- Ilya Repin and the World of Russian ArtBy Elizabeth Kridl Valkenier
- The Russian Vision: The Art of Ilya RepinBy David Jackson
Progression of Art
Barge Haulers on the Volga
Barge Haulers on the Volga was the first painting completed by Repin after he left the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. It depicts 11 male burlaks, or haulers, dragging a barge upstream on the Volga River. The strenuous and exhausting work is evident from the posture of the figures, who are slumped over from the physical exertion. The light, warmer tones of the river and bank are in stark contrast to the dark, shadowy group of men in the centre. One figure alone stands out from the group, with his more brightly colored clothes and youthful appearance. He is also more upright than his fellow haulers, and he seems to be in the process of unburdening himself from the leather binds, perhaps in a spirit of protest, if not sheer trauma at the exploitation to which he realizes he is condemned. The viewer may also be drawn to the man immediately in front of the young boy, as the only figure who makes direct eye contact. His questioning if not accusing gaze, contrasted with the exaggerated downward angle of his body, suggests a powerful sense of combined strength and weakness - oppression and dignity.
Repin made frequent visits to the Volga to make preparatory sketches of the area, as well as the haulers themselves, creating a highly accurate portrayal of working life which was nonetheless synthetic in composition. It is an example of Repin's concern with naturalistic detail that the 11 men are not presented as anonymous, interchangeable beasts of burden, but as individuals with carefully distinguished appearances and ethnic backgrounds, a thematic conceit representing the diversity of the Russian Empire. This is an example of how Repin avoided a sentimental vision of working-class life - one that was becoming familiar from some of the work of the French Naturalist movement - instead focusing on the harrowing, multifaceted reality of the scene.
Repin's unflinching depiction of the working lives of Russian laborers brought him instant notoriety, launching his career. Far more than a tearful depiction of lower social classes - as in some earlier work of Russian Realism - the painting speaks to both the national and the universal. The viewer observes not only the mighty river running though Russia's land and the individuals who labour along its banks, but also a social message, of the pent-up force of the people, a message reminiscent of Courbet's Stonebreakers which contributes to the painting's crucial position in the history of Russian art.
Oil on canvas - Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Religious Procession in Kursk Province
Rich with detail and expansive in scope, this painting shows a procession of people following behind various religious reliquaries. The crowd, large and diverse, follows behind the primary religious icon in right foreground. The mass of people is marked by a distinct gulf between the poorer figures to the left and the more finely dressed elders, land-owners and clergymen on the right, closer to the icon itself. The lively scene is dominated by golden tones, with a subtle rendering of sunshine and collective kinetic movement. A barren hillside marked with tree stumps lies in the background.
Baked in sunlight, the scene might initially seem to offer an unambiguously joyous celebration of Russian culture and religious tradition. However, closer inspection unsettles this interpretation, revealing marks of social unrest and agitation beyond the obvious division of the scene into rich and poor. One of the peasants holding up the platform supporting the primary icon appears to be inebriated, while a disabled beggar boy struggles forward leaning heavily on his wooden stick, apparently ordered forwards by a stern superior with a cane. Meanwhile an elaborately-dressed priest, oblivious to the unfolding events around him, adjusts a lock of his hair. Thus, although the painting is ostensibly about a religious event, this aspect is not the primary focus. Like the great social commentator of an earlier generation, Breughel the Elder, Repin evacuates the nominal subject to the corner of the canvas, confronting the viewer instead with the collective reality encompassing it.
Repin's focus on the lives of ordinary people can be seen as a continuation of his oeuvre as established in earlier works such as the Barge Haulers. With Religious Procession he thus reaffirmed his reputation as a critical commentator. It reflected the current-day political order in the countryside, highlighting the abuses of both church and state, with the collective movement of people hinting at a sense of revolution in the air. The Russian Post Impressionist Igor Grabar said of the work: "[i]t presents a panorama of types and characters unequalled in any other genre canvas in the Russian school of painting."
Oil on canvas - Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
They Did Not Expect Him
This emotionally charged work (also known as Unexpected Visitors) shows a maid opening the door to a living room and lingering as she observes the response from a family gathered inside to an unexpected guest. A dishevelled, hollow-eyed visitor walks hesitantly into the room while an ageing woman dressed in black rises from her chair in reaction. Exhibiting the extraordinary attention to detail and emotional nuance typical of his oeuvre, Repin shows each character reacting individually to the event. A young woman seated at a piano halts her playing, while her and the child at the table strain to recognise the guest, their faces registering a mixture of surprise, horror, and excitement. As for the unexpected visitor, we are to believe that he is a political exile, returning half-starved to a middle-class family home after a long period of banishment in Siberia.
