Probably the most famous Levitan’s painting, “Over Eternal Peace” is his most atypical one: his other landscapes make compatriots’ heart ache, while this one is breathtaking. This is not a lyrical landscape, for which Levitan is so famous, but rather a dramatic epic, where the past meets the future, the sky threatens the earth, and time tends to eternity.
From a bird’s eye view, a wide panorama of natural elements opens up. Silver purple clouds swirl in the gloomy sky. Some of them have already poured their rain on the horizon, and some are approaching, hanging oppressively, displacing the bright part of the sky. The heavenly opposition is not reflected in the lead surface of the water: covered with scaly ripples, the water lives its own majestic life that is full of formidable calmness. And this enhances the feeling of alienation, cosmic indifference of nature. Drenched meadows merging with the horizon in the background and a lonely island among the waters, which is often compared to human life amid “the eternal silence of endless spaces” (Pascal), the lopsided cemetery crosses — everything cries out about human fragility and homelessness in the universe. “Eternity,” wrote Levitan close to despair to one of his correspondents Elena Karzinkina, “a formidable eternity, in which generations have drowned and will drown yet... What a horror, what a fear...” And yet, “Over Eternal Peace” is not a picture about despair, but about hope: the green cliff resembles an ark in shape, and a light is glowing in the wooden church.
Arthive has collected interesting facts about the most philosophical of Levitan’s paintings.
“Over Eternal Peace”: a geographical incident
There is a persistent misconception that the “Over Eternal Peace” painting was painted in Plyos on the Volga, a town that really was the most important location in Levitan’s work and where his iconic things were created — the “Quiet Abode” and other Volga paintings, which brought Levitan his first great fame. Until the middle of the 20th century, there were witnesses in Plyos who confidently asserted that they knew exactly when and where in their town the “Over Eternal Peace” was painted. Levitan’s biographer Sofya Prorokova interviewed Molchanova, who lived in Plyos, in the 1950—1960s, who assured: it was her father, priest Pavel, who gave the artist the keys to the Plyos church and allowed him to climb the bell tower to see the extraordinary view of the Volga that we see in the “Over Eternal Peace” painting. When the researcher compared the dates, it turned out that the priest father was no more than twelve years old the year of the Levitan’s painting creation. The picture was steadily turning into a myth, and many really wanted to be involved in it.
So where did Levitan paint his “Over Eternal Peace”?
In fact, Levitan painted his “Over Eternal Peace” not on the Volga, but on Lake Udomlya, near Vyshny Volochok (this impressive reservoir can be seen from a different angle, for example, in the Vitold Bilyanitsky-Birulia’s painting “An Hour of Silence. Lake Udomlya”, painted some twenty years later than the Levitan’s masterpiece). There, in the country estate of the landowner Nikolai Panafidin in the Tver province, Levitan and Sofia Kuvshinnikova rented rooms, leaving for sketches in the summer. The travellers managed to find a majestic view that amazed Levitan so much that he conceived a thing of almost cosmic scale and epic sound, while he usually preferred more secluded views, chamber themes, and lyrical landscapes. In a few days, full-scale sketches were ready (1, 2), and Levitan began to work on the two-meter canvas in a room of Panafidin’s estate with great enthusiasm. “It was as if something big, important entered the house, about which they were whispering in all corners, they even began to walk quieter,” the Levitan’s biographer Ivan Evdokimov described the stunning effect of the “Over Eternal Peace” painting on the inhabitants of the estate.
Musical subtext of the “Over Eternal Peace” painting
Viewers with a developed synaesthetic perception, certainly feel musical associations with the Levitan’s canvas. If so, it will be interesting to know that the picture was created to music, to the continuous melodic accompaniment. Sofia Petrovna Kuvshinnikova was a born pianist (and although Tretyakov bought her paintings, many believed that her true vocation was not painting, but music). This indefatigable woman understood the muse’s duties as disinterested help and all-round support, and she was both virtuosic and inventive in this matter. While working, Levitan asked her to play — this helped him tune in the right way. And Sofia Petrovna played Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt on the piano for hours without getting tired. She did not attach much importance to her talent — everything was done only so that Levitan could create. The work on the painting moved quickly, Levitan worked all daylight hours, and sometimes music sounded all day. Most often, while he created the “Over Eternal Peace” painting, he asked her to play Beethoven’s Heroic Symphony, and the March funebre (Funeral March) from this piece of music was able to bring the sensitive genius to tears. Probably Levitan would have understood the remark left by Beethoven in the margins of his notes: “Life is a tragedy! — Hooray!”
What else could be the “starting point” for the Levitan’s painting?
It is believed that Levitan could have received his first impulse to create the “Over Eternal Peace” painting when he watched the picture by his mentor at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, Alexei Savrasov, “Grave at the Volga”. Art critic Galina Churak says: “The picture by Savrasov also depicts such a rather high Volga bank with a lopsided cross, and a huge expanse of the Volga distant, river bends and those distances that open beyond the Volga.” It turns out that those who associate the painting with the great Russian river are not so wrong, the Volga impressions of Levitan himself could also get synthesized into the “Over Eternal Peace” landscape. Although, having delved deeper into the artist’s biography, the researchers generally came to the conclusion that the first time when Levitan experienced the sensation of the grandeur of the water space and the heavenly width, embodied in “Over Eternal Peace”, was not by a river or by a lake, but ... over the sea. When he first appeared in the Crimea in the spring of 1886, he wrote to Chekhov from there: “Last night I climbed a rock and looked from the top at the sea; and you know what, I cried, and cried bitterly; this is where the eternal beauty is and this is where man feels his utter insignificance! But what do words mean — you have to see it yourself in order to understand!”
Whereas the church for the picture was really taken from Plyos
One thing was bad in the magnificent panorama that opened to Levitan’s eye from the cliff above Lake Udomlya: the little temple was not picturesque enough, inharmonious. And then the artist remembered his sketch “Wooden Church in Plyos in the Last Rays of the Sun”, which he had drawn five years ago. That’s how the old Peter and Paul Church from Plyos changed its registration, and “moved” to Lake Udomlya.
The hill on which this small wooden church towered is still referred to as Levitan’s Mountain by the inhabitants of Plyos. There is also a small church on the mountain, which people do not hesitate to call “Over Eternal Peace”. But in fact, this is another church, not the one that Levitan preserved for eternity. That one has burned down in 1903. By this time, it had not been used as church, it was closed, and the Plyos boys accidentally set it on fire when they were smoking pigeons from under the roof.
For almost the entire 20th century, there was no church on the Levitan’s Mountain in Plyos, only a churchyard with lopsided crosses was gradually overgrown with grass and covered with earth. Nevertheless, the burnt-down Peter and Paul Church remained one of the most famous churches in Russian art, thanks to the “Over Eternal Peace” painting and the interiors sketched by Levitan and Kuvshinnikova. In 1982, a wooden church built in 1699 was transported from the Bilyukovo village to Plyos so that “the holy place did not remain empty”. It replaced the Levitanian one.
“I am all in it, with all my psyche”: what did Levitan himself think about his picture? Levitan did not engage in the interpretation of his paintings, he asked to burn his letters before his death, and only once he published an article — when Savrasov died. Perhaps, we could never known his attitude to his painting, but a letter that the artist wrote to Pavel Tretyakov has survived.
“I am so incredibly happy that my work will get to you again,” Levitan reported in the spring of 1894, “that since yesterday I have been in a kind of ecstasy. And in fact, this is surprising, since you have enough of my things; but this last one came to you, and it touches me so much because I am all in it, with all my psyche, with all my content...”