National Gallery brings Tolstoy's landscapes to Britain

Paintings of the sublime Caucasus landscape that inspired Leo Tolstoy to quit his dissolute city life and become a writer are to be put on show at the National Gallery in London in the biggest Russian exhibition to be staged in the UK.

"Russian Landscape in the Age of Tolstoy" features 70 works by 15 artists, dating from 1820 to the 20th century. Many are being shown outside Russia for the first time. Three rooms in the Sainsbury Wing will be devoted to the master painters - including Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin, Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi, Grigori Soroka and Isaak Il'ich Levitan - with many works captioned with quotes from Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov.

Tolstoy was inspired to write his 1861 novel The Cossacks after travelling in the Caucasus with his brother Nicolas, who had persuaded the young count to leave behind his debauched life in St Petersburg.

One painting in the exhibition, Morning in the Dniepr by Kuindzhi, depicts the meadow scene that captured Tolstoy's imagination. In his diary, Tolstoy wrote: "Wonderful walk across the fields. Came back home and was seized with the desire to write The Cossacks. There are sources of joy that never dry up; the beauty of nature, animals and human beings which is never absent."

Chekhov praised one of the works in the exhibition, Quiet Haven by Levitan, in his short story "Three Years". And in a poetic scene from his short story "The Steppe", Chekhov wrote of the scenery that has been linked to the 19th-century landscape artists.

He wrote: "A wild and boundless plain encircled by a chain of low hills lay stretched before the villagers' eyes. Huddled together and peeping out from behind one another, these hills melted together into rising ground, which stretched right to the horizon and disappeared into the lilac distance."

He was known to be heavily influenced by the artist and the men followed each other's artistic development. Levitan stayed with Chekhov often and there are many references to the painter in the playwright's work. It is believed he is the basis for one of the characters in The Seagull.

Christopher Riopelle, the curator of the show, which opens on 23 June, said landscape played a central role in the Russian imagination.

"In the age of Tolstoy, the landscape simply dominated the lives of most Russians," he said. "Tolstoy is a representative figure of the age and he is one writer whose descriptions of landscapes in many of his novels can be extremely important," he added.

Images range from idyllic meadows and groves to Levitan's obliquely political painting of The Vladimirka Road, which marked the path walked by people exiled to Siberia.