Oh Rus, Rus, from my beautiful home in a strange land I can still see you! In you everything is open, empty and flat; your towns peep out like dots or marks from the plains; there is nothing to enchant and delude one's gaze. Yet what incomprehensible, mysterious force draws me to you? Why does there ceaselessly echo and re-echo in my ears the sad song which hovers throughout the length and breadth of you? What is there in this song, what is it...Rus! What is it you seek of me? What is that mysterious, hidden bond which subsists between us?...What do those immense, wide, far-flung spaces prophesise? How the power of your immensity enfolds me, and reverberates through all my being with a wild, strange spell, and flashes in my eyes with an almost supernatural radiance! Oh, what a glittering, wondrous infinity of space the world knows nothing of! Rus!
Nikolai Gogol. Dead Souls. 1842.
A giant of Russian culture who stands shoulder to shoulder with Chekhov, Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy, Isaak Levitan is the greatest Russian landscape artist of the 19th century. In his beautiful naturalistic paintings, his brilliance lies in his capacity to capture the age-old passion the Russian people feel for their vast and eternal land. Blessed with the ability to express what 'each of us so blissfully feels' (Serge Diaghilev quoted in S. Lifar, Serge Diaghilev - His life, his work, his legend, London, 1945, p. 24), Levitan echoes in paint Lermontov's inked declaration of love for the cold silence of Russia's steppe, the swaying of her endless forests and 'overflowing rivers as large as seas' (Rodina, 1841).
Often tinged with a melancholy conveyed by his muted palette, figureless lands and endless skies, Levitan's formative years were coloured by tragedy and poverty. Orphaned by 17, he entered the Moscow College of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture penniless and was excused from tuition fees by his financial straits and evident ability. Here he was taught by Aleksei Savrasov, the earliest Russian proponent of painting en plein air, who instilled in the student a deep love of nature. Pushkin said of Gogol that you could feel the unseen tears behind the laughter: the opposite may be said of Levitan. He was reportedly a pensive character; however, the pleasure he derived from the Russian landscape is apparent in many of his finest paintings such as the present lot in which the sparkling river bathed in sunlight and the pale pinks of the bank testify to this joy as does the famous Silence (State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, fig. 1).
A superlative example of Levitan's 'mood landscapes', By the water's edge has remained in a distinguished private collection for three generations, hidden from public view. It is difficult to identify the work in A. Fedorov-Davydov's seminal monograph on Levitan published in Moscow in 1966, as many of the paintings listed are neither illustrated nor fully catalogued. However, the confident execution, subtle nuances of colour and simplified forms confirm that the painting was most probably painted in the 1880s when Levitan had reached maturity as an artist. The composition and arrangement of the riverbank draws the eyes of the viewers into the painting where they are held fast by his evocative brushstrokes. The illusion of dappled light, created with subtle gradations of colour and application of paint, lends the work depth and perspective.
Following Isaak Levitan's death in 1900, Alexandre Benois remarked upon the artist's ability to capture the 'ineffable charm of our [Russia's] desolation, the grand sweep of our untrammelled spaces, the mournful celebration of Russian autumn and the enigmatic allure of Russian spring'. Perhaps more than any other Russian artist, Levitan is recognised for creating archetypal images of the rodina or motherland; imbuing simple motifs such as the birch tree with an emotive or symbolic resonance that instantly communicates the drama of the Russian landscape. Writing in exile in 1931, the composer Rachmaninov declared: 'Russians feel stronger ties with the soil than people of any other nationality'. The events of the 20th century have resulted in vast displacement of the Russian people be it for reasons of fate, flight or adventure; the appearance of this painting at auction provides the opportunity to acquire a sublime vision of Russia's landscape, captured by a recognised Russian master. Admirers and collectors of Levitan's work are by no means limited to his countrymen; while unmistakably Russian in soul, like the prose of Dostoevsky or the music of Tchaikovsky, Levitan's genius is such that it transcends his nationality.