Russian Autumn on Canvas

For Russian realist painters of the late 19th century, autumn was a constant source of inspiration

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As the calendar changes seasons, visitors to Russia can’t help but be moved by the sight of the vast landscape clad in the colors of autumn. Soft poplar trees shed their leaves, blanketing the earth in a radiant gold, while maple trees blaze in red and orange and gingko trees shine a bright yellow under a crisp azure sky. The majestic spectacle of autumn was a favorite subject of a group of 19th century artists called Peredvizhniki, or “The Wanderers.” In fact, works by three artists of the group – Ivan Shishkin, Vasily Polenov and Isaac Levitan – share the same name, “Golden Autumn.”

Peredvizhniki began as a protest against the Imperial Academy of Art, whose teachers and subject matter the students found stiflingly conservative. The young artists embraced realism in art and followed a progressive social sensibility. They broke away from the hidebound traditions of the academy and mounted exhibits around the country, bringing their art to wider audiences. While many works portrayed everyday situations, landscape painting was the most popular genre for Peredvizhniki, and some, such as Ivan Shishkin, painted landscapes exclusively.

Works by Shishkin are characterized by their intricate detail. These not only come from his innate artistic flair for capturing the way the light is dappled through foliage but also from his profound understanding of nature. Shishkin spent a great deal of time studying nature, to the extent that he was nicknamed the “leaf collector,” and his knowledge of the shapes of plants, animals and forests deeply informs his work. Shishkins “Golden Autumn” features the woods by the river at dusk. His viewpoint was clearly set on the far riverbank as he overlooked the river caressed by autumn breezes. Movements of the water surface, slight differences in shapes and colors of trees in the wood and the sunshine cast in the speckled shadows were all genuinely and meticulously portrayed.

Isaac Levitan also focused his efforts entirely on landscapes, with works such as “Water Lilies” or “Poplar Forest” in addition to his own “Golden Autumn.” Levitans teacher was Vasily Polenov and these two painters had deeply contrasting backgrounds. Polenov was born into a minor aristocratic family, as his father was a scientist and his mother a painter. Throughout his life he maintained good relationships with both the young Peredvizhniki rebels and the conservative Academy of Arts. Polenov was sponsored for trips to France and Italy from which he imported novel contemporary styles and trends such as outdoor painting practices instead of the rigid, conventional workshop environment in his day.

Meanwhile, Levitan was born into an educated yet impoverished Jewish family. By 18, he had lost both parents, which exacerbated the chronic misery of Levitan and his three siblings. Fortunately he received a scholarship to the Moscow School of Fine Arts and Sculpture, where he was instructed by various established lecturers including Polenov. Levitan was later expelled from Moscow by authorities because of his Jewish origin, followed by his untimely demise at 39 without a family.

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It seems the lives of these two painters were conveyed through their works. The “Golden Autumn” of Polenov is full of joy and warmth, generous and bold brushstrokes and a vast block of dark greenery amidst the predominantly golden foliage. Meanwhile, the “Golden Autumn” by Levitan is somehow calmer and more ethereal. A peaceful creek and the presiding gold of both the sunlight and tree shades engender nostalgic melancholy and solitude.

The later half of the 19th century was a vibrant period of Russian fine arts led by the young progressive Peredvizhniki. As a favorite subject of these artists, the Russian natural landscape, particularly in autumn, was elevated to a powerful aesthetic symbol that retains a special power for visitors and art lovers today.

The Tretyakov Museum in Moscow boasts one of the world’s largest collections of paintings by Russian artists. Here you can view “Golden Autumn” by Levitan and “Morning in the Pine Forest” by Shishkin. Polenov’s “Golden Autumn” is now displayed in his hometown in Polenovo, Tula, located 100km from Moscow.

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