“The place of eternal beauty...” Crimea by Isaac Levitan
"Dear Anton Pavlovich, damn it, it is so nice here!" Levitan wrote enthusiastically to his friend Chekhov. "Now imagine bright greenery, blue sky, and what a sky! Last night I climbed a cliff and looked out to the sea from the top, and you know what — I cried, I cried bitterly; this is the place of eternal beauty and this is where man feels his complete insignificance."
Levitan spent one and a half to two months in Crimea. We can only guess, with whom he communicated, where he visited, where he lived, what he saw and felt. But already at the end of April 1886, he sent a letter to Chekhov from Alupka, which evidences that Levitan’s mood had seriously changed:
"Forgive me, my dear Anton Pavlovich, for not writing to you for so long. I didn’t write to you because I am already very lazy to write letters, and besides, I was going to move any day. Now I have settled in Alupka. I am extremely tired of Yalta, there is no society, i.e. no acquaintances, and the local nature only amazes at first, and then it becomes terribly boring and I really want to go north. I moved to Alupka because I did not work much in Yalta — and yet a new place, which means I am to absorb new impressions enough for a while, and then I will certainly go to Babkino (to see your vile face). Just one more thing, tell me, where did you get the idea that I went with a woman?.."
Already in mid-May, Levitan, fed up with impressions and yearning for the "sweet north", would leave Crimea so that he forget it for almost a decade and a half. The next time he would only come to Yalta in 1900, a few months before his death, to say goodbye.
It could be argued that Crimea did not leave significant traces in Levitan’s work, remained an insignificant episode in his biography, if not for one fact: the Crimean sketches made in the spring of 1886 would appear extremely successful — viewers and connoisseurs would buy them right from the exhibition. And they would talk about Levitan as about the person who opened the "new Crimea" for the Russian public.
“Postcard Crimea” before LevitanIt is easier to understand what was the "new Crimea" discovered by Levitan, if you know how did a common art lover imagine Crimea.
It would be lies to say that the Russian public did not know the picturesque Crimea before Levitan. There was Aivazovsky’s Crimea — solemnly elevated, romantic, and alas, mercilessly replicated in the later years of the artist. There was also a ceremonial Crimea, blooming, radiant and correct, pretty idealized — just ready to print on postcards and send it to young ladies with love. Such a picturesque Crimea is usually called the "postcard" Crimea. Such Crimea would be painted by artists Gabriel Kondratenko, Vladimir Orlovsky, Joseph Krachkovsky both before and after Levitan. They bought such products willingly to revive their interiors.
The fresh look of LevitanLevitan saw a completely different Crimea — not postcard or ceremonial, or "glossy".
In his Saklia in Alupka, Tatar Cemetery or sea views, there is neither pathetic pressure, nor romantic pompousness, nor special "beauties". According to art historian Vladimir Petrov, the Crimean landscapes by Levitan "are imbued with a sense of calm, thoughtful contemplation".
"The more I walk around the outskirts of Yalta," Polenov admitted, "the more I appreciate Levitan’s sketches. Neither Aivazovsky, nor Lagorio, nor Shishkin, nor Myasoyedov gave such truthful and characteristic images of the Crimea as Levitan."
The staff of the Plyos museum housing the Crimean
“January in Crimea. Winter comes to the Black Sea coast as if for fun...”End of December 1899. The last days of the last month of the last year of the outgoing century. Thirteen years have passed since Levitan’s Crimean spring. All those years, he did not even think about Crimea — too many impressions layered, too much work, too stormy life he experienced seething with love passion and plunging into hopeless melancholy from time to time. He worked in the Moscow and Tver Governorates, explored and depicted the Volga, the Volga towns and monasteries, and became the most famous Russian
We could loop the literal plot and say that Levitan was again called by the Crimean nature. However, in reality this was not the case. It was not nature, not rocks, not the sea, but people, his closest people in his entire life, attracted Levitan to the Crimea. Chekhov and his sister Maria Pavlovna, MaPa, as her family called her, the only woman Levitan made a marriage proposal to, the only one of all. It was them, Anton and Masha, his closest friends, that the terminally ill Levitan wanted to see.
In Yalta, funny things happened with Levitan. He was sometimes loudly recognized on the streets — people already got used to Chekhov, but Levitan was a "visiting celebrity". Once Chekhov took him to an art shop on the Yalta embankment. Looking at the roughly painted "beautiful" landscapes, Levitan was indignant: who needed such art and why did such things even exist?
When they left, Chekhov blamed Levitan for indelicacy — the pictures were painted by the owner of the shop, who was standing right there behind the counter. Levitan was horrified by his harshness, demanded to return immediately, trying to put on ease, he told the owner to hear that, in fact, everything is not so bad in these cute pictures, not so hopeless, and even glimpses of art… Sometimes he offended his loved ones, but Levitan could not offend someone intentionally on purpose.
Chekhov on the balcony of his house in Yalta. 1899.
One day Levitan asked Masha to climb the mountains with him. He was unwell in the morning, his felt pressure in his heart and he explained:
"I really need to go there, higher, where the air is lighter, where it is good to breathe."
They climbed the Yalta mountain: she was still as sweet and attractive as she once was, and he was slow, leaning on his stick with difficulty. Before Levitan a landscape was spreading similar to the one he saw on his first visit to the Crimea, when it overwhelmed him with its grandeur — the thick-coloured sea, merging with the boundless sky. And Levitan lost control of himself again:
"Marie! I don’t want to die so much. It is scary to die… And my heart, it hurts so much…"
They returned home, where the fireplace was lit, and Chekhov recalled over tea, laughing, how 13 years ago Levitan asked him in his letter to tell their common friend, architect Fyodor Shekhtel, that Levitan would not fall in love with southern nature and exchange the Moscow region for the Crimea: "Tell Shekhtel…, don’t worry, — I love the north now more than ever, I only now understand it…".
Levitan smiled. He asked Masha to bring a piece of cardboard and paints. Masha herself was fond of painting, once she was Levitan’s student ("Does Mlle Marie work?" he asked Chekhov. "Tell her to work a lot. Otherwise I will come and put her in a corner"). Paper and paint were brought quickly. That evening, on an elongated piece of cardboard, Levitan repeated his Haystacks painting. Since then, the picture has remained hanging in Chekhov’s living room, in an oblong niche above the fireplace.
"We have Levitan," Chekhov wrote to his wife Olga Knipper. "On my fireplace, he painted a moonlit night during haymaking. Meadow, stacks, forest in the distance, the moon reigns above."
Several Crimean spring landscapes are dated by the last year of the artist’s life. They are executed in his late "impressionist" manner. They are like an unexpected memory of the distant spring of 1886, when Levitan, having first gained freedom from circumstances, escaped into the unknown Crimea.