Repin, Ilya Efimovich

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Ilya Efimovich Repin

The greatest Russian painter of the nineteenth century and the pre-Revolution years, Ilya Repin (1844-1930) painted religious allegories, scenes of searing realism, and portraits of the Russian intelligentsia of the period. Widely admired in his time, Repin's work continued to captivate viewers in the twenty-first century.

Ilya Efimovich Repin was born on July 24, 1844 (August 5, New Style) in the village of Chuguiev, about 45 miles southeast of Kharkov, the second largest city (after Kiev) in Ukraine. Repin's father belonged to the lowly class of peasants known as "military settlers," thus Repin himself was registered as such upon his birth. Since Repin's father, Efim Vasileyvich, did not retire from the army until the early 1850s, Repin's mother, Tatiana Stepanovna, was responsible for Repin's education and that of his older sister, his younger brothers, and some neighborhood children. Tragedy was never far from Repin's family: his sister and one of his brothers died at ages 15 and 10, respectively. On the other hand, Repin's other brother, Vasily, became a respected flutist in St. Petersburg.

In 1855 Repin entered the School of Military Topography in Chuguiev. He had already exhibited artistic talent in painting, drawing and sculpting, and had in fact sold decorated Easter eggs for one and a half rubles to a local merchant. Here he learned drafting and coloring. After the school closed down in 1857 Repin went to study with a local icon painter, Ivan Bunakov. Repin proved such an adept icon painter that he left Bunakov in 1859 to strike out on his own. Repin was able to do this because he had never been Bunakov's apprentice and by age 15 he was already something of a master. Over the next four years Repin accepted commissions from various provincial churches to paint icons and other decorative work. During this time he also painted a self-portrait and portraits of his relatives.

Traveled to St. Petersburg

By 1863 Repin had earned enough money to move to St. Petersburg. That same year he enrolled in the Drawing School for the Society of the Encouragement of Artists so as to meet the requirements of the Imperial Academy of Arts. In January 1864 he passed the drawing examination and began auditing lectures at the Academy while he still attended the Drawing School. Repin was soon befriended by his drawing teacher, Ivan Kramskoi, who was to play a role in shaping Repin's early artistic views. Kramskoi was the founder of Artel, an association of artists that Repin regularly attended. In addition, Repin often sought Kramskoi's advice and approval.

By early September 1864 Repin had passed his general examinations for the Imperial Academy and began matriculating there as a student. In May 1865 the academic council awarded the Minor Silver Medal to Repin. This was the first step in a series that culminated in the Major Gold Medal, which included a stipend to study abroad. The Minor Silver Medal, however, bestowed on Repin the title of "free artist." In November 1865 Repin's work was displayed for the first time at the Imperial Academy of the Arts' annual exhibition: a portrait of a woman and the oil painting Preparing for Examinations. Repin's next prize, the Major Silver Medal, came in December 1867. In 1869 Repin was awarded the Minor Gold Medal for Job and His Friends.

In 1870 Repin, along with his brother Vasily and some friends, spent three months in the Volga River region. Out of this vacation came one of Repin's greatest works, Barge Haulers on the Volga, for which he made studies by the town of Shariayev Buyerak, near Stavropol. By March 1871 Repin submitted a preliminary sketch of "Barge Haulers" to the annual competition of the Society for the Support of Artists. The sketch won first prize. The finished canvas was exhibited in 1873 at the Imperial Academy's exhibition of works to represent Russia at the Vienna International Exhibit. That "Barge Haulers" was chosen as a representative painting was in itself a major accomplishment, because at that time Realism was considered a secondary genre in Russian art. While the conservatives in the Russian art and literary world assailed the painting—though Dostoevsky praised it—it nevertheless gained Repin valued publicity. He would later come to view Barge Haulers on the Volga as his first professional painting. It remained one of his greatest.

By the time he exhibited Barge Haulers on the Volga Repin had already received the Major Gold Medal, in November 1871, for his painting, Christ Raising Jarius' Daughter. In February 1872 Repin married 17-year-old Vera Shevtsova. That spring he and his wife traveled to Moscow.

