In the spring of 1893, a reporter from the Petersburgskaya Gazeta visited the Itinerant Exhibition and burst into abusive criticism: “The theme for the pictures is the Russian nature. The most unsightly, grey motives were chosen. What could be more boring than the ‘Vladimirka — the big road’ by Levitan...”
But for the Russian society at the turn of the 19—20th centuries “The Vladimirka” (or, Levitan himself wrote in the corner of the picture, “Volodymyrka”) became one of the main artistic documents of the era. Just as the Alexander Ivanov’s “Appian Way at Sunset” summarized the historical result of the Roman Empire, so the road by Levitan seemed to be something like a suspended sentence of another empire, the Russian one, to many revolutionary-minded minds.
In that 1892 year, Isaac Levitan and Sofia Kuvshinnikova spent their “study period” in the Sushnev's estate of Gorodok, not far from the Pushkin station Boldino of the Nizhny Novgorod railway. This was already the sixth year they spent together, and each summer was marked by an obligatory expedition to those places in central Russia, so beloved by Levitan, where he could expect to find unbroken nature for his landscapes. Levitan and Sofia Petrovna developed a special way of nomadic life: with her characteristic ability to transform trivial objects into beauty, she created cosiness, took care that Levitan was warmly dressed in the early chilly mornings, climbed with him into the most remote forest corners. When both felt that the work had fed them up, they remembered their another than art passion — hunting. Both of them were avid, passionate hunters. Levitan could spend several days without food in the forest with a dog and a gun, and Sofia Petrovna, who wore trousers and hunting boots with style, even surpassed Levitan in endurance. Returning exhausted after the hunting marathon, where they turned from comrades into rivals, Levitan and Kuvshinnikova silently shook out their game bags and counted the prey — who shot more?
In one of the late August days, Levitan and Sofia Petrovna went hunting again. Albums, sketchbooks — all this remained at home: they were going to shoot, and drawing was not included in their plans. Wandering for several hours in an unfamiliar forest, Levitan and Kuvshinnikova finally got out of it and came across a path they did not know.
It was a warm, stuffy, sunless day, and it was already approaching to the evening. Above a huge open plain with the ruts of the trampled road running forward, a grey sky hung, the colour and pattern of which could predict both rain and a brief moment of clear up before sunset. The silence hanging over the road seemed to ring. Low bushes and coppices looked away into the distance. The travellers came to a roadside a wooden post with a paper icon hidden in a wooden “house”, knocked down by someone some time. Time it fade and frayed it, and a churchwoman in black, wandering in front of the artists, did not stop, but only quickly made the sign of cross and went on along the road dust.
Kuvshinnikova and Levitan reached the lopsided post and sat down to rest. And then the truth suddenly burst upon the artist — this is the legendary Vladimirka! That damned path along which the convicts were driven to Siberia for many decades!
From concept to implementation
When the painting became legendary (and many of Levitan’s contemporaries called it his main painting, presuming its socially accusatory and almost revolutionary subtext), many art critics and ordinary viewers tried to reflect on what Levitan felt and what he was thinking about at the moment of his unexpected insight. Perhaps he saw the exhausted people wandering heavily along the Vladimir tract under the mercilessly scorching sun with his own eyes? Did he hear the shackles, the abuse of the gendarmes and the groans of the unfortunates? Did he imagine how they gave them a short, long-awaited respite at this rotten wooden post?
Biographers are even interested in such a seemingly trifle — did Levitan have the opportunity to draw the road and his impression of it right there, right on the same day and hour?
“Isaak Ilyich took out a pencil,” the writer Ivan Evdokimov tried to imagine this moment, “Neither Levitan nor Kuvshinnikova found papers in their pockets. ‘Should we take out some from the cartridge and smooth it,’ Isaac Ilyich said seriously. ‘I think I made the wads of clean scraps.’
Sofia Petrovna laughed, thought for some time, beamed and reached into her bag with provisions. There, in an oblong box, was a perfumed handkerchief. Levitan looked at the quick-witted friend tenderly and gratefully. Isaac Ilyich laid out a handkerchief on two game bags folded together with grouse and ducks, Kuvshinnikova held it by the ends, and his pencil quickly sketched the post in silhouette.”
Levitan rushed his friend, as they needed to find their way back as soon as possible and try to go to bed early, and tomorrow, early in the morning, he’d already be in this place with his sketchbook and paper.
Levitan painted “The Vladimirka” quite quickly, it took only a few sessions. He and Sofia Petrovna alternately dragged the heavy large canvas and the easel from Gorodok to Vladimirsky tract and set it up not far from the wooden post. Levitan did not paint the figures of the convicts, he had no reason to compete with Repin’s “Barge Haulers”. Levitan felt various feelings from quiet sadness to deep sorrow and expressed them all through the twilight landscape of the evening, through the almost monochrome, exquisitely stiff palette with subtle colour transitions, through the deserted and achingly dreary grey highway, flowing into the unknown, through clouds stretching towards the viewer, creating an interesting reverse motion effect. According to a legend, when finishing “The Vladimirka”, Issac Levitan loved to hum Ivan Kozlov’s Evening Bells.
How “The Vladimirka” ended up in the Tretyakov Gallery, against the Tretyakov’s will
And yet, despite the fame of Levitan’s “most social” painting, “The Vladimirka” was not a political manifesto. Perhaps the artist would have agreed with Chekhov, who wrote: “We rotted millions of people in prisons, rotted in vain, without reasoning, barbarously; we chased people through the cold in shackles for tens of thousands of miles, infected them with syphilis, propagated criminals and blamed the red-nosed prison wardens... the wardens were not to blame, but all of us, but we do not care about this, it is not interesting.” But in terms of character and talent, Levitan was not a publicist, he was a landscape painter par excellence. “There was something soft and, perhaps, sentimental in him, in a warm sense,” Sergei Diaghilev would shrewdly say about Levitan after his death. “He could never be a fighter, a stubborn idea conductor, and this was especially sharply different from the artistic community with which he was associated almost all his life and which insulted his sensitive nature so often and painfully.”
Moscow writer Ivan Belousov (1863—1930) said that Levitan presented the sketch for “The Vladimirka” to Anton Chekhov’s younger brother, Mikhail Pavlovich. He was just studying at the Faculty of Law, and Levitan, in the spirit of irony and mockery adopted between him and the Chekhov family, seemed to hint to Mikhail: this is the way you, good gentleman, will send people if you become a prosecutor. However, in the 1890s, Vladimirka ceased to be a pedestrian stage: prisoners were now transported to Siberia by rail, but Russia did not cease to be a country with the most acute social contradictions and the alienation of power from the people. For this reason, Tretyakov even hesitated to buy “The Vladimirka”, although he has been striving to acquire all the significant works by Levitan for several years. By that time, Pavel Mikhailovich had given his gallery into the city’s ownership, and the openly accusatory pathos, which could easily be attributed to “The Vladimirka”, embarrassed him: he did not want to bring troubles on the part of those in power to his brainchild. Then Levitan “went for broke”: he himself presented the painting to the Tretyakov Gallery. On 11 March 1894, he sent a letter to Tretyakov, which read the following: “The Vladimirka will probably return from the exhibition one of these days, and take her, and reassure both me and it with this.” Tretyakov could not refuse.