One of my favorite stories is about Vladimirka Road (1892, Isaak Levitan, oil on canvas, 79 x 123cm, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, shown left). It comes from the book Isaak Levitan Lyrical Landscape, by Averil King.
Long considered one of the artist's masterworks, the story behind Levitan's inspiration is recounted by his friend:
"Kuvshinnikova recalls how she and the artist were returning from a hunting expedition when they suddenly found themselves on the old Vladimirka highway. Now re-named Highway M-7, running eastwards from Moscow, the ancient road formed the route taken by generations of prisoners to spend their lives in Siberia. The modern town of Gorenki, from the Russian word gore meaning grief, lies at the site of its first staging post, the place where countless families saw their loved ones for the last time. Levitan started as he recognized the road, calling to mind 'the many unfortunate souls who trod the road, clanging their chains, on their way to exile'. He and Kuvshinnikova sat at the foot of a weather-beaten roadside alter and talked about the fates witnessed by this highway and the sorrowful supplications that must have been addressed to the little alter."
The story continues to describe how Levitan returned to the site the next day with a large (31 inch x 48 inch) canvas and began to work directly from nature; over the course of several days, he produced what is widely regarded as his masterpiece, a stark, endless landscape under stormy skies, with a solitary figure standing in front of the roadside alter. As author Averil King states, "It is a picture filled with sadness and foreboding, clearly suggestive of the despair of the shackled men and women who had trudged eastward through these lonely wastes."
Narrative in art is easier to understand when expressed through still life and figure, but for many landscape painters the question becomes more nebulous: is it enough to paint a scene because it consists of interesting elements?
Certainly a beautiful painting will generate its own narraive in the mind of the viewer.
But when the artist's emotional response to a scene is also grounded in the narrative, the result can be powerful.
What do you think?
"I could sure hear you in the book, very upbeat and encouraging...I also loaned your book to my Tucson art teacher and she let another friend of hers read it, too. She’s already doing most of what you suggested...she hates self-promotion like most of us do..." TB, Tuscon, AZ