THE PAINTINGS OF ILYA REPIN – CAPTURING HISTORY AND HEARTS SINCE 1870

To put it simply, 19th century Russian realist painter Ilya Repin single-handedly put Russia on the art map of Europe and the world in general. Such was his ability to capture significant moments in history that even the Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich and Alexander III were impressed on occasions (don’t worry you’ll get to witness the ‘occasions’ soon! Stick around.) However his expertise was not limited to history but spread to mythology as well (as will be depicted in a painting below).

Notably, according to WikiArt,

"Even though as an art student the Peredvizhniki Master’s travels took him to Italy, Paris and Impressionist Exhibitions, and although he was exposed to the vivid colors and quick brush strokes of the impressionist style, he remained true to his unique form of realism."

If any doubt persists as to his ‘unique’ form, the following set of 8 paintings will put to rest further debates on the topic.


1. Ivan The Terrible And His Son Ivan

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This painting depicts the historical 16th century story of Ivan the Terrible mortally wounding his son Ivan in a fit of rage. The Emperor’s face is fraught with terror, as his son lies quietly dying in his arms, blood dripping down the side of his face, a single tear on his cheek. The murder weapon – a staff – lies in the foreground, just beside the uplifted portion of the carpet which is indicative of its hidden location. From the fallen chair in the background with the pillow at its feet one can deduce that the King was resting just before this encounter. Interestingly though the fallen chair is consistent with the notion of the Tsar’s loss of throne. Even more interestingly history seems to suggest that this indeed was the case as a (indirect) result of this incident.


2. Barge Haulers On The Volga

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So brilliant is this painting’s depiction of 11 labouring men dragging a barge on the Volga River that despite being a criticism of people in Russian society who sanctioned such inhumane labour even the Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich was taken by it and exhibited it widely throughout Europe. Irrespective of their stoical attitude the hanging heads of the labourers’ portrays a grim picture. It is as if Russian society itself is hanging its head in shame. The upturned Russian flag on the barge seems to support this deduction.


3. Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire

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It so happened that the Cossacks of the Zaporozhian Host (from 'beyond the rapids', Ukrainian: za porohamy), had defeated the Ottoman Turkish forces in battle. However, Mehmed IV demanded that they surrender to Turkish rule. The Cossacks, led by Ivan Sirko, replied in an uncharacteristic manner: they wrote a letter, replete with insults and profanities. The painting exhibits the Cossacks' pleasure at striving to come up with ever more base vulgarities. Started in 1880 Repin could finish it only in 1891, recording the years of work along the lower edge of the canvas. Upon finishing Alexander III bought it for 35,000 rubles, at the time the greatest sum ever paid for a Russian painting.


4. Krestny Khod (Religious Procession) In Kursk Gubernia (Province)

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The painting under consideration is a continuation of the artist's social commentary in his work and highlights perceived abuses by both church and state. While the seemingly apparent carrying of the icon of Our Lady of Kursk by a drunk man and the carefree attitude of the yellow-haired (anything-but-holy looking figure of a) priest, dressed in golden are proofs of the former, the attempt to discipline the peasants by the Cossack militia on horseback – with one wielding his whip (visible on the right side) and another turned backwards to control the crowd (visible at the back) is evidence of the latter. Meanwhile it is a pity that the hunchbacked boy, the only person who’s truly interested in the proceedings (as evidenced by his resolute move forward) is being prevented from doing so by a man (who in turn is part of a human chain of peasants entrusted to do these tasks only), perhaps his father, his whip casting a (symbolic) shadow in the sand that divides him from the religious icon.


5. Sadko

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The title is a reference to the Novgorodian adventurer, merchant and gusli musician from the medieval Russian epic Bylina. The painting depicts the bride-choosing ceremony which Sadko participated on being prodded by the Sea Tsar. In this respect it is also clear from their respective robes that the man on the right is the Sea Tsar whereas the person looking from above is Sadko. Further the dress of the mermaid (or rather the lack of it!) at the forefront as compared to the others behind her indicates her low social status. However her position at one end of the line leads to the probable deduction that it’s she who will be Sadko’s future wife, in keeping with the tale. Lastly in keeping with fairy-tales and legends worldwide Repin manages to highlight that in choosing his bride, Sadko shuns fortune (as indicated by the light emitted by the golden dresses in the background).


6. Choosing A Bride For The Grand Duke

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The various hats on display are suggestive of distinct social ranks. The red plumes on the woman’s hat behind the Duke are indicative of the highest of them all. Most certainly it’s the Duke’s mother. Meanwhile, the near identical dresses of the two women on the right give away the fact that they are sisters. Lastly, unlike the woman on the left who seems to be brimming with confidence (as indicated by her gaze) the one beside her seems to be of a shy disposition (what with her head down). It is for this reason that her father seems to be prodding her to lift her head. However the woman beside her in the pink gown doesn’t seem to need any help of that sort. Her head’s high yet there’s no eye contact with the Duke. Seems like she’s been through this stuff before!


7. Unexpected Visitors

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The room portrayed in the picture was the artist’s living room in his country house. As models for the female characters, he used his wife, mother-in-law, and his daughter. Quite remarkably after 4 tries Repin got the proper expression of the face of the young man (a political exile who unexpectedly came back home). As for the others it is quite evident that amongst the children, the boy is the most delighted at seeing his father (a probable assumption) back. The girl beside him is more sort of shocked at the sight as if she’s staring at a ghost! Meanwhile, the girl at the piano seems equally perplexed but shows her emotion via her open mouth. However, the eldest of them displays signs of maturity by getting up to greet the man. It is generally believed that by depicting these various reactions of the young man’s household Repin tried to show diverse but mostly positive attitude of society toward revolutionary movements of that time. Actually, under strict censorship of Czarist Russia, it was a political declaration disguised as an everyday genre scene.


8. Manifestation of October 17, 1905

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Even though the title of the painting is a reference to the October Manifesto issued by Emperor Nicholas II – as a response to the Russian Revolution of 1905 in the aftermath of the Bloody Sunday – on 30 October, 1905 both the title and the banner in the picture shows the date to be ‘17’ instead of ‘30’ in keeping with the Old Style. It is clear from the picture that the issuance of this order brought cheer amongst the general public, with even one couple deciding to get married on that day itself. The anchor on the groom’s (the person who’s been lifted) hand and the uniforms of his friends indicate that they are seamen. Meanwhile a hard look at the picture indicates that at least two people (one with the beard and the specs on the left and the one in the red uniform on the extreme right) despite hitting the streets have not joined in the celebrations. It can be inferred that they are Marxists because it were they who had maintained that by bringing in the Manifesto the Emperor had only made small concessions, arguing that the Duma ( a legislative body to be introduced – one of the main points of the Order – to limit the power of the Autocrat in favor of the Russian people) was only a shell of democracy as it could not pass laws without his approval and that freedom of speech (another implication of the Order) was going to be heavily regulated. History did seem to prove the Marxists right as the immediate success of the Manifesto was followed by its long-term failure.

So then that’s all for today. Hope you guys liked it. But remember this is just a brief sample of the artist’s vast domain that I’ve put forward to you. Search the web for his other works. And do come back to us if you don’t get the context of some paintings and want us to interpret them. Also some of you may not agree fully/partly (or have different views) with respect to the above given interpretations. Don’t hesitate to comment about them in the comments section below. Keep us posted.


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