It took five long years to complete this painting (1885-1890). But these were busy years which took Levitan out of his studio: sketching trips to Crimea, a couple of trips to the Volga River, creating exhibitions when returning to Moscow. In 1889 he was sick with typhoid. Following his recovery he took trips to Berlin, Paris, Nice, Venice and Florence.
But here we are 127 years later, standing at the edge of the Birch Grove, pondering its invitation to enter. Spring is underway. The trees are fully leaved, the grass is getting high and colorful field flowers grow around our feet.
Leo Tolstoy wrote: "The basis of human happiness is the possibility to be together with nature, to see it and to talk to it." Talk to it! Maybe this is one reason there are so many unhappy people in this land of shopping, eating and destruction. Joni Mitchell sang in the 1970's: "We've paved paradise and put up a parking lot, with a pink hotel, a boutique and a swinging hot spot."
The Prophet Isaiah knew how to be one with nature and even to talk to it:
"Shout for joy, O heavens, for the Lord has done it! Shout joyfully, you lower parts of the earth; break forth into a shout of joy, you mountains, O forest, and every tree in it; for the Lord has redeemed Jacob, in Israel He shows forth His glory." Isaiah 44:23
The style of Levitan's work is called mood landscape. This doesn't mean, "Oh watch out, Isaak might be in a bad moon." Nor does mood or moody mean dark and depressing. Moody means the image has the power to call forth an emotion or deep feeling. Moody means that nature has an inner life of its own which can elicit a personal response as we stand before it. We might stand in the Birch Grove and see what happens - inside.
Notice that Levitan has titled the painting, Birch Grove, not just Birch Trees. That's because groves of trees have religious significance for polytheists - religions which worship more than one god. But we shouldn't dismiss it then by saying, "Oh that's pagan," because Christians have their own grove of trees where a profound God-encounter took place.
Then Jesus came with them to a plot of land called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, "Stay here while I go over there to pray." Matthew 26:36
In my bible there's a footnote after the word Gethsemane: The name means; 'oilpress'. It lies in the Kidron valley at the foot of the Mount of Olives.
Jesus has a profound experience of prayer in that olive grove. He is interior-ly crushed as he sees the world in all of its destruction, blood-hate and greed. A sweat like great drops of blood is pressed out of him. And in the middle of his suffering there is this moment of consolation:
Then an angel appeared to him, coming from heaven to give him strength. Luke 22: 41
In Levitan's Birch Grove the bark of the trees seems to shine from inside, and there is dappled light coming through the leaves and onto the grass. We can pray in this Birch Grove.