Provenance: Acquired in the 1920s by the father of the present owner.
Important private collection, Israel.
Authenticity of the work has been confirmed by the expert V. Petrov.
Exhibited: Isaak Levitan. 1860–1900. Sketches & Paintings, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Tel Aviv, 24 July–28 September 1991.
Literature: Exhibition catalogue, Isaak Levitan. 1860–1900. Sketches & Paintings, Tel Aviv, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 1991, p. 13, illustrated.
High Water, Forest Meadow and Tree by the Lake, three outstanding plein air pictures by Isaac Levitan, come from a single family collection and have a distinguished shared history. They left Soviet Russia in the 1920s together with their owners, with whom they endured years in immigration, endlessly moving from place to place, before ending up in a cramped, modest abode in an Israeli kibbutz and later triumphantly re-emerging in 1991 at the exhibition Isaac Levitan. 1860–1900. Sketches & Paintings at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
Behind the unpretentious titles of the paintings – High Water, Forest Meadow and Tree by the Lake – lies a range of themes that were particularly close to the artist in the last decade of the 19th century. They vividly showcase Levitan’s rare gift for finding an equal measure of poetry in both complex, multi-subject pictures and small chamber works.
The artist’s ability to find the permanent in the transient, to represent the vastness of Russia’s nature in a small landscape, to speak about it so laconically, yet so profoundly and poetically – so evident in the works presented here for auction – reflects a remarkable unity of thought, feeling and artistic vision that form the precious substance of his impressive legacy.
Levitan’s ability to treat one and the same preferred theme in a multitude of ways is manifest in the composition of the most important of these three paintings, High Water. One has only to recall the variety of related themes – inundation, spring torrents and flood – that occupied Levitan from the end of the 1880s. The image is sometimes of a broad, almost endless expanse of water with occasional bare tree trunks, mirroring a gloomy and threatening sky (Inundation, c.1887). Elsewhere, Levitan shows us a dark autumn flood brought on by persistent rain (High Water, 1885) or a river early in the year that has just broken its bonds of ice, covering nearby thickets with water that is full of the bright, glimmering light of spring (Spring. High Water, 1897).
A letter that Levitan wrote from Nice in the spring of 1894 to his friend Apollinary Vasnetsov reveals the artist’s love of this passing state of nature in his native land, and the desire to experience it over and over: “I imagine how lovely it is now in Russia: the rivers have burst their banks, everything is coming to life.”
These traits, so characteristic of Levitan, are instantly recognisable in the impeccable work High Water, where the artist achieves his unique merging of plein air naturalness and direct representation of the unassuming central Russian landscape with a poetic intensity and humanity, of both the subject and the artistic fabric of the painting.
Levitan’s capacity to fill a painting of the most humble corner of nature with poetic meaning is shown to good effect in the study of a forest edge entitled Forest Meadow. The colours of the composition combine various shades of muted green, grass bleached by the sun, the subtle blue of the sky and a warm sun-soaked ochre. The unfettered breadth of the painting is full of the plein air spirit, the desire to express an immediate contact with the ever-transient medium of light and air. Forest Meadow reveals Levitan’s artistic credo: not merely to arrange the elements of the picture, but to see nature itself as part of the composition. Studies such as this vividly demonstrate the artist’s ability to “feel” the space.
The small size of our third landscape, entitled Tree by the Lake, is typical of most sketches by Levitan. The artist judged a 20 by 25 cm format to be both convenient and best-suited for plein air work. As he liked to say to his pupils: “Never be seduced by large size in sketches. A large sketch has much that is false, while a small sketch has very little of it, and if you really and truly feel what you saw when you painted the sketch, then the picture will also give an accurate and full impression of what was seen.”
So, even in such a chamber work, the artist does more than to skillfully convey the tenderness of the gray-green foliage, the roughness of the curved trunk, frozen in a tense equilibrium and dappled with light. He also makes the viewer feel the mood of a summer day that has brought warmth to this corner of nature. The virtuosity of his tonal treatment of green colour is apparent in the easy transition between shades, in and out of the sun, in the grass and bushes of the foreground, the waterweed, the forest groves of the far shore, and even in the still water of the little river that gleams among the thickets.
This succinct movement toward generality and synthesis, where a simple and ordinary motif is filled with broad and deep content, became the leitmotif of Levitan’s work in the last years of his life. Even the most cursory piece by the mature Levitan, drawing or oil sketch, strikes us by the faithfulness with which tree trunks, foliage, grass, flowers and water are portrayed, and particularly the truth of the colour relations between land, vegetation and sky in the most diverse conditions of weather and lighting.