Monday, February 18, 2013

Some thoughts on Isaac Levitan

 A reader sent me  some pictures by Isaac Levitan  (1860 1900) and asked me if I would comment on them. Levitan was a Russian painter who specialized in the landscape. Over the last decade or so there has been a  growing appreciation of the Russian painters in America. Prior to that, the only one I knew much about was Ivan Shiskin, who I only knew from obscure books printed in Russian.

The painting above "A day in  June" was made in 1895.  Despite this academic background this picture shows, at least to me, the influence of the impressionists. I don't know if this was painted outside, but it has that look. Like many of the "academic" painters of that era he learned from the discoveries of Monet and the French impressionists. Much has been made of the rejection of the impressionist artists by the academic painters of the era, but that is only part of the story. Some of the academics rejected forever the impressionist ideas, but many did not, and within a generation almost all of the academics had added impressionist working methods to both their work and their teaching. Many became hybrids of the two schools of thought. There was too much good and useful there to be ignored. The French impressionists complained " they shoot us, but then they go through our pockets"

When first I examined the painting above I was perplexed by its' design. I didn't seem to have much organization and the strong lines leading diagonally into the picture seemed to lead the eye to .....nothing in particular. I knew the thing worked but I couldn't see quite how. Here was my initial idea of its' design.

But, as I studied it longer I began to suspect how the thing worked. It was a vortex, a circular design. Below is an indication of that.

A Vortex design creates a circular trail about the canvas for the viewer to follow. Levitan has concealed the device particularly well. He has also used that odd straight cloud in the center of the sky that conceals his means. At first glance it seemed so isolated and quirky, but it is a segment of the vortex, as is the sky incursion into the line of trees to the right and the trunks of the birches. The iridescent and beautiful flowers sprinkled across the fore ground puzzled me for a while too. But as I examined them I found they too had directional signals buried in them. Below is a diagram
showing that.

Levitan concealed his design carefully, so that initially the painting appears to have the unedited naturalism that nature presents to the plein air painter. But a careful arrangement is concealed beneath the "random" look of the painting.

 This painting "At the Lake" is very different form the one above. It looked at first glance like a luminist painting done in naturalistic color to me. Like the luminist painters, for instance Fitz H. Lane or Sanford Gifford, it has stillness and contemplative quiet. Below is a luminist painting by Sanford Gifford.

Below I have drawn some explanatory hot pink lines on the Levitan

The "leads" in the painting carry the viewer about the painting in a "Z" but unlike a luminist painting, the leading lines are more rhythmic then in a painting of the generation before. See how many of the lines are in arches?  Those sectioned lines swoop in waves through the foreground and out into the distance in repeating parabolic curves. The boats in the foreground show the use of repeating arched lines. Note also the downward arch of the distant pines and hill leading down to the waterline. The nets at the foreground left are also scalloped across their bottom in decorative rhythm. Like in the painting above, Levitan gives the initial impression of the the random and truthful appearance of nature, but conceals beneath that veneer an artful geometric skeleton.

Levitans' allocation of space is not unusual but I will point it out. Artists try to allocate their lights and darks in paintings into an artistic, but unequal balance. Levitan has given 2/3 of the space to his lights and 1/3 to the darks. The same area covered by both would have made a static design. He has then accented those darks with some small lights. The darks and the lights are arrayed into two large and clearly unequal portions rather than scattered all over the canvas.

Here is our painting again, unaltered. I wanted to point out something about the color. Note Levitans depiction of the light. Rather than getting his light effect from radically different values, although his lights are a slightly higher value,  he does it through color temperature shifts. His shadows are cool and his lights are warm. I suspect he did this to avoid chopping up his landmass with too many differing values and preventing it from being read as a single large shape. That and it looks cool. The whole painting is keyed higher ( painted in a lighter value scheme) than a typical academic landscape of the preceding era, also an adaptation of impressionist methods by Levitan.

He holds back his darks for accents within his shadows, like in the overturned boat in the foreground. That gives a luminosity and the appearance of soft luminescence to his shadow areas. Those dark accents decrease in size as they fall away from the foreground and into the distance.

I remarked above how at first glance the painting looked like a luminist painting. But here is a closeup showing another crucial difference. This painting has handling. Luminist painters concealed the hand of the artist. Their paintings had an enameled look devoid of brushwork. This painting however, has brushstrokes and impressionist variety of separately stated  color notes within the forms. That is particularly observable in the roofs of the 19th century trailer park and the blue (how impressionist is that?) shadows in the distant trees. There are no transparent brown shadows in this picture as one would expect to find in the work of an academic landscapist of a generation before.The handling in the water is impressionist as well, with its "wiggly" brushstrokes instead of transparent downward dragged brushstrokes that would have been in a more academic type of painting.

Here for comparison is our Levitan (painted in 1893) and then below, is a little section of a Thomas Moran from 1864. I am comparing an American painter with a Russian, and I have no idea whether Levitan knew anything about Moran, he might well have not, although Moran was shown in international exhibitions. I show them for contrast in intent and handling and not because the two are historically related, they are not.

The Moran contains a zillion tiny carefully painted details, the Levitan is broadly seen and painted. There is a sophistication in the Levitan treatment that the Moran is without. Levitan has suppressed the detail and given a simpler and more artistic treatment to his subject. The Moran ( I do love Moran....but) is full of bristling  detail that makes the picture a conglomerate of separately observed parts. The Levitan presents itself as a one single unified picture. The Moran seems a little primitive next to it, a little naive. It was this fault in the work of the Hudson river school painters, who were essentially landscaping pre-Raphaelites to fall quickly from favor after a generations time of glory. Oddly, Moran survived this crash, but most did not. With the rise of the Barbizon school, the tonalist movement, and later impressionism, the careful Hudson river school rendering fell sharply out of favor.

