Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin (Ива́н Ива́нович Ши́шкин) was born in Yelabuga, in central Russia near the Volga in 1832. His father was a free-thinking merchant who encouraged exploration of the world and supported young Ivan in his artistic studies. Ivan became part of “the itinerants” a group of artists who chose to ignore the rigid rules of European art and doggedly pursue their own interests and subjects. For Ivan this was the magnificent forests of Russia which he painted in all of their splendor with stupendously adroit realism. He surely ranks as one of the greatest forest painters of all time. Each of his canvases presents a living forest as its own world. Every tree is as distinct as a person and they are joined as a thriving whole within a larger ecosystem of plants, fungi, and living things.
Here are three of Ivan’s astonishing paintings. The viewer can feel how each forest has a completely different character and mood. The open meadows around the great oaks in the first painting are as different as possible from the brown stream running out of the firs…which is again as different as can be from the dark pine wood filled with woodears and mosses.
Yet, though they are different, each of his forests is a beautiful and sacred place—a transcendent slice of nature. Ivan’s work is not as famous as it should be because he chose to take it directly to the Russian people rather than selling it to aristocrats or Europeans (an attitude which was part of the itinerant philosophy). However his travels through rural Russia kept his mission pure and kept him close to his true love—the Russian woods. Thanks to his life beyond the limelight we can now travel these erstwhile greenwoods by means of art and learn to see the breathtaking majesty of the forest.