The Artist, Depression, and the Mood Landscape Academic Article uri icon


  • The association between affective illness and artistic creativity is well known to artists themselves and is manifested in their works (1–3). There is an intimate connection between the artist’s innerworld, his feelings of depression, despair, or happiness, and his paintings. This relationship is clearly seen in theworks of the Russian painter Isaak Levitan (1860–1900), who has been called the father of Russian landscape painting. He suffered from depression, twice attempted suicide, and died at age 40 from serious heart disease. It is no coincidence that Levitan’s works are usually associatedwith amelancholic mood. He was the founder of “the mood landscape,” in which the landscape is richly imbued with poetic associations. Levitan viewed landscapes not as “a beautiful combination of lines and subjects” exclusively depicting beautiful places, but rather “those intimate, deeply touching, often sad lines which are so strongly felt in our native landscape and so irresistibly affect the soul” (4). There are few documents left regarding Levitan’s life. His personal archives, including his correspondence, were destroyed by his own orders shortly before the artist’s death. Isaak Levitan was born in the village of Wirballen, now in Lithuania, to a poor but well-educated Jewish family. In September 1873, he entered the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. In 1877, Levitan’s works were first publicly exhibited, garnering a favorable reception. Levitan deeply felt both the lyrical charm and the quiet greatness of Russian nature (5). Throughout his life, the artist suffered from valvular heart disease and aneurysm. Moreover, from an early age he was prone to mood swings. He suffered from attacks of melancholy. Typically, his periods of depression were not prolonged, lasting about 3 weeks. After they ended his mood would change, becoming energetic and cheerful, whereas while he was depressed, Levitan avoided friends and any social contact and thought everyone was against him.He became rude, insolent, and intolerant and even angrily destroyed his paintings by scraping the paint. In one of his letters to Anton Chekhov, Levitan wrote, “Do not wait for me. I’m not coming because I am in a state where I cannot see people. Do not come because I am alone. I am nobody and nothing.” In April 1885, Levitan attempted suicide by shooting himself, andChekhov helped himreturn to his usual self (5). In 1895, Levitan once again attempted suicide. In July 1895, he wrote to Chekhov, “Melancholy reached me before I shot myself, but I am still alive.” In 1896, Levitan fell illwith typhoid fever and his physical condition deteriorated. The typhoid brought a worsening in his heart condition. In March 1897, Chekhovwrote, “I examinedLevitan.His condition is very poor. His heart was not beating properly, but blowing. Instead of tuk-tuk, I heardpf-tuk....” Inanother letter: “Theartist Levitan apparently soonwill die, he suffers froman enlargement of the aorta.” In 1900, Levitan died. During his brief life, the artist created about a thousand paintings, sketches, and drawings. Vladimirka Road, shown in this painting, is the infamous road to Siberia, the road for transporting prisoners. Levitan often combined his realistic vision with a strong message. In this case, the desolation of the landscape echoes the message conveyed by the Vladimirka Road, the route taken by those exiled to Siberia. Levitan was probably hinting at his own Vladimirka Road (1892) by Isaak I. Levitan. Used with permission of the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

publication date

  • January 1, 2015