Following Isaak Levitan's death in 1900, Alexandre Benois remarked upon the artist's ability to capture the 'ineffable charm of our [Russia's] desolation, the grand sweep of our untrammelled spaces, the mournful celebration of Russian autumn and the enigmatic allure of Russian spring'. Perhaps more than any other Russian artist, Levitan is recognised for creating archetypal images of the rodina or motherland; imbuing simple motifs such as the birch tree with an emotive or symbolic resonance that instantly communicates the drama of the Russian landscape.
Born in the small Jewish community of Kirbarty, Lithuania, Isaak Il'ich Levitan (1860-1900) was one of four children, two of whom went on to pursue careers as artists. His father, the son of a Rabbi, was an educated man with some knowledge of French and German, who moved his family to Moscow in the early 1870s in an attempt to find more lucrative work. During his lifetime, Levitan escaped neither the poverty nor the anti-Semitism experienced in his childhood; the latter was the cause of the mandate exiling Jews, including Levitan himself, from Moscow in 1879 and 1892.
In light of such obstacles, Levitan's enrolment at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture between 1873-1885 was unexpected and is testament to the young artist's exceptional talent. Due to extreme poverty, in 1896 the young student was spared the financial burden of course fees but the subsequent loss of both parents to illness worsened his situation. An orphan, Levitan was now dependent on the goodwill of friends, colleagues and patrons. The artist, M. V. Nesterov (1862-1942), a contemporary of Levitan and fellow student at the Moscow School, recalled in his memoirs that Levitan was as well-known amongst his peers for his poverty as he was for his talent. The self-contained force of personality - an innate characteristic of Levitan's paintings - was coupled with a resilience and industriousness which enabled Levitan to overcome his circumstances and place an intense focus on his work.
The importance of Levitan's contribution to Russian art is inextricably linked to the social, political and cultural context of the 19th Century. Levitan's studies coincided with an epoch of seismic change in the history of Russian culture, exacerbated by the abolition of serfdom in 1861. The 1850s had seen a growth in the demand for Russian subject-matter in literature, music and art, which stemmed from the desire to assert cultural independence and define national identity. This identity, suppressed by the programme of westernization implemented by Peter the Great, was now being rediscovered and to a certain extent created by literary giants such as Ivan Turgenev and Lev Tolstoi whose pan-Slavism reflected the rise in nationalistic feeling. Indeed, Sergei Diaghilev, the director of the Ballets Russes, would write later of the similarity between the prose of these writers and Levitan's paintings, saying that they shared 'the freshness of a Turgenev morning...[and] the scent of Tolstoy's hay harvest' (Mir iskusstva, 1901, vol. v, no. 1).
Unlike Levitan's familiar landscapes, the present work is a rare combination of the artist's technical virtuosity and understanding of light with a man-made subject. 'The Illumination of the Kremlin' is both a masterpiece and a cultural artefact; it marks the coronation of Nicholas II in 1896 when the whole of Moscow was luxuriously decorated to celebrate the event. The medieval landscape of Moscow was transformed by flags, banners and new pavilions, and perhaps most significantly, illuminated by over a reported 40,000 lamps. A true measure of Russia's progress in a modern age, Levitan painted this subject more than once. Another version, also painted in 1896, is in the Dnepropetrovsk State Art Museum.