From 5 October 2021 to 23 January 2022, the Petit Palais presents the first French retrospective dedicated to Ilya Repin, one of the greats of Russian art: Ilya Répine (1844-1930) – Painting the soul of Russia. Just find out on this featured exhibition!
The Creative World Of Repin
Ilya Repin enjoyed more fame and recognition during his lifetime than any other Russian artist born in the nineteenth century. Repin’s position in the world of pictorial art was comparable to that of Leo Tolstoy in the world of letters. For twenty-five years, every new picture by Repin was awaited with bated breath, and the publication of his essays, especially those written at the turn of the century, always caused a stir in the cultural life of the country.
Acutely aware of the social problems of his day and in tune with the restless spirit of the times, Repin produced works that contained all the essential features of late-nineteenth-century Russian realism and it was in part thanks to him that Russian art came to play a significant role in European culture. Even early on in his career, the artist’s pictures attracted the attention of critics at international exhibitions. They recognized in his work the beginnings of a creative search which was to enrich the general development of critical realism in European art. When Repin produced his first independent works, it became clear that a form of art was taking root in Russia which was imbued with civic feeling and akin to the work of such major realists as Courbet in France, Menzel in Germany, and Munkacsy in Hungary.
The creative world of Repin possessed a special spiritual integrity, which existed not despite of, but because of the diversity of the artist’s creative goals and the breadth of his grasp of reality. This integrity was inseparably bound up with the general character of Russian artistic culture in the second half of the nineteenth century striving to realise its social and historical mission. As is the case with many great masters, Repin had certain favourite subjects, motifs and images, and a limited circle of people whose portraits he especially liked to paint. But the deep sense of purpose in his aesthetics went further than this, for he possessed first and foremost the great artistic gift to sense the spirit of the age and to see the way in which this spirit was reflected in the lives and characters of individuals. It does not particularly flatter the artist to say that the figures in his canvases and portraits belong to their time; the same could be said regarding the work of any of his contemporaries, even the mediocre ones. The figures in Repin’s paintings and drawings are the historical reality, with all its hopes and suffering, its spiritual energy and its painful contradictions.
“As in life” is an expression often used to describe the distinctive quality of Repin’s work. This expression does indeed reflect the essential principles of tone and style in his creative legacy, and yet, when allocated the role of general characteristic, it oversimplifies the nature of Repin’s realism. This view fails to grasp the main thing – the artist’s strong creative will, the directness of his conception, his tremendous technical mastery, in short, everything which causes real life to assume on his canvases the form of great art. In order to understand the great transformative power of Repin’s artistic language one has to penetrate the creative world from which such works as the Portrait of Modest Mussorgsky, Unexpected Return, Religious Procession in Kursk Province, and the Portrait of Polina Strepetova emerged.
The search for truth and the search for an ideal led Repin along various paths, and was tempered by various aspects of the artist’s own social and spiritual experiences and certain elements in the national cultural tradition. As was the case with most representatives of the Russian realist school of the second half of the nineteenth century, Repin most often selected dramatic conflicts rooted in reality for his works, drawn either from contemporary life or from the historical past. Much less often he used mythological images in his work, but when they do occur they are used with the same strong sense of purpose. Some of his pictures, based on Biblical subjects or Christian mythology, are justifiably counted among his greatest works. When dealing with the subjects of Repin’s works, it is important to grasp the logic of their co-existence and interconnection, their relationship with a general set of conceptions regarding the meaning of human life. One should constantly remember that Repin’s work is like an intricate multidimensional structure, rooted both in the creative individuality of the artist himself and in the complex artistic consciousness of his time.
Three of Ilya Repin’s most famous paintings
PORTRAIT OF VERA CHEVTSOVA (REPIN’S WIFE SINCE 1872), 1869, Oil on canvas, 83 x 67 cm, The Russian Museum, St Petersburg
The biographical information about Repin that is available to us today does not provide any details about when and where he first met his wife Vera. What is known, however, is that this portrait was painted in a period of their relationship that is commonly called “engagement-period”, which generally serves as a mutual examination of the two people considering marriage; based on Friedrich Schiller’s (1759-1805) reminder from his poem Song of the Bell: “Therefore test, who wants to bind himself forever, Whether heart will find right heart. The elation is short, the remorse is long.” The engagement of Ilya Repin and Vera Chevtsova lasted unusually long – they married three years after the completion of this portrait – which was probably rather due to material and monetary reasons than a lack of mutual affection.