The myriad thousands of carefully observed, insistent and hectoring details made their paintings fascinating when you stick your nose in them, but less artistic when viewed in toto. For all of the effort made by the earlier generation of painters to capture every jot and tittle of nature, the Levitan is far more natural and convincing. This attention to endless detail tended to make the earlier 19th century artists into view painters, delineators of particular, grand,  and relentlessly specific views. The broader way of seeing that came later made sentiment and the mood in painting more their subject. Levitan and his generation often needed only a simple field and some trees as in "A day in  June" to make a picture. For them it was more about emotion and evocation than about presenting a careful and awe inspiring transcription of some scenic view.


I have several workshops in the offing. For instance there is;


This workshop will take place March 9 through the 11th near between St. Paul and Stillwater. When last I taught in Minnesota several in my class asked if I would do a Minnesota snowcamp, so here it is. I have made it as late in the year as is possible to get a little milder weather and I hope there is still snow. I think there will be, but if there isn't, I will still hold the workshop but I will call it Stickcamp.

This will be a transplanted version of the yearly Snowcamp I do in New Hampshires' White Mountains. I will teach the methods of painting snow including color vibration and the planar structure in snow and the landscape itself. I intend to emphasize the idea of form in the landscape rather than a purely visual approach. I will show how to express the convex outward bulging forms that express the structural "bones" of the landscape. I think this gets ignored by some plein air painters today and taught less than it ought be. I will also show you how I build the color structure of the snow using color laid over color to assemble the structure of the snow.

There is no need to stay an any particular lodging to attend the workshop and it will be an easy commute out from Minneapolis or St. Paul. The price of the three day workshop will be three hundred dollars. As per usual with my workshops I run a twelve to thirteen hour day and try to cram as much into the three days we have as possible. I make workshops as intense as I possibly can. We will meet for breakfast and then move to the painting site and work until dusk. Then we will meet for dinner and I haul out my computer and lecture on design and other aspects of landscape painting while we await our meal. If you live in, or can visit the area I hope you will come. To sign up, click here!


I will also be teaching in Lafayette, Louisiana from March 22nd to the 24th . You can contact Maria Randolph to sign up or get more information.

 Here is the information copied from their website;

Don’t Tarry! Sign Up Now for Stapleton Kearns Plein Air Workshop – Mar 22-24

Makes no difference what kind of painting media you prefer. If you have ever been interested in plein air (in the open air) painting, please don’t miss this unique opportunity to take a plein air workshop in style with all the amenities of home—and dinner—and most importantly, with a fantastic internationally renowned artist and teacher. Sign up today!



With Renowned Landscape Artist


MARCH 22-24, 2013

This Lafayette Art Association sponsored ‘outdoors’ plein air workshop will feature the talented teaching professional from New Hampshire, Stapleton Kearns.

Stapleton is a professional landscape painter who will fill your workshop experience with valuable techniques, ideas, and methods based on a classical impressionist approach.

This excellent workshop is open to all media areas, not just oil painting, because primary plein air painting rules concerning colors, value, lighting, etc., are essentially the same. This is not only an oil painter’s plein air workshop, although that is Stapleton’s chosen media, and all media painters are welcome to learn and enjoy!

The 3-day workshop will be conducted on privately-owned land in Cankton, LA which is approximately a 20 minute drive from downtown Lafayette. There is a cabin on the property with bathroom and kitchen facilities.

So don’t tarry and let this opportunity slip away, There are only a few seats still open so call now and register to get your name on this select list!

Click for more info… Contact the Lafayette Art Association, Lafayette, LA at 337-269-0363 


Charles Valsechi said...

Brilliant Post! Thank you Stapleton.

To anyone considering his workshops:
DO IT.. not much else needs to be said. His workshop in Sarasota was the best I have ever attended.

Robert J. Simone said...

"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." Steve Jobs

Paul Birnbaum said...

Great great post Stape. I've recently discovered Russian impressionist art and have quickly developed an appreciation as well. Don't mean to disagree with the master, but I still see the landscape as a pretty single viewpoint perpective. Your explanation of the seascape is right on. I never appreciated the subtle use of clouds in composition but I'll be watching more closely from now on. Thanks for the insight.

Durinda Cheek, Fine Artist said...

I always enjoy your posts that explain the compositions and color schemes of paintings. It helps to know why a painting works and why we like it. Thanks for your work on this!

LS Nelson said...

Fascinating treatise on the past few eras of painting. The skill of many of the Russian and Chinese painters is awe inspiring.

I was fortunate to view an exhibition of Fredric Church in Portland several years ago. It was one of the most emotional, impressive exhibits I've ever attended, and I was fortunate to go by myself - because the other women in the office all chose to go see 'Charlie's Angels' on their 'girls afternoon out'. I couldn't resist crowing about what they'd missed.

Unknown said...

A really fascinating balance between theory and art history. Thanks for sharing your artistic wisdom, Stape :)

Theresa Grillo Laird said...

Interesting post as always.I saw the circle right away in A Day in June but my eye sees it in the opposite direction- up the diagonal path to the right and up the tree then down across the cloud and back into the center of the painting from the left side of the horizontal path.
Good quality books of the Russian impressionists are hard to find and even harder now when fewer coffee table type books are getting printed.I'd love to know a good source for books on them.