30/3/2015 - 12:00 am

Echo of the Past: Art of the Realist Painter of the 19th Century Ilya Repin

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"My guiding principle in painting is: matter as matter. I don’t care about paints, brush strokes or the virtuosity of the brush. I have always pursued the essence: the body as a body”.
I.E. Repin

The name of Repin is known to everyone in the world of art. Ilya Repin was a remarkable painter who lived through the reigns of both Tsar Nicholas II and Tsar Alexander III, before experiencing the chaos of 1917, when the Bolsheviks came to power, initiating vast changes in the political landscape.

Repin is known primarily as a portraitist and as a master of domestic and historical painting. But the portrait was Repin’s principle genre and the focus of his creativity. Repin was born on July 25 in 1844 to a military family, who settled in the Kharkov province. He received his first training from the local icon painters. If you take a look at Repin’s biography, it is clear that he not only possessed a natural talent for painting but was extremely devoted to art as a personal life mission. Repin was ultimately educated at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. He studied at the Drawing School of the Society for the Encouragement of Artists. His masterpieces, "Barge Haulers on the Volga", "Unexpected Return", "Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan", "Religious Procession in Kursk Province" are known throughout the world. 

Barge Haulers on the Volga

Unexpected Return

Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan

Religious Procession in Kursk Province

Repin had the rare ability to feel and transmit the common life of the masses and crowds, while never losing sight of the individual identity of each person in his portraits. Looking at the painting, "Barge Haulers on the Volga”, you feel not only a sympathy with the oppressed serfs of the period but also an optimism in their strength and a faith in their ability to struggle against exploitation. Each figure is endowed with individual characteristics yet is also a part of a generalized picture of the period, a picture which displays intense social contradictions in that the commoners are shown as a political force. 

When Repin depicted the privileged classes of nineteenth-century society—landlords, merchants, priests—he did so with a notable spirit of socio-critical irony. It is in his images of common people, of the poor, of migrants that the artist gives us his humanist vision of the moral superiority of the masses and even of their delusions. Repin masterfully displays the common emotional experiences of grief, joy, surprise. He contrasts the false piety of the well-to-do with the deep sincerity and blind hope of the disadvantaged to break through the world of oppression and injustice. 
In the painting, "Unexpected Return", the artist reflects a range of psychological reactions to an event—surprise, disbelief, joy. Here, of course, the silent dialogue between a mother and the son who has returned from exile dominates the picture. The hero of the piece is not waiting for compassion or forgiveness but, rather, for his family’s understanding that he was forced to leave home as a necessary sacrifice and an obligation in his duty to the common people. Repin’s presentation of the family’s recognition of their father/brother/son’s civic heroism thus has a broad and universal significance. 

At the turn of the century the artist painted portraits of most prominent Russian cultural figures, social thinkers and scientists. Because of this, today we can admire his representations of the writers, Tolstoy, Gogol, L. N. Andreev, A. F. Pysemsky, the composers Mussorgsky and Rubinstein, as well as the painter Surikov and the scientist Mendeleev. Repin possessed a unique talent, which involved a compositional ingenuity that enabled him to reflect the manners, posture, and temperament of the individuals he represented.


Repin traveled a great deal, finally settling in Kuokkala, Finland in 1900 and establishing the “Penates” Manor as his residence. He passed away there in September 29, 1930. But we still have his paintings, which reflect not merely the real world but the worlds emerging from his own imagination and from the hearts and minds of millions. Through these works, he continues a dialogue with future generations. 



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