“Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is.” - Jackson Pollock
Ilya Efimovich Repin was born in 1844 in the small Ukrainian town of Tchuguev to the family of a military settler. As a boy he was trained as a traditional religious icon painter. At the age of 19 he entered the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts. His arrival in the capital coincided with an important event in artistic life of the 1860s, the so-called “Rebellion of the Fourteen”, when 14 young artists left the Academy after refusing to use mythological subjects for their diploma works. They insisted that art should be close to real life and formed the Society of the Peredvizhniki to promote their own aesthetic ideals. Later, Repin would be become a close friend and associate of some of them.
For his diploma work “Raising of Jairus’ Daughter” (1871) Repin was awarded the Major Gold Medal and received a scholarship for studies abroad. “Barge Haulers on the Volga” (1870-1873) was the first major work painted by Repin after graduation. It was well-accepted and immediately ensured the artist gained recognition. In 1873, Repin went abroad, travelling through Italy for some months, and then settling and working in Paris until 1876. It was in Paris that he attended the first exhibition of the Impressionists, but, judging by the works he painted during the period and by his letters home, he was not enthused by this new Paris school of painting, though he didn't share the opinion of some of his countrymen who saw a dangerous departure from “the truth of life” in Impressionism.
After returning to Russia, Repin settled in Moscow. He was a frequent visitor to Abramtsevo, the country estate of Savva Mamontov, one of the most famous Russian patrons of the arts of the late 19th Century. It was a very fruitful period in his creative career. Over the next 10-12 years Repin created the majority of his famous paintings. In 1877, he started to paint religious processions , for example his monumental “Krestny Khod (Religious Procession) in Kursk Gubernia” (1880-1883). The composition was based on the dramatic effect of the different social statuses and attitudes of the participants of the procession, all united by the miracle-working icon carried at the head. Repin painted two different versions of the same picture. The second one, completed in 1883, became the more popular.
A series of paintings devoted to revolutionary and social themes deserves special attention. The artist was no doubt interested in exploring social justice movements and how the individual confronted the machinery of the state. The range of social, spiritual and psychological problems that attracted Repin is revealed in his works “Unexpected Return” (1884), which depicts the father of a household returning from prison, and “Refusal of Confession” (1879-1885), which shows a dying man refusing a deacon’s offer of last rites.
Repin painted many portraits, which are an essential part of his artistic legacy. He never painted just faces, as many portraitists of the period tended to; he painted people fully, managing to show his models in their natural environment, revealing their personality and way of communicating with the world. “Portrait of the Composer Modest Musorgsky” (1881), “Portrait of the Surgeon Nikolay Pirogov” (1881), “Portrait of the Author Alexey Pisemsky” (1880), “Portrait of the Poet Afanasy Fet” (1882), “Portrait of the Art Critic Vladimir Stasov” (1883), and “Portrait of Leo Tolstoy” (1887) and many others are distinguished by their power as well as the economy and sharpness of execution.
Repin rarely painted historical paintings. The most popular in this genre is “Ivan the Terrible and his son Ivan” (1895). The expressive, intense composition and psychological insight in rendering the characters produced an unforgettable impression on the spectators. Another popular work of the genre is “The Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mahmoud IV” (1880-1891). The faithfully rendered spirit of the Zaporozhian freemen, who, according to the artist, had a particularly strong sense of “liberty, equality and fraternity” undoubtedly gives the picture its power. The contemporaries saw it as a symbol of the Russian people throwing off their chains.
The last quarter of the 19th century is the most notable period in Repin’s work, though he continued to work well into the 20th century (the artist died in 1930). He did not paint any masterpieces in the latter years of his life. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, he lived and worked in his estate Penates in Finland, where there is a Repin museum today.
The “Song of the Volga Boatmen” (known in Russian as Эй, ухнем! [Ey, ukhnem!, “Yo, heave-ho!"], after the refrain) is a well-known traditional Russian song collected by Mily Balakirev, and published in his book of folk songs in 1866. It is a genuine shanty sung by burlaks, or barge-haulers, on the Volga River. Balakirev published it with only one verse (the first). The other two verses were added at a later date (the song is below, sung by famed Russian bass singer Leonid Kharitinov and the Red Army Choir). Ilya Repin’s famous painting, above “Barge Haulers on the Volga”, depicts such burlaks in Tsarist Russia toiling along the Volga. It is an early painting which already shows the artist’s mastery of drawing and colour, perspective and composition, as well as the capturing the essence of light that characterizes many of Repin’s works. It also suggests the sense of social justice that the artist would champion in his paintings later in his career.
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