Complicated simplicity

We often know what we love, but we find it difficult to rationalise why we love it. We usually defend our feeling by saying that LOVE doesn’t take off because of a reason, but rather in defiance of it. And this is where I come in and ruin the magic (I actually don’t).

In my previous post, I asked readers to say which of the five autumn landscapes painted by Russia’s best artists resonated with them most. We have two clear “winners”: Levitan and Brodsky. I promised to take you on a journey through these paintings, and this is the first installment, in which we will cover Levitan’s Golden Autumn.

It is clickable, and it is a good idea to click on it and save the large image for your reference.
It is clickable, and it is a good idea to click on it and save the large image for your reference.

This landscape is the most popular icon of autumn in Russia. It is reproduced as often as Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, 11 to 13 year olds write essays at school about it, poets reference it in their poems, writers are never ashamed (although they should be) to use the stock phrase “Levitan’s golden autumn” in their texts.

But why is it a great painting? Because some Soviet art critic anointed it as a sacred visual stimulus for school essays? Or is it really a great landscape?


As I said many times before, the first step is looking closely and registering what we see.

What colours do you see?
Do the colours change from one part of the painting to another?
How do they change?
Did the artist separate the view into back/fore/middle ground? Is the any size or colour difference between those “grounds”?

If you want to work out your own skills of art appreciation, try to answer these questions and find logic in Levitan’s choices before clicking the “Continue Reading…” tab, for there will be surprising answers.

I will give you two tips, use them to arrive to your own artistic discovery. Have fun building your hypothesis!

First tip: Golden Ratio

The size of the painting has the Golden Ratio built-in. If we cut a square as shown in the picture below from the painting, we will get a smaller rectangle which sides are in the same relationship to each other as in its bigger prototype. Draw a line to split the painting in two parts, as in this example:


Think of the difference between the two parts of Levitan’s landscape. While pondering it, use Tip No.2.

Second tip: the great playwriter Anton Chekhov was Levitan’s best mate, so it is very likely that Levitan was not a stranger to the principles of story telling and drama. Theatrical dramatism must have rubbed off, and so it should be found in Levitan’s paintings.

Golden Ratio was used to build pyramids in Egypt, but it was Leonardo who made it a fashion among painters. Levitan used it in this landscape to separate cheerful autumness from that of sad winterness.


The palette dramatically changes from left to right, but without the ostentatious display of clashing colours or hues a less gifted artist would employ to visualise the difference.


You may have guessed it already: the main conflict is between the two parts of autumness and winterness. Autumn is a beautiful season, but its beauty is short-lived. The Nature is going to turn into a very cold comatose patient very soon. Appreciate its beauty while you can. Isn’t it the same with a lot of other things in life?

But Levitan wouldn’t be Chekhov’s buddy if he stopped at that simple level of conflict.

A proper play must have a minimum of three acts, with each act consisting at least of a couple of scenes, right?

So, let’s draw another Golden-ratio line to see that it is a 3-act play.


If you saved the big image, look closer at the brushwork in each of the three parts.

In Act I the brushstrokes are short, energetic, randomly directed. It creates a feeling of wind ruffling the leaves, of joy, almost carelessness of those trees. They don’t care that the wind is tearing some of their “clothes” away, they bathe in the pure joy of it. The shadows are sharp in Act I, which gives the impression of afternoon warmth.

There are no dull colours in Act I: all the yellows, reds, and greens are saturated.

We enter the beauty of autumn for there’s ample space to walk inside, between the trees. A few feet of easily covered ground separate us from this fête of nature. We are whirled inside.

In Act II we focus on the middle and background. The brushstrokes become less visible, wider, and thinner. Dull colours appear in some places, and even yellows become less saturated, but most people notice the change only when it is shown with a finger. It does not immediately register. It is a subtle change.

It is not a whim of the artist that he put a distant village in this part of his landscape. His political views were about including common people in the “big picture”.  He was one of the Itinerants, artists who severed their ties with the official Academic art and turned their easels towards joys and pains of ordinary Russians.

In Act III, the brushstrokes are almost invisible, thin, water-colour style. The colours are dull, dirty, cold. The shadows are not sharp, Even the sky changes the “temperature of its colour”. The red bush at the bottom draws our eyes towards to cold water of the river. Winter is coming.

Without the red bush in Act III we won’t necessarily walk all the way to the bottom of this part of the painting. Levitan wanted to make sure we would, creating tension lines that virtually drive us there:

Levitan_Zolotaya_Osen - movement

To exercise a bit more, think about the rhythm Levitan uses to takes us through the three Acts. If you want to get familiar with the concept of rhythm in a landscape, you may find this post useful.

You could see it earlier in this blog, that great Russian art is never simple. There’s always a lot of dramatic thought loaded into and onto it by its creators (and piled up beside it by critics like me).

People who understand it are never surprised that Russians don’t smile and never “Wow” in awe at something beautiful. On those rare occasions when Russians get exposed to unexpected beauty they immediately start looking for a deeper, hidden meaning. Then, they are either saddened by not finding it or are disheartened by what they found.

It may be bad for cross-cultural exchange and socialisation, but it’s great for art production. Well, at least it seems a plausible justification for the unsmiling attitude!

Stay tuned, as Brodsky’s Fallen Leaves are a day away.


  1. Absolutely fascinating stuff. I had never seen a technical analysis of this piece before — and I am incredibly impressed with all the plotting and structuring and storytelling that went into this painting. Yes I had never found it particularly emotionally compelling. My quintessential Russian Autumn painting is by Ostroukhov (the maples trees and 2 magpies), and personally I am more of a Shishkin kind of gal when it comes to Russian painting or landscape painting in general.

    1. Thank you, Anna! You couldn’t see it before because, in fact, it has never been done. Close to a hundred percent of material in this blog is a new kind of research and presentation of art. I am very happy you like it, so when and if I have it systematically published, that book will have at least one interested reader ))

      Given time and effort, you’ll learn to get a much bigger kick out of Levitan than from Ostroukhov. The latter may provide a stronger emotional kick at the start, it is like a nice quote abour Russian autumn, but the former is a thinker, whose painting has to be read like a thick book. Yet, its impact in the long term can be exponentially higher))

  2. I opened this post and reacted instantly to the sight of this painting which brought a smile to my face. I recognised this day, the very particular type of light that says “enjoy this because you never thought you would see its like again before next Summer” The golden joy, the unreal real green. Hot and cold competing and made all the more poignant because cold is inevitably going to win. Your critique as always is a delight to read.

    1. Thank you ) It is great when a painting has immediate effect in which viewers re-live their experiences, as if they are transported by a memory/time machine into one of their very own happy moments!

  3. Wonderful – thanks so much for taking us on a walk through Levitan’s painting. I went to a lovely gallery talk recently which was all about the different ‘energy!’ in the areas of the paintings – got me looking at the works in more detail – as did your post. Thanks again.

    1. Thank you! Energy is a bit tricky as different people may associate different kinds or levels of energy with the same colour. Do you remember which artworks were used as examples in this talk?

  4. Very very very interesting and thoughts-provoking post, very ‘yours’ ) Thoughts not only about this painting for sure, and even not only about art. Can’t wait for the next post though fully understand I need more time to think and feel about this one )

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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