Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Last Snow 1895

This painting by Isaak Levitan is called a study: a painting in the getting-ready stage. While doing a study, the artist is essentially planning the work and addressing the problems and challenges the subject presents, perhaps especially the challenge of capturing light.

I'm told that a study can make more of an impact than an elaborately completed work, because the study contains the fresh insights the artist gains while exploring the subject. We might feel the artist's sense of vitality and the excitement of discovery that may be somewhat dulled in a more finished painting. Sometimes studies are accompanied by handwritten notes which clue us into the artist's thought processes while the work is in its earlier stages. 

So here is Levitan's study: The Last Snow.  Do we sense he is using a lighter palette? It has been suggested Levitan may have allowed himself to be influenced a bit by the new Impressionist movement developed in the 19th century. 

If that's so, then Levitan possessed the virtue of docility, which means, teach me. A humble person lets himself be taught. A docile person doesn't assume she/he knows it all or has perfected it all, but is open to new insights and possibilities. Admirable!

The rugged Russian winter made it nearly impossible to paint out doors. We might imagine Levitan then, carefully watching the landscape, anticipating the first signs of spring. 

Here we see the snow-melt is well underway; it has receded along the stream which has been freed up of ice and is flowing again. Though the riverbank is thawed and muddy, the water itself is pure and rippling gently. Look how beautifully transparent it is.

The ground is uncovered and last year's grass, dead, flattened and brown has been exposed. Soon green will appear. In the distance we see the conifers on the left and the deciduous trees on the right. 

Levitan hopes we'll join the celebration - life is returning! But seeing the landscape freed of its frozen encasement, I might reflect: Is there something inside of me that needs to be, like the stream, set free or released? I've met a number of people this past year who in their 50's, 60's, 70's, have picked up paint brushes and are creating wonderful watercolor and oil landscapes of their own. A friend in his 70's is setting out to start keeping bees.

There's so much that presses down - old voices inside that say: "No you can't," "That's impossible," "You won't succeed." Maybe Levitan's Last Snow, with its flowing stream, wants to give us a push: Get free!


  1. Levitan painted what he saw and felt, not what he thought people should see on would want to see. Simple landscapes with ability to call forth human emotion was how he conveyed his thoughts. He didn't need human subjects or moving scenes.

  2. Actually, we don't know what he thought. Maybe ultimately he didn't care if we knew what he thought or not. I would think though he'd be keenly interested in what the viewer thinks/feels. Opera singers, painters, poets, even gardeners, if they're real artists, care (even profoundly) about how the hearers/viewers respond. Levitan didn't paint postcards, "Wish you were here..." I think he'd want to hear from us. I suspect the authors who wrote the many books of the Bible, would be fascinated with our "take" today - even though they could have never imagined we'd be reading their works thousands of years later. This is great stuff.

  3. I'd like to be able to make a great discovery about these great paintings but I am just enjoying the feelings they bring. I am loving the excitement these paintings and your explanations of them bring to us everyday. Also, learning about the artist brings more meaning into this. I can see the therapeutic rewards it brings. Your post is a place of discovery for me.

    1. I can't nuance this but I've met people over the years whose degree is in using poetry,music and art to heal those who have been traumatized: soldiers, victims of crimes and disaster, the permanently disabled. Tremendous healing power in art.

    2. There is a psychological healing power in the arts because they distract the brain. Art therapy can heal the mind and when we are in a good place, our bodies fair better also.