Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

May: First Green 1883

Here is Levitan's painting, titled: May: The First Green. Actually, it's not finished but a sketch, like a story-teller who roughs out the draft beforehand. Levitan has captured a perfectly lovely day - all light and green. The painting is dated 1883, when he was just 23 years old.

To appreciate what we're looking at, it's important to know something of the artist's story. Isaak Levitan was born in 1860, in what we would today call Lithuania. His Jewish parents were cultured people who instilled in their children a love of music, art and literature. The mother died when Isaak was 15 and the father soon afterwards became so seriously ill he was unable to work. Without the safety nets of  Social Security Disability or Medicaid, the family fell into a desperate poverty such that the boys were often unsure of when they'd eat next.

When Isaak was 13, he and his brother were enrolled in the Moscow School of Painting, but upon the father's death of typhoid fever four years later, unable to pay the tuiton, he was forced to drop out. Good friends and patrons saw to it that the fees were paid, and Isaak was able to return.

While studying there he met three transformative teachers who were also personal mentors and friends. Vasily Perov, who helped Isaak to discover within himself what it means to respect the subject being painted and also a conviction that art should express a sensitive regard for the poverty in which many lived in 19th century Russia. Of course, Isaak already knew what poverty felt like. This revered teacher died when Levitan was 22 years old. 

His new teacher, Vasily Polenov, had just returned from travels in Greece and Egypt, bringing back fresh insights as to the painting of southern light. Levitan painted May: The First Green one year after meeting Vasily PolenovAleksei Savrasov taught Isaak how to know nature first hand by working outside. When the snow started to fall, everyone went out to paint in the woods.When the snow started to melt, all his students went out into the countryside.  Isaak learned how to paint rocks, streams, pools of water, rivers, fields, meadows and forests. 

Do we see the thin young saplings behind the fence? There is also a grass patch inside the circular earth path. We go around and around in our lives and along the way, there are gates, openings to possibility: the people we meet, the places and experiences which form us. Perov, Savrasov and Polenov were just what young Isaak Levitan needed after so much disappointment and loss - teachers who were also friends, who honed his skills but also led him into an interior life of awareness, respect and sensitivity.

Could I suggest staying with this painting for a bit to consider a time in my life I might call a personal springtime - bright green with new energies, new direction, new interests, going through the gates which present encounters by which I evolve and succeed. And while we see the fence and the young trees, beyond, there is a hill or mountain which suggests the invitation, "Come through and into this living land and then up, up, up...!


  1. As I read this I tried to think of the gates I have passed and the ones that I have entered. I also thought of the people who unlocked the hard to enter gates and who truly made a difference in my life. I am grateful

  2. There is a brightness to this painting which is lacking in some of Levitan's works. I am learning so much about this artist and his journey as I take this Lenten journey together with everyone here. There is so much that can be taken from a good look at these works of art. I wonder if Levitan even gave so much thought to them as he picked up his brushes and palette.

  3. Well yes, all we can do is wonder. But I think he'd be quite pleased that we are taking his work so seriously. He would never have wanted us just to admire his work but to share in it.