Vera Chevtsova is sitting dreamily on a bench that is covered by a green, patterned piece of cloth. Her body is inclined towards the viewer, looking at him (or her) directly. The colour combination of blue and red and the small white collar of her striped dress in front of a medium brown background dominate the canvas. Her braided hair is almost not visible in front of the blue jacket. The pale, almost yellow complexion of her face, which is accentuated by the red colour of her dress even more, is alarming and lets the viewer assume that she is illness-stricken. Her almost bloodless, extremely white hand that she is holding limply in her lap further adds to that impression.
After ten years of marriage, Repin divorced his wife. The reasons for this separation are no longer known; however, Repin and Vera Chevtsova seemingly maintained an amicable relationship after their divorce.
SADKO IN THE UNDERWATER KINGDOM, 1876, Oil on canvas, 323 x 230 cm, The Russian Museum, St Petersburg
Sadko is the name of a Russian folktale hero. Legend has it that he was a musician who was so talented that the Underwater King offered him a reward for playing in his kingdom – an offer Sadko could not possibly refuse. At the sound of the first notes the king started to dance, thus causing a storm on the surface of the sea which resulted in the sinking of many ships that were trapped between the high waves. As time passed by, Sadko began to get tired whereupon he was given worthwhile advice by a sage: Sadko should tear through the strings of his instrument in order to interrupt the dance without bringing forth the King’s anger. Thereupon the Underwater King would stop dancing and offer him one of his daughters as a reward for his services. With regard to this reward the musician should refuse the first three hundred daughters, the following three hundred, as well as the three hundred after that in order to finally accept the very last of them.
Repin here depicts the moment of this very decision. The young women, that are half-human and half-aquatic, float past the front of the hero who refuses them one after another. They respond to his rejection with sadness or disappointment. Nevertheless, one can spot the betrothed, Tschernawuschka, immediately. She is wrapped in golden light and flashes Sadko a glance, confident of victory. In this work, Repin accomplishes a visually adept representation of the Underwater Kingdom. By means of a high horizon line and the worm’s-eye perspective, he manages to give the viewer the impression of diving into the depths of the ocean.
The mythological character Sadko inspired both Rimsky-Korsakov to compose a symphonic work in 1867, which was followed soon after by an opera in 1896, and Aleksey Tolstoy to write a poem. By the end of the nineteenth century, Sadko, as a figure, was becoming more and more popular in Russia due to the fact that artists wanted to get rid of Western influence in order to recover the roots of Russian art. This return to the “source” also comprised the rediscovery of the rich potential of Slavic tales and fairy tales.
PORTRAIT OF YURI REPIN, SON OF THE ARTIST, 1882, Oil on canvas, 110 x 55 cm, The Tretyakov State Gallery, Moscow
One year after he painted the portrait of his reclining daughter, Repin painted a portrait of his only son. The three or four-year-old Yuri is sitting on a sofa that is covered by a red, rug-like blanket wildly patterned with Central Asian motifs. He is wearing a thick dark blue jacket adorned with golden buttons and blue appliqués, warm trousers and padded boots as if ready to go out on a stroll.
The light that is coming from the right part of the painting is bringing out the pale complexion of his slightly reddened face, which is also visible in his left hand that is clenching his right. Yuri is posed as if he is waiting for the signal to go out for the walk. He is no wild child, however; he does not look as if he is going to romp around before leaving the house, as is not unusual for children of his age when the prospect of fresh air and wondrous things to discover is about. Quite the opposite: He is looking unusually thoughtful and introverted. Seemingly, he is not a healthy child. Was he – unconsciously – already aware of his fate?
The thoughtful, foreshadowing pose that Repin recorded in this painting will be confirmed soon thereafter: Yuri dies in early childhood. The death of his only son and the separation from his first wife, Vera Chevtsova, are an understandably heavy burden for tragedy-ridden Repin.
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