As an artist, being an armchair art historian has become sort of a hobby.
A couple of weeks ago in the studio I had a long conversation with a group of students about how to go about making a finished painting of a fleeting subject. The easiest way to understand how to go about making such a painting is to study the genesis of a successful picture, if you can track down all the sketches and studies that preceded it.
When you’re dealing with an uncontrolled lighting situation, you may have as little as 15 minutes to observe an effect, yet we work on our paintings for hours, sometimes weeks, (or in my case, months). Even on days with perfect conditions, when working outdoors the movement of the sun limits the amount of time you can paint. Continuing to work for hours outside, you’ll weaken the initial effect that you intended and end up chasing light effects instead of clarifying your initial effect. Doing sketches for a larger picture allows you to bring those impressions into the studio for long-term projects. Also, perhaps most importantly, doing initial sketches and studies gives you an opportunity to change the tone and scale, redraw and redesign.
So, in this post, I will attempt to reverse-engineer the development of an important picture by one of my favorites, Isaak Levitan. Like many of the Russians, his work really stands out to me, probably partially because we weren’t able to see much of it in the west until after the fall of the Iron Curtain. I remember in the early 90’s the huge popularity of the Russian Ballet, it was the first wave in the flood of the Russian Arts that moved internationally. Books in English and posts online about Russian painters followed.
*Excuse the quality of the images in this post, but they are the best I can find online. They all look a bit off to me
‘Deep Waters’ 1892 150×209 cm (~60×83″)
Nice painting, to say the least. The issue with paintings of this sort is that they are achieved at a near insurmountable height, an altitude of picture making that most landscape painters today would get the bends from. There are very few people alive today that can make a painting that is anywhere near this good, but there are a lot of people trying.
This is certainly a studio picture. It has a very strong sense of design and rhythm, a clear sense of distance from the foreground to the background, and a shimmering, golden light effect. This was not done outside- at this size, the careful arranging of shapes, study of differing textures is near impossible to do on location.
We know from our studies of old Isaak’s career that he was painting in the Tver province in 1891 and visited the Bernovo estate, which ended up being the estate of a Baroness Wolf. This is well documented. As we call it in English, ‘Deep Waters’, the important final picture above was done in 1892- so a number of studies must have preceded it (at the bottom of this post I’ve included an excerpt from an article that speaks a bit to the significance of the title of this work in Russian)
У омута 1891 25 x 33 cm (~10×14″)
Here’s what I believe is Levitan’s initial sketch, his first foray into the subject of the dam’s division of calm and turbulent waters, the yin/yang diagonal meandering line which remains the theme the final studio picture. This study was done in 1891.
This is a great sketch, even if the image above is probably a lot too yellow. It has the golden light and motif of the final painting, but even Levitan is human, he made what he clearly perceived to be errors in the above sketch. We know that Levitan also perceived them to be errors, as he changed them for the final picture.
Starting at the bottom left corner, it is very awkward compositionally to have that plank going straight into the corner. In fact, the whole foreground is a bit too symmetrical, a central triangular clump of grass. Also, the floating extra log to the right of the dam is a bit distracting, and is sort of creating an awkward tangent on its bottom side. On the horizon, the two large backlit trees are too central, it’s making the composition have a lack of balance on the top.
Compare this color study and the sketch below:
I had seen this juxtaposition of the sketch and final painting before, but there is still a huge jump in the composition of the final picture and the sketch. I have been able to track down a couple of drawings which really flesh out the process that Levitan went through.
У омута 32.5 x 24 cm (~10×14″) pencil on paper at the tretyakov
The above drawing further develops the scene, but still retains some of the compositional issues of the initial sketch. He has moved our view point a few steps over to the left, to address the issue with the plank, and that’s given him an opportunity to explain some of the dam’s understructure- that design will remain to the final painting. He has fixed the tangent issue on the log to the right of the dam, but it still feels a bit awkward. He has moved the central horizon trees over, but it still feels overall a bit too centered, equally divided. See the below image for another pass at it:
by-the-dam-(study) 10.5×16.5 cm (~4×6.5″)
Here we have a small study by Levitan that came up at auction in 2004. As an overall composition, this one ‘feels’ the most like the final picture. He’s come up with an entirely new rhythmic solution for the horizon trees, introducing two large clumps on the right that add balance, but also a much needed reflection in the water’s right foreground. He’s finally just gotten rid of that pesky fourth log, allowing him to concentrate on the movement from foreground to background uninterrupted.
As I hope you can see, all of these considerations played a part in the final picture. There are a couple other drawings for this I have found online, but I wasn’t 100% sure they were Levitan’s. There are probably more studies, but this, at least, tells the bullet points in the development of the overall story of the picture
Here’s a blurry image from flickr which gives you a sense of the color, if not the crispness of the one up top.
Below is another field study by Levitan I saw back in 2008 at the Royal Academy in London. At the time, I remember being struck by the simplicity of the painting, and its clear, singular light effect. It was painted on cardboard, or some cheap canvas, I was really surprised to see that the whole painting was one layer, excluding a redrawing of the horizon line (you can see the pentimento as a bluish haze in the below image).
I’ve always wondered why the below study didn’t become another large studio picture, maybe Levitan thought it was perfect as is, an outdoor study, who knows. He certainly knew what he was doing.
Summer Evening 49x73cm (~24×29″)
Let me close this post with an excerpt from an article by Paul Debreczeny in the Pushkin Review: Pushkinian Elements in Isaak Levitan’s “By the Mill-Pond”
“…a new wave of anti-Semitism swept the country, and since he had already had to leave Moscow once to avoid deportation as a Jew, he had every reason to fear renewed persecution. All this caused the mood in his paintings to shift from the lyrical to the dramatic. This shift is clearly reflected in his 1891 picture “By the Mill-Pond” (У омута).”
“By the Mill-Pond” was begun in the summer of 1891, when Levitan and his companion, Sof’ia Kuvshinnikova, stayed at the village of Zatish’e in Tver’ Province. When they first arrived in Zatish’e, there were some rainy days, which they spent reading aloud from a couple of collections of Chekhov’s stories. The story “Happiness” particularly captivated Levitan, and he praised it highly for its nature descriptions. (2) The weather soon cleared up, however, and they set out to roam the countryside in search of motifs for painting. Levitan’s imagination was captured by the site of an erstwhile mill on a small river, where they stopped for a picnic lunch. Remnants of the mill were still visible, and the weir was blocking the flow of the water, forming a deep pond. The Russian word for such a deep pond, omut, brings to mind the saying V tikhom omute cherti vodiatsia, whose literal meaning is “Demons lurk in a deep pond.” (The closest equivalent in English may be “Still waters run deep,” in the sense that silent conspirators are the most dangerous.) As Levitan started sketching the scene, the Chekhov story he had just read, which recounts peasant superstitions, must have been on his mind, and he reported to Chekhov that “some interesting motifs have emerged.” (3) In another letter to the writer he signed himself as “Levitan VII of the Nibelungs,” hinting that he was dealing with the stuff of legends. (4) He and Kuvshinnikova came back almost every day to the mill-pond, which turned out to be on an estate called Bernovo, belonging to a certain Baroness Vul’f.”