In compositional terms the scene is fraught with tension and ambiguity. The sunlight pouring into the room, and the use of light yellow and blue tones, creates a sense of newly kindled warmth and positivity. But this is offset by the awkward dynamic between the figures, suggestive of a once easy family dynamic riven by tragedy. One critic reportedly asked: "[d]o we witness the end of one tragedy, or the start of a new one?" Repin apparently altered the composition continuously, as well as the facial expressions and positions of the subjects, suggesting a desire to render this tension as acutely as possible. In earlier versions, the returning man reportedly represented a confident and invulnerable revolutionary, but in the final version Repin replaced political drama with personal tragedy. At the same time, he seems to underscore moral condemnation of the exile using symbolism of the crucified Christ, two beams of light intersecting at the young man's feet.
This painting was the final in a series which focused on political oppression and insurrection in Russia in the later decades of the nineteenth century. Amongst the short-term contexts for its composition was the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, following which Alexander III enacted harsh anti-terrorism laws and curbed freedom of expression. The enigmatic quality of the scene, and the mixed and by no means wholly positive reaction to the exile's return, shows Repin's finely attuned sense of the clash between political idealism and family loyalty. At the same time, the use of a compositional format which might also be found in historical genre paintings, shows him attempting to place contemporary Russian culture in a long historical trajectory. As with his other works, the realism of his art combined the everyday, political, and visceral.
Oil on canvas - Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16, 1581
The painting shows Ivan the Terrible cradling his mortally wounded son, having struck him with his sceptre in a fit of rage. The darkened interior space of the work seems saturated with a sense of horror, the deep red carpet bunched at the son's feet and overturned stool alluding to the violent events that have unfolded, while also seeming somehow to contain the tortured psychic energy which emanates from the scene. Although the younger Ivan, dressed in pale pink satin with embellished boots, occupies the true centre of the composition, it is the elder, wrapped in a contrastingly austere black robe, that generates this sense of energy. His body seems strained to its limit with panic and adrenaline, visible veins running through his sunken left temple and the tendons on both hands as he strains to support his son's body and stave the flow of blood. His The elder Ivan's face is largely hidden, but his wild stare alone conveys the chilling grief of the scene.
This large-scale canvas was more than just a depiction of a sixteenth-century historical event - it carried with it political connotations highly pertinent to the day. The subject of regicide and the closure of royal bloodlines was pertinent to a time that saw the assassination of Alexander II, with Repin himself in St. Petersburg at the time of the attack. He later remarked of the period that "[a] trail of blood ran through that year... Terrible scenes were in everybody's mind." The visceral rendering of the event - such that it seems a photographic freezeframe of an event three hundred years past - means that it transcends the historical, becoming a deeply emotive rendering of contemporary feelings of unease and crisis. The depiction of the death of a monarch at the hands of a family member, meanwhile, was implicitly subversive, perhaps implying that the Tsarist regime was on a similarly self-destructive course.
When the painting was exhibited it created a scandal, with press accounts imputing to Repin's composition an excessive emphasis on gore and bodily trauma. Nonetheless, or perhaps as a result, the work attracted crowds of such size and fervor that mounted policemen were necessary to keep order where it was exhibited, and memoirs of the time recounted that no other work of art had ever created such a commotion. Scandal met the painting again in the early twentieth century when a deranged young man took a knife to the work, and a century later, in 2018, it was again attacked by vandals. The art historian Kevin Platt discusses the implications of the first act in terms of the blurring of lines between violence in art and life, suggesting the ongoing visceral and emotional draw of the work: "[t]here is a fascinating mirroring effect in this story, where an artistic response to political life is echoed by a political response to artistic life - a conflation of the murder of people with the murder of paintings, of real blood and horror with aesthetic violence and criticism."
Oil on canvas - Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
The Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire
This painting depicts the story of the Zaporozhian Cossacks who, having defeated the forces of the Ottoman Empire in battle, are nonetheless commanded to submit to Turkish rule. Their response to this command is a letter abounding with insults and profanities. Repin captures the Cossacks mid-writing as they delight in their vulgar task, each character contributing to the overall sense of devilish energy. The bright white quill, poised over the white paper, draws the viewer's attention to the central narrative, giving pride of place to the story which the letter represents. The scene is so animated that only with further attention can the viewer observe the intricate composition of the work, the careful use of brushwork and deftly applied colour.
In preparation for the painting, Repin took several trips to the Zaporozche district to sketch the Cossacks' descendants. His meticulous artistic research included numerous preliminary studies spanning a ten-year period. As with the barge haulers from his earlier work, he gives each individual their own character, using varying color tones and expressions to distinguish each of them, enhancing the sense of fine-tuned realism by ensuring that they are presented as more than a faceless mass of warriors. Possibly the best known of his later paintings, its subject and grand scale proved popular with the Russian emperor Alexander III, who purchased the painting for 35,000 rubles, the highest price paid for a Russian painting at the time.
