Levitan was born into a poor Jewish family in a small town in Lithuania. In 1860s his family moved to Moscow where the 13 y.o. Isaak enrolled into the Moscow College of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, and studied under the famous Russian painters Polenov and Savrasov. Elected in 1897 to the Imperial Academy of Arts, in 1898 he was already the head of the Landscape Studio at his alma mater.
The artist painted mostly landscapes which were later recognized to be among the finest masterpieces of Russian art. Levitan never looked for exotic and pretentious subjects for his paintings but remained faithful to simple poetic motifs of his native land. The natural simplicity of motif and composition of Levitan's landscapes is a hallmark of his artistic genius. It was evident from the very outset of Levitan's career that he had an extraordinary ability to awaken deep human feelings by the means of landscape painting. (artsstudio.com)
Although the artist was already famous and his canvases were in great demand among collectors such as Pavel Tretyakov, the founder of the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, Levitan didn't have his own home and lived in hotels or stayed at his friends.
Since his youth the artist suffered from mood swings and depression, Levitan shot himself twice, unsuccessfully. After a phase of depression, he would become overjoyed and extremely amorous and irresistible to women. His crushes would develop passionately, in full view, entertaining the public. Anywhere he could get down on his knees in front of a lady, compromising her in the public eye. Once he was challenged to a duel during a symphony concert due to his unruly courtship.
Levitan had also a difficult to cure heart disease. After suffering a typhoid fever in 1896 the painter's health deteriorated gravely, the treatment in Switzerland didn't help.
The artist kept thinking about approaching death. And he worked tirelessly. He painter over 1000 canvases during his lifetime.
One of his closest friends was Anton Chekhov, the Russian short-story writer and playwright. They met while both were young and maintained their friendship all their lives until Chekhov published a short story "The Grasshopper" in 1882, in which the writer allegedly pictured the relationship between Isaac Levitan, his student Sophia Kuvshynnykova and her husband Dr. Dmitry Kuvshinnikov. They stopped communicating and saw each other 7 years later, when both were sick and aloof.
After Levitan died, Sergei Diaghilev, the Chief Editor of the magazine "World of Art" asked Chekhov to write something about Levitan.