Some great painters, such as John Sargent and Anders Zorn, did their most memorable work when they were face-to-face with their motif. Nature is so rich in her inspiration, it's reasonable to ask: how can anyone improve on a plein-air painting?
Isaac Levitan (1860-1900) painted this perfectly competent study on location. It shows a log bridge at the end of a millpond. It is well observed and executed. But it leaves no impression on the imagination.
Back in the studio he refined the image and transformed it into poetry.
He simplified the background row of trees and added a ragged patch of evening clouds. He eliminated the floating log and developed the row of timbers in the lower left. He brought more attention to the uncertain footpath leading from the foreground plank across the three logs to the thin distant trail.
The image suddenly takes on a new interest, not because it is more finished, but because it is better composed. By sifting his direct impressions through the filter of memory and imagination, his work touches the emotions. We stand at the crossing point between our frail human pathway and the downward journey of the falling water, as the sunset prepares to cast us into darkness.
By the Millpond (1892) is one of Levitan’s most beloved works, and it is one of the touchstones of the Russian landscape tradition.