My favourite painting: Theresa Tollemache

'For me, it’s a very spiritual picture, rather melancholic.'

Eternal Peace, 1894, by Isaac Levitan (1860– 1900), 5ft by 6¾ft, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia.

Theresa Tollemache says:
All Levitan’s majestic paintings are so evocative of the landscape I love and am so familiar with from my travels to and from linen factories in the heart of Russia. This one seems to evoke everything for me about the country in which my grandmother was born. It’s a huge canvas and, when standing in front of it, one feels the boundless expanse, the endless horizon. For me, it’s a very spiritual picture, rather melancholic, but also ethereal as it gives one the sense of hovering weightlessly above the little church like a bird in flight. From the window of the church comes the glow of a flickering candle, a reminder of how transitory human life is.

Theresa Tollemache runs Volga Linen, which she founded in 1995.

John McEwen comments on Eternal Peace:
The much missed Brian Sewell wrote: ‘What marks out Levitan’s work… is the sheer melancholy… landscape seems to have been simply a vehicle for the most absolutely tragic and convincing personal expression imaginable… this sort of universalism—this ability, as with the best of Russian literature and music, to speak out clearly across national and temporal boundaries—signals a kind of greatness.’

Isaac Levitan was born in Lithuania (then part of imperial Russia) into a poor but educated Jewish family; his father taught German and French and worked as a translator for a French building company. In 1870, the family moved to Moscow where, aged 13, Levitan entered the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.

The deaths of his mother (1875) and father (1877) left him destitute, but Levitan won a scholarship to complete his studies. It also earned him a rapid recall when Jews were temporarily banished from major cities after an assassination attempt on the Tsar.

In 1879, he met the similarly struggling Anton Chekhov, also born in 1860. The friendship deepened through the next decade when he stayed several summers with the Chekhovs in the country. On occasion, Chekhov had to ‘rescue’ the depressive Levitan ‘from his own self’, languid days hunting being one remedy. Travel opened Levitan’s eyes to the immensity of the Russian landscape: ‘Is there anything more tragic than… seeing God in everything and being unable to express these sublime emotions, aware of your powerlessness.’ he considered Eternal Peace his masterpiece: ‘In this picture all of my self, all of my psyche, all that I consist of is laid bare.’


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