Winter in the Forest is one of Levitan’s sketchy compositions that he painted in the mid-1880s. At this time, Levitan finished his 11 years of study at the School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and expressed his artistic individuality more and more through sensitivity to the elusive movements of nature, emotional charge, the ability to express human experiences through landscapes.
The Winter in the Forest painting is especially interesting because Levitan didn’t paint much winter, preferring other seasons. The artist’s biographers say that winter was his least favourite and most difficult season of the year. Short daylight hours, frequent cloudiness with a constant lack of light, faded colours that have no time to show themselves in full force — all this often brought melancholic Levitan to despair. However, his rare winter landscapes are remarkable and delicate in colour.
“Levitan captured with amazing accuracy the softness of a damp thaw on a cloudy day,” art critic Vladimir Petrov writes about the Winter in the Forest painting. The moist roughness of the old trunks, the skeletons of dry grass sticking out from under the snow, and the sky on the eve of dusk are shown with great colouristic accuracy. In many languages, there is a poetic expression “between a dog and a wolf” serves to denote this short period of time, when the sun has already set, but the final darkness has not yet come.
The origin of the wolf in the picture
The wolf in this picture was painted by Levitan’s friend Alexey Stepanov. Just like Levitan, he was a student of the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and a passionate hunter. Stepanov collaborated with the Priroda i Okhota magazine and subsequently made a name for himself through his landscapes and genre paintings with animals as subject-forming objects: Elks (1890), Cranes Flying(1891), After the Hunt(1894), Morning Greetings (1897), and others. Immediately after college, both poor artists huddled in cheap rooms next door. Probably, at this time, Stepanov “introduced" his wolf into the Levitan’s painting. Another friend of theirs, the artist Mikhail Nesterov, recalled: “In the winters, he (Levitan — ed.) settled in furnished rooms inhabited by with all kinds of people. The last of these chambres garnies were England rooms at Tverskaya. There we often saw him; in those days, there lived our common favourite Alexei Stepanovich Stepanov, still a bachelor, Styopochka, as everyone called him, he was the best animal painter after Serov.”
It should be noted that in the last third of the 19th century, in Russian painting, such a “narrow specialization”, when one artist painted landscapes and trusted another one to paint the figures (not only animals, but also people) was an often phenomenon, though not widespread. Bears in Shishkin’s Morning in a Pine Forest were painted by Konstantin Savitsky were painted by Konstantin Savitsky, the woman in Levitan’s Autumn Day. Sokolniki was painted by Nikolay Chekhov, Repin drew the figure of Pushkin in Aivazovsky’s Seascape, Perov turned to Alexei Savrasov with a request to finish the landscape in some of his paintings. However, this practice cannot be called extremely successful: someone else’s hand often brings a feeling of artistic disintegrity to the picture. In Ivan Evdokimov’s biographical novel, Levitan, the author gives to Savrasov, the teacher of Levitan, the following monologue: “‘Vasily Grigorievich Perov asked me to paint landscapes in his pictures, The Bird-Catcher and the Hunters at Rest, so I did it.’ He snorted dismissively. ‘I wouldn’t be a good artist if Vaska Perov painted my rook, and I would only draw azure and clouds’.”