Sojourn in Paris

Following the initial showing of Barge Haulers on the Volga at the Imperial Academy Repin was given a travel scholarship, and he used it to take his family first to Vienna to see the International Exhibition, where "Barge Haulers" was awarded a bronze medal, then on to Rome and Naples. Repin stayed in Italy from June to September 1873. In October 1873 he went to Paris, where he rented a studio in Montmartre. Repin spent nearly three years in Paris, and probably the most important person he met during his time abroad was the Russian millionaire art patron Savva Mamontov. At this time however Mamontov had not yet set up his artists' colony in the Moscow suburb of Abramtsevo.

Meanwhile back in St. Petersburg Repin caused a stir when he exhibited his work at an exhibition of the Society for Traveling Art Exhibitions in January 1874. Being on a travel scholarship, he was forbidden to exhibit in any but Academy-organized shows. Nevertheless, his scholarship was not revoked. In Paris he worked on Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom, which he began in 1873 and did not compete until 1876. He exhibited A Paris Café at the Salon. He also painted writer Ivan Turgenev's portrait as well as those of others. His immediate circle of Russian expatriates at this time included Turgenev, Alexei Tolstoy, Vasily Polenov, Konstantin Savitsky, and Valentina Serova. His French acquaintances included Camille Saint-Saëns and Emile Zola.

Repin returned to St. Petersburg in July 1876. He completed Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom, and in November 1876 was awarded the title of Academician for the painting. In 1878 Repin joined the Society for Traveling Art Exhibitions, with whom he displayed his work that March. At the end of the year he began work on Tsarevna Sophia in the New Maiden Convent at the Time of the Execution of the Streltsi and the Torture of All Her Servants in 1698. The painting was displayed, along with a second portrait of Turgenev, in February 1879. At the time Kramskoi called it Repin's second most important work after "Barge Haulers." Repin spent the summer of 1879 at Mamentov's estate, Abramtsevo. There he painted landscapes and drew portraits of Mamentov, his family, and their guests. Repin also painted scenes of peasant life including The Peasant with the Evil Eye and The Timid Peasant (both 1877), and Seeing Off the Recruit (1879). From September 1877 until September 1882 Repin lived and worked primarily in Moscow or its suburb of Abramtsevo.

A Darling of the Intelligentsia

The 1880s was an explosive decade for Russian art. Art criticism was coming into its own, as more journals were published, by the end of the decade Fëdor Bulgakov had published the first reference work on modern Russian painters, Our Artists. All of this contributed to a wider appreciation in Russia. This was also the period when Repin gained fame beyond the Imperial Academy, when he was accepted by the intelligentsia (the class of intellectuals and artists) and others. In 1880, as if to signal this sea of change, no less a personage than Lev Tolstoy visited Repin at his studio. It was also the year Repin began work on Zaporozhe Cossacks Writing a Mocking Letter to the Turkish Sultan, though it would be many years before he completed this masterpiece.

In 1881, the same year that Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, Repin painted composer Modest Mussorgsky's portrait while the latter was at the Nikolaevsky Hospital. Later that year Repin began making studies for Religious Procession in the Province of Kursk, which he displayed in 1882 in St. Petersburg. Early in 1882, before returning with his family to St. Petersburg, Repin painted a portrait of poet Afanasy Fet.

Repin made another trip to Western Europe-Germany, the Netherlands, France, Spain, and Italy-in the spring of 1883 where he was struck by the paintings of Velázquez and Titian, but unimpressed by the Rembrandts he saw. He returned to Italy in 1887. His most important work of this period was Ivan the Terrible and His Son, Ivan. 16 November 1581, displayed in March 1885. After the family's return to St. Petersburg from Moscow, Repin's already tenuous marriage (strained by his infidelity) fell apart completely. Repin and his wife were separated in 1884, though a brief reconciliation was effected in the 1890s.

