Chekhov’s Jumping and recognized himself and Sofia Petrovna in the heroine and the unsympathetic artist Ryabovsky, which made him sever his relations with Chekhov. Forever, as it seemed to both of them then.
Two years later, in 1894, in his Three Years story, Chekhov wrote a fragment about the heroine, Yulia Lapteva, to find herself at an art exhibition at the whim of her unloved husband, who loved bad painting. Lapteva thought that all the pictures were the same there and that they did not raise any feelings in her, when suddenly... “Yulia stopped in front of a small landscape and looked at it indifferently. In the foreground, there was a river with a wooden bridge across it, on the other side was a path disappearing into the dark grass, a field, then a piece of forest to the right, a fire near it: they certainly guarded the night. And in the distance, the evening dawn was burning out. Yulia imagined herself walking along the bridge, then along the path, farther and farther; and all around it was quiet, sleepy corncrake screamed, fire blinked in the distance. And for some reason, she suddenly began to think that these very clouds that stretched across the red part of the sky, and the forest, and the field, she had seen them many times long time ago, she felt lonely, and she wanted to walk on and on along the path; and where the evening dawn was, the reflection of something unearthly, eternal rested. ‘It is painted so well!’ she said surprised that the picture suddenly became clear to her.” Chekhov did not name Levitan in his text, but many literary scholars were convinced that it was said about the Quiet Abode. In 1895, Levitan and Chekhov restored their relations.
The Quiet Abode has a remake — the Evening Bell
Two years after the creation of the Quiet Abode, Levitan performed a kind of remake (creative repetition with the development of the theme) of this picture, which he named Evening Bell. This is not an author’s copy, but a painting based on the motives. Levitan slightly changed the composition, there are boats and a ferry with pilgrims instead of the bridge from the Quiet Abode, there are other small differences; nevertheless, viewers often confuse these pictures.