The Work of Ilya Repin

Diverse in subject matter and technique, Ilya Repin was one of few 19th century Russian artists to have received European recognition during his life time.  Painting dramatic biblical scenes, official portraits or epic crowd scenes he was accused by critics and contemporaries of inconsistency and externalisation but this industry and versatility is partly responsible for the celebration of his work today.  Born in 1844 in the small Ukrainian town of Chuguevo, Repin was part of a military family and himself attended military school in 1854 but from a young age his aptitude for art separated him from his friends and family.  Local icon painters gave him art lessons and he eventually earned enough money by helping them with their work to attend a painting school in St Petersburg.  He worked as a house painter to earn a living while he studied and during this time his work flourished and he observed the dynamics and contrasts between rich and poor in the city at the time, a subject which fascinated him and would be a recurring theme in his work.  He used real people as his subjects, willing participators in his art who were fated to lives of poverty and pain and reality but whose legacy and identity would be preserved in Repin’s work.  His portraiture may have been influenced by the work of Eduard Manet and Diego Velazquez but his history paintings stand alone.  In his masterpiece “Barge Haulers on the Volga”, which he completed in 1870, exhausted barge haulers struggle relentlessly on the riverside.  The painting divided critics and while some recognised his pictorial and technical ability in making such a profound depiction of human suffering, others were offended by the piercing realism with which he described the scene and saw it as unemotional.  This may not have knocked the young artist’s confidence however, when you hear that he was disappointed by the the work of the French Impressionists, saying that they were more interested in colour and costume than in people.  Repin’s work is undeniably, and sometimes brutally, human.  Though his understanding of composition, form and colour seems thorough and uncompromising, it is his unflinching documentation of the plight of the subjects he painted that takes centre stage and that has left an impression far deeper than the fashion or aesthetic conventions of the time.  His painting ‘Ivan the terrible Killing his Son’ is a moving example of such genuine emotion although he was criticised for his inaccuracy in recalling the event and some superstitions pointed to this for a problem he later developed in his right hand, forcing him to paint with his left.  This remarkable adjustment only makes his accomplishments more admirable.  His work was inspired by myths and legends, biblical stories and observation of life’s absurdities but he extended his artistry to portraiture and domestic scenes leaving an intimate record of life at the time.  Repin’s first marriage ended unhappily after 10 years and he would later remarry and move to Finland where he was accepted as an honorary member of the Finnish Artists Society.  The move was partly due to his hatred of the regime of Nicolas II but after the revolution (1905-1917) he remained dissatisfied with the state of Russian politics and never returned.  He died in 1930 leaving an incredible volume and variety of work behind.  He is remembered for having been the first Russian artist to receive fame and recognition in Europe for his unique work which prioritised character, realism and spirit above conventional formalism.  His work was produced with incredible precision and care, some paintings resulting after 100 preliminary sketches.  This legacy of truth and extraordinary dedication has influenced artists and audiences in Russia and all over the world.

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