REPIN, ILYA (1844–1930), Russian realist painter.
Ilya Yefimovich Repin was Russia's foremost realist painter and a pivotal figure in winning Russian realism a long-lasting recognition as the national school of art. Repin was born in 1844, before the emancipation of the serfs, into a peasant family in the village of Chuguyev, near Kharkov (now Ukraine). In 1863, after receiving some training from itinerant icon painters, he set out for St. Petersburg to attend the Imperial Academy of Arts, graduating in 1871 as a recipient of the academy's Major Gold Medal. The same year the young artist gained public attention with a canvas on a nonacademic topic, Barge Haulers on the Volga. At the time, this depiction of eleven toiling peasants—never before presented in such monumental proportions and with such serious intent—struck an original chord and a significant note. The liberal, populist-minded intelligentsia hailed the painting as an inspiring image that demonstrated the latent, renovating power of the Russian people (narod).
Repin's Barge Haulers represents a key canvas in the formation of Russian realism, much as Gustave Courbet's The Stone Breakers (1849) is considered a defining work of realism in France. In Russia, the autocratic government with its ubiquitous censorship imbued Russian realism with an intense political-moral partisanship. The agrarian character of the country and the intelligentsia's infatuation with the peasantry gave Russian realism a strong rural and antiurban bias. Finally, its goal was to instruct with content rather than to delight with color or light. These extra-painterly goals stressing content over technique underwent an evolution: the 1870s and early 1880s were marked by a liberal and open-minded outlook. But by 1890, due in part to the Russification program promoted by Alexander III, Russian realism was fashioned into a national school of painting with strong chauvinist, antiWestern overtones.
Repin's works and their reception illustrate the formation and development of Russian realism. In 1878, after a three-year Imperial Academy fellowship spent in Paris, where he much admired the art of Édouard Manet and the impressionists, Repin joined the Association of Traveling Art Exhibits. This first independent professional artists' organization in Russia, formed in 1870 to challenge the monopolistic controls exercised by the Imperial Academy, the court, and the state, favored realist art depicting the country's problems and scenes. Once part of the association, Repin easily gave up his infatuation with the advanced French art (an infatuation that could be detected in his impressionist-like painting of an outdoor family outing, On the Turf Bench, 1876) and adopted the ethos of the Wanderers (or Peredvizhniki in Russian), as members of the association were called. According to Ivan Kramskoy,
the philosopher of the group, Russian artists were not "free as birds" to paint what struck their fancy but were obliged to "serve society" by commenting on public issues.
Repin's canvases, invariably the center of attention at the association's annual exhibits, managed to combine spirited technique and great talent with some public message that was expected by the critics and the public. His portraits of individual peasants endowed that underprivileged class with character and dignity, an attitude in keeping with the preoccupations of the populist intelligentsia. His most ambitious painting in this genre, Religious Procession in Kursk Province (1880–1883), was a group portrait that depicted the post-emancipation socioeconomic differentiation in the countryside. Repin's portraits of outstanding cultural figures, many marked by rough brushwork and temperamental rendition, have given the Russians permanent images of their literary and musical giants, including Leo Tolstoy (1887), Vladimir Stasov (1883), Modest Mussorgsky (1881), Alexander Glazunov (1887), and Anton Rubinstein (1881). Repin's historical canvases often had some contemporary association, as was the case with Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan (1885), painted soon after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II and the execution of the plotters, with its emphasis on the theme of repentance and forgiveness. Repin is also remembered for commemorating the contemporary revolutionary movement, of which They Did Not Expect Him (1884–1888), depicting the unexpected return of a political exile and the mixed reception by his family, is generally recognized as a masterpiece. By modeling his composition, in part, on Rembrandt's etchings of scenes from the life of Christ, Repin elevated these topics from anecdotal storytelling to high art.
In the early 1890s, Repin's career and oeuvre lost much of their initial anti-official and political edge. He helped reform the Imperial Academy and joined it in 1893, a move seen as an apostasy by many older Wanderers but welcomed by the younger generation. In the late 1890s, Repin cooperated briefly with Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of the journal World of Art (Mir iskusstva), because at the time Repin also advocated art for art's sake and a rapprochement with the Western art scene to end the parochial isolation that prevailed in Russia. He soon quarreled, however, with Diaghilev and from 1900 became an intolerant critic of post-realist trends, branding everything that departed from strict figurative art as "decadent" and "alien" to Russian traditions. As a result, he became in the eyes of the World of Art aesthetes, as well as of the emergent avant-garde, the personification of ossified, Russophile opinions.
That reputation persisted during the 1920s, when, after the Bolshevik Revolution, the leftists dominated the Soviet artistic scene. But with the onset of Stalinization Repin's stature and reputation experienced a spectacular reversal. Beginning in 1934, with the imposition of Socialist Realism as the officially prescribed style for all the Soviet arts, the painter (who had died in obscurity in Finland four years earlier) was refashioned into a model for the politically committed and state-serving art of the Soviet Union.
Ilya Repin: Painting, Graphic Arts. Introduction by Grigory Sternin. Catalog and biographical outline by Maria Karpenko, Yelena Kirillina, Galina Pribulskaya, and Natalia Vatenina. Leningrad, 1985.
Liaskovskaya, Olga Antonovna. Ilya Efimovich Repin. 3rd ed. Moscow, 1982. A full and good biography in Russian.
Repin, Ilya Y. Dalekoe blizkoe. Edited by K. Chukovsky. Moscow, 1961. Repin's autobiography—very vivid and informative.
Valkenier, Elizabeth Kridl. Ilya Repin and the World of Russian Art. New York, 1990.
Elizabeth Kridl Valkenier