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Jewish And Non-Jewish Landscape Isaak Levitan, Thomas Cole And George Inness

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Russian Landscape in the Age of Tolstoy.

June 23 –  September 12, 2004.

The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London.  



George Inness and the Visionary Landscape.

September 17 – December 28, 2003.

The National Academy of Design, 5 East 89th Street, New York





He sits somewhat accusingly atop a stamp issued in Russia, remembering the 50th anniversary of his death in 1950. His eyes look tired, if not depressed, and his shoulders slouch. He looks, perhaps, as if he just lost a punishing boxing match. In an essay entitled “Lithuanian Jews on Postage Stamps” posted at jewishgen.org, Vitaly Charny says, “It seems strange that a Lithuanian-born Jewish artist who worked in Russia during the time of the pogroms and at the height of official anti-Semitism would become the most quintessential Russian painter.”

He refers to Isaak (sometimes Isaac) Ilich Levitan (1860-1900), whose portrait, painted by fellow Jewish Russian painter Valentin Serov, adorns the 1950 stamp. His works hung with 14 other artists at the Russian Landscape exhibit in London. The exhibit hung across the ocean and is no longer on display, but Levitan serves as a wonderful launch pad for discussing Jewish scenic painting and its relation to the secular landscape scene, and his work relates to a large extent with the recent exhibit at the National Academy of Design in New York that showcased George Inness’ work.

The National Gallery exhibit, “Russian Landscape In The Age of Tolstoy,” featured works of 15 nineteenth century Russian landscape artists which the museum called, “70 of Russia’s Best Known and Loved Paintings.”

“Landscape plays a central role in the Russian imagination,” said the National Gallery’s Curator of 19th Century Paintings, Christopher Riopelle. “The emptiness of the country’s vast reaches, the rigours of its climate, the difficulties of transportation, and the intense isolation that long winter months impose, all contribute to a specifically Russian sense of nature, different from – perhaps more fatalistic than – that found elsewhere. In the age of Tolstoy, the landscape simply dominated the lives of most Russians.”

I am not sure I completely agree. Take “The Vladimirka Road” (1892) by Levitan. Seventy-nine by 123 inches, Vladimirka is large, and it features a horizon line set just below mid-painting. The painting depicts the road that routinely led prisoners into Siberian exile, and though it now evokes cheerier images of “Fiddler on the Roof,” it carries dangerous undertones. But the critics see no Fiddler; instead, they have described Vladimirka as “philosophical,” “mature” and a “meditation on man and the world.” It is cast as a paradigm of the genre called “mood landscape.”

The viewer can focus on the ominous clouds and the dark, shadowy horizon, telling tales of fate and doubt. Careful analysis exposes brown, earthy shades that tone down all the pure colors and mute the whole effect. Yet, the painting simply represents a pretty picture, and all lyrical explanations provide externally imposed narrative. The composition is fairly expected, and reminds us of a postcard we might purchase as tourists on the road to Siberia. It is strangely dead. In this sense, Levitan recalls much of the Hudson River School’s work.

Founded by Thomas Cole (1801-1848), the Hudson school forged the first real American school of painting, and it sought to parade the beauty of the virgin American landscape in a grand marriage of nationalistic public relations and painting. A student of Englishman John Constable and the French landscapist Claude Lorrain, Cole popularized the landscape genre, previously a second-class citizen behind historical and mythological scenes and portraiture. Long before the Impressionists, Cole studied how light unfolded across nature, and though he lacked the paint tubes which allowed Claude Monet to paint in “plein-air” – outdoors – Cole studied the actual landscapes vigorously, only later adding stylized, symbolic details.

Where Levitan’s landscapes buckle and seem immobile, Cole’s prove very much alive and seem to have a perpetual energy machine for a heart. Whenever possible, Cole opts for rainbows, lightning storms, waterfalls and whatever natural explosion of color he can discover – and he records every detail. But both Cole and Levitan paint pretty pictures that only yield superficial interest. Like the stage, landscape painting must be judged by “believability of form.”

By this, I mean that a character on stage fails if the audience cannot conceive of what he or she does offstage. Hamlet can “be or not be” all he wants, but if the actor does not convince me that Hamlet eats breakfast every day and gets headaches, then he is not a believable character, even when he is on stage.

The landscapes of Levitan and Cole do not convince the viewer that they extend beyond the picture frame. In her essay in the catalog to the National Gallery exhibit, Henk Van Os writes, “Generally speaking, painted nature has something reassuring about it… After all, it’s only a picture. And however inhospitable or overwhelming painted nature may be, it’s always placed inside a frame.” I agree with her estimation of Levitan, but not of landscape painting in general.

George Inness (1825-1894) manages to paint outside the frame. “Art is a subtle essence,” he wrote, “It is not a thing of surfaces, but a moving spirit… like the humanity of G-d, it is personal only to love; unknown to the wordling; a myth to the searching intellect.”

“For every hour that Inness spent painting,” says Adrienne Baxter Bell, in the National Academy of Design’s catalog – George Inness And The Visionary Landscape – he seems to have spent another hour harvesting metaphysical problems and ideas.”

Inness recognized this himself when he declared, “Then I take to theology. That is the only thing except art which interests me. In my theory, in fact, they are very closely connected. That is, you may say it is theology, but it has resolved itself gradually into a scientific form and that is the development which has become so very interesting to me.”

Although much of his thought seems to border on the cultish and draws heavily from Swedenborg, Inness manages to capture a moving spirit in nature and to combine the theological and the aesthetic, happily. “Evening Landscape” (1862) features a horizon line set about where Levitan sets his in Vladimirka, and the road converges in a similar triangle. But how different are the tones and the movement! Inness’ composition works like a machine: every part functions to better the whole. Motion extends beyond particular shapes to rally multiple objects as vectorial movement. In short, the structure has a soul that breathes life into the work and achieves a religious context that Levitan and Cole never could. Though he is not a Jew (nor is Cole), Inness manages to paint much more Jewishly than does Levitan, who is hopelessly lost in the world of iconography.

Thus, whereas Anton Chekhov writes in 1891 that “Compared with the landscape painters I have seen here, Levitan is king,” I only find Levitan king of the nostalgic. He demonstrates tremendous technical skill. But Levitan says, “I wish to discover and locate in my own country the most simple, the most intimate, the most commonplace and the most emotionally moving, that which often causes a sense of melancholia. The spectators should be touched in the depths of their souls.” That he surely does, but his work focuses on narrative and feeling, and not on relationships of forms and color and line.

Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: mwecker@gmail.com

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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