The strange name for this painting, The Gully, leaves me wondering if it's just a poor translation of the Russian title. A gully is a water-worn ravine, a canyon or gorge. This is a view of lake and sky seen through an opening in the trees.
Levitan was about 38 years old when he painted this scene. And while his health was deteriorating his palette became increasingly bright. Levitan always instructed his students not to put on the palette any color that was not going to be used in the painting. So here we have shades of green and blue.
The high grass just in front of us is put down simply as an impression so that we don't linger there, but go beyond. The trees to left and right form a kind of frame for the two layers of blue: water and sky separated or demarcated by a horizontal band of tilled fields or beach.
We say, "A picture's worth a thousand words." When I first started exploring Isaak Levitan's paintings for the Lenten blog, this painting jumped out, immediately taking me back to the early autumn of 1976 when I was a third theologian in seminary.
This seminary was situated on the north shore of Long Island bordering on Lloyd Harbor. The seminary itself was a large building which could house over two hundred men, a church-sized chapel, library, classrooms and dining hall. But beyond the seminary itself there was a deep woods with a long, wide path leading down to the water. That forest-y place was a silent refuge where I went often, even in hard rain and deep snow.
This Levitan painting took me back to those truly awesome moments of silent standstill and secret hope. I hadn't formulated the thought at the time, but I often sensed we weren't being formed as holy men, but problem solving, well-informed tradesmen.
I wasn't unhappy in seminary, I never dreaded or hated the place, but I wish it had been so much more. Blue is the color of divinity. Here, Levitan shows us the trees pulled back like a curtain, revealing that divinity beyond, much as I had wished for seminary to reveal something of God to me.
"You know, you can see God; you can touch God," my priest spiritual director told me many decades later. I wish I had heard that as a seminarian, because it would have rallied me, healed me, excited me, delighted me and set me on a new course. This isn't a lament, because while that encounter didn't occur inside the building, it surely happened outside, in the kind of moment Levitan has captured here.