In March 1891 Repin resigned from the Society for Traveling Art Exhibitions because of the Society's new policy that restricted young artists from joining. The following month he finished a portrait of the Italian actress Eleonora Duse. In the summer he returned to Moscow and Abramtsevo and later visited Tolstoy at his estate, Yasnaya Poliana. In November 1891, 298 of his works were shown in a dual exhibition with Ivan Shishkin. Among Repin's paintings was the finally completed Zaporozhe Cossacks Writing a Mocking Letter to the Turkish Sultan. In 1892 a one-man show of his work was exhibited at Moscow's History Museum. In 1894 Repin was appointed an instructor at the Higher Art School, which was attached to the Imperial Academy.

In February 1896 Repin was back in Moscow for the coronation of Nicholas II; he did two compositions for the Coronation Album. In August 1896 he exhibited St. Nicholas of Myra Delivers the Three Innocent Men at the All-Russian Exhibition at Nizhny-Novgorod. In February 1897 Repin rejoined the Society for Traveling Art Exhibitions. That same month Tolstoy visited his studio again; Repin repaid the visit the following January.

In May 1899 Repin bought an estate at Kuokkala, near St. Petersburg. Repin named the estate Penaty after the Roman household gods, the Penates. At this time Repin's companion was Natalia Borisovna Nordman (1863-1914), who was thought to have exerted a malignant influence over his aesthetic views. At any rate Repin divided his time between Penaty and St. Petersburg, and after he resigned from the Academy in 1907 lived full time at Penaty until his death. Late in 1899 Repin met writer Maxim Gorky (original name Alexei Peshkov), in December 1899. He later illustrated Gorky's The Notch as well as Anton Chekhov's The Peasants.

Later Years

At this time accolades, both foreign and domestic, were bestowed on Repin. In January 1901 he received the Legion of Honor from France and in 1902 he was elected a member of the Academy of Sciences, Literature, and Fine Arts in Prague. In 1904 Repin was elected an honorary member of the Moscow Literary and Artistic Society. In November 1905, perhaps moved by the political events of that year, Repin resigned from the Imperial Academy of Arts, but he had second thoughts in 1906 and was again teaching a class at the Academy. He resigned for good in September 1907. One effect of resigning from the Academy was that Repin had more time to devote not only to his painting but to writing. In 1909 he wrote an article commemorating the 100th anniversary of the writer Nikolai Gogol. In 1910 Repin wrote two articles–"The Izdebsky Salon" and "In the Caves of the Python"–that were highly critical of modern art. After the death of Nordman, however, Repin softened his stance on modern art. In 1912 Repin turned down the first prize and accompanying medal awarded by the Kuinji Society for Pushkin on the Lyceum Speech Day, 8 January 1815 because he no longer believed creative work should be judged in terms of prizes.

Repin spent the years of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, 1914 to 1918 at Penaty. A few months prior to the war's outbreak he was visited by opera singer Fëdor Chaliapin and painted his portrait. In 1916 Repin published his memoirs, Far and Near. He also painted Gorky's portrait. In 1917 the region where Penaty was located, known as Karelia, became part of Finland and for the rest of his life Repin lived in a "foreign" country. (In 1940, after a brief war, the region reverted to the USSR.) Since the border between Finland and the USSR was closed in 1918, during the Russian Civil War, Repin never returned to Russia, though in his last years Repin maintained close ties with the Finnish artistic community. He donated his collection of Russian paintings to the Ateneumin taidemuseo in Helsinki and even painted artist Axel Gallen-Kallela's portrait. In 1921 he painted his last major work, Golgotha (also known as "Cavalry"), though he continued to paint until the end of his life, including a self-portrait. In the 1920s his name and reputation became embroiled in the culture war then raging between the Futurists and those who advocated an aesthetic that eventually became Socialist Realism. Many advocates of the latter movement came to view Repin's work as its precursor. Despite that, the Soviet government never bestowed on him the title of "People's Artist." Ilya Repin died on September 29, 1930 and was buried at the Penaty.


Great Soviet Encyclopedia, trans. of Third Ed., Macmillan, 1979.

Karpenko, Maria, et al., Ilya Repin, trans. by Sheila Marnie and Helen Clier, Aurora Art Publishers, 1985.

Valkenier, Elizabeth Kridl, Ilya Repin and the World of Russian Art, Columbia University Press, 1990.