The work's popularity with Russia's ruling class reflects the more positive story that it seems to tell about Russian national culture and history as compared to many of Repin's canvases. The historical scene depicted, albeit one shrouded in myth, is reputedly set in 1676, following a defeat of the Ottoman forces by Cossacks based in modern-day Ukraine. The Sultan Mehmed IV nonetheless wrote demanding that the Cossacks submit to his rule. The letter apparently drafted in response had recently been 'discovered' and read out to Repin at a social gathering. In some senses, this is a work of propaganda, about the forging of the contemporaneous Russian state, with its indomitable spirit. But the painting spoke to a differently oriented, popular sympathy during the late nineteenth century for the Cossacks, who had exerted a strong regional identity and resisted Tsarist rule as well as Ottoman in the past. Beyond the scale and subject, the painting reveal's Repin's power to communicate a cause with inspiring lucidity. For the critic of Slavic languages and art Molly Brunson, "verbal content is at the heart of this picture - it is, after all, indicated by the title - and Repin attempts to communicate an even larger message about the free spirit of a people."
Oil on canvas - Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg
Leo Tolstoy in the Forest
On a visit to his friend Leo Tolstoy's home in Yasnaya Polina, in 1891, Repin sketched the writer at work and rest. Repin delighted in Tolstoy's infatuation with nature and aspiration to 'the simple life', calling him "King of the Forest". This canvas effectively reveals this aspect of Tolstoy's character, showing him stretched out under a tree, reading. It is created with a painterly exuberance somewhat removed from the more forensic, emotionally impactful realism of Repin's earlier genre canvases. The composition is suffused with dappled light that envelops the reclining figure as well as the trees, grass, and flowers surrounding him.
Repin and Tolstoy differed on many intellectual matters, but they found common ground in pastimes. The two companions would take walks in the woods, ride horseback, and go swimming. In this sense, the portrait is infused with the affection which Repin clearly felt for his literary peer. In formal terms, the portrait is a clear example of Repin's use of plein-air technique - sketching outside in direct response to subject-matter - indebted to the French Impressionists whose influence he had imbibed in Paris during the 1870s. By showing a writer engaging with the written word amidst the beauty of nature, the portrait also alludes to the concept of the paragone: the struggle of the painter against other art forms to best represent the natural world.
The informality and simplicity of the scene were apparently not to the liking of Countess Tolstoy - nor were press reactions uniformly positive. When the picture was shown in 1891, one critic likened it to a depiction of a "damsel on the grass", alluding to the subtly romantic energy of the composition. Nonetheless, the portrait is an important work, showing a lesser-known facet of Repin's artistic repertoire. Although he became famous as Russia's foremost Realist painter, noted for the strong social messages of his work, this painting suggests the depth of his engagement with the dynamics of personal relationships and affection, while also betraying his desire, despite the vocal pride he took in his peasant stock, for acceptance amongst the liberal Russian intelligentsia.
Oil on canvas - Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Ceremonial Sitting of the State Council on 7 May 1901 Marking the Centenary of its Foundation
This monumental canvas depicts Tsar Nicholas II with his honorific advisory body, composed of top officials and outstanding citizens, gathered in the Round Room of the Mariinksy Palace in St. Petersburg. All members of the State Council and State Chancellery are shown in full-dress uniform and the Tsar, as well as senior members of the Imperial family, are flanked by their ministers. The gravitas of the scene is emphasized not just by the sheer scale of the piece, but also by the ornate Neoclassical detail of the interior, suggesting a body of might and historical significance. Chandeliers and full-length portraits hang on the walls, with rich red fabric covering almost every surface, all colluding to remind the viewer of the grandeur of state. What is also remarkable is the detail and careful construction of the composition, a group portrait containing over 60 individual characters.
The painting indicates Repin's official position during the final years of the Russian empire - before his inadvertent exile in Finland following the 1917 Revolution - as one of the State's foremost painters. The Tsar and his council naturally turned to Repin when commissioning this commemorative anniversary piece and he keenly accepted, illustrating an erosion of the tension between official and independent art which had followed the waning of the Peredvizhniki movement during the reign of Alexander III. His alacrity also indicates the complexities in Repin's own political positions and personal ambitions: he remained critical of the Tsarist regime during the 1900s and notably welcomed the revolution from his home in Finland. Nonetheless, he was clearly willing to accept the institutional prestige that the work conferred on him. Indeed, such was his stature by this point that he was not only able to attend council meetings to create preliminary sketches - refusing to work from photographs for the main figures - but could request as many sittings as he required, often repainting individuals several times.
Repin was naïve in believing - as he did - that the commission presented an opportunity to portray a complex and critical image of state power. In the end an impressive yet objective rendering was achieved, with no clear judgement passed on what the Tsarist regime was doing with the power it held. This serves as a sobering reminder of the conflict of interests between artistic creativity and political propaganda, a lesson that would be driven home during the fallow decades of Soviet Realism (a movement ironically inspired by Repin). Nonetheless, more than anything else, this canvas is a testament to Repin's technical skill, still evident at the age of 60. He overcame the considerable compositional challenge of placing over 60 figures in a round hall, so as to give the viewer a wholly realistic perspective, whilst still capturing something of the individual characters depicted. It is a sad postscript that soon after creating this painting, Repin's work showed a notable decline, owing to the shrivelling of his right hand.
Oil on canvas - Russian Museum, St. Petersburg