Saint Nicholas of Myra in Lycia
“Saint Nicholas of Myra in Lycia,” 1889

Ilya Repin (1844-1930) was a truly a self-made man. Russia during the time of Ilya Repin’s birth was in a caste system where its citizens were rated by class. His father, Efim Vasilevich (1804-1894), was a military settler which was in a category similar to a state-owned peasant. Thus upon his birth, Ilya was automatically registered as a military settler and though a notch above a serf, he was legally bound to live and work according to the demands of the state. Ilya was born in the outskirts of Chuguev in Little Russia which today is known as the Ukraine. This was a very rural area with modest homes and unpaved streets. During the time Repin’s father was away serving in the army, the family lived in poverty. There was a lack of a primary school which denied the children any chance for advancement. However, Repin’s mother, Tatiana Stepanovna (?-1879), who had taught herself to read, organized classes teaching her son and other children in their area. Since Repin’s father was often away from home, his mother became his primary influence. Tatiana was deeply religious and passed on the teaching of the Russian Orthodox Church to her children. Later in life Repin would often compare the inspiration for art akin to his religious beliefs.

Around the age of eleven Ilya’s mother arranged for him to be enrolled in a School of Military Topography. There he learned calligraphy and how to draft maps. Two years later the school was discontinued and Repin began studying with a local icon painter, Ivan Bunakov. Chuguev had a long history as being the center of icon painting, which provided Ilya numerous masters to choose for apprenticeship. In 1859, at the age of fifteen, Repin set himself up as an independent master of icon painting. By 1861 Repin had joined a team of icon painters, knows as an artel, and began traveling around the area decorating churches. In 1863 Ilya joined a northern artel and departed for St. Petersburg where he hoped to enter the Imperial Academy. An education from the Academy offered Repin the opportunity to free himself from the binding legal status as a military settler that he had inherited from his father. He could only attend the Academy if his parents paid all the taxes and services owed to the state by their absent son.

With fifty rubles in his pocket Repin arrived in St. Petersburg on November 1, 1863. His first attempt to apply for admissions at the Imperial Academy failed and he was told to enroll in Ivan Kramskoy’s school the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts. Kramskoy’s school, opened to anyone who showed some ability, offered three evening lessons per week for the low fee of three rubles a year. Within a month Repin advanced from the beginner class and by the end of January 1864 he had passed the Academy’s examination and was admitted as an “auditor.” By September he had become a full-time student. In May 1865 Repin won the Small Silver Medal award. Though it was the Academy’s lowest award it gave him full citizenship and liberated him from the hereditary tax and military obligations that he had inherited from birth. Repin was bestowed with the title of “free artist” giving him complete liberty to purse any calling.

While Repin was at the Imperial Academy he studied under Pavel Chistiakov, who was best known for his paintings with psychological saturation. Repin was strongly influenced Chistiakov’s work and began focusing on how to create a psychological impact with his own paintings. Social themes, including the condemnation of the ruling elite in Russian society and revolutionary struggle, dominated his work from the late 1870s to the early 1880s and Repin became famous for his depiction of these themes which he regarded as the most important type of painting an artist could create.

Krestny Khod (Religious Procession) in Kursk Gubernia
“Krestny Khod (Religious Procession) in Kursk Gubernia,” 1880–1883, oil on canvas

Throughout his career, Repin was drawn to the common people with whom he shared his origins and aligned himself with Kramskoi’s Wanderers. His large-scale painting Religious Procession in the Province of Kursk (1880 to 1883), is considered one of his greatest masterpieces and displays Russia’s social classes and the tensions that divided them.

Painted by several of Repin’s students, it is a scene in his classroom. Repin is in the middle.

Repin was a man of contradictions, much like Russia. On the one side, he was creating masterpieces focused on a social statement while at the same time he was creating a number of remarkable portraits of Russian intellectuals and historical paintings showing sympathy for the ruling elite. In 1891, Repin unexpectedly changed his views and withdrew his membership from the Wanderers. He returned to the Imperial Academy in 1892 where he was promoted to professor and then became rector.

Portrait of Tsar Nicholas II
“Portrait of Tsar Nicholas II,” 1896, a study, oil on canvas

In 1883 Repin completed one of his most psychologically intense paintings based on the story of Ivan the Terrible killing his son. This canvas displays a horrified Ivan embracing his dying son, whom he had just struck and mortally wounded in an uncontrolled fit of rage. Repin dedicated this painting to Tsar Alexander II who was assassinated in 1881 by a group belonging to the reform movement. With this painting, Repin admonished, “Be careful what you do with your rage, you could end up doing more harm than good.” The assassination caused a great setback for reform in Russia. Alexander II had completed plans for an elected parliament the day before he died, but had not yet released the plan to the Russian people. Had he lived another forty-eight hours, which was the day the plan was to be released, Russia might have followed a path to constitutional monarchy instead of the long road of oppression that defined his successor’s reign. The first action Alexander III took after his coronation was to tear up those plans.

Ivan the Terrible and his Son Ivan on November 16, 1581
“Ivan the Terrible and his Son Ivan on November 16, 1581,” 1880–1883, oil on canvas

Repin became loyal to the tsars, painting many of their portraits. After the revolution of 1917, Repin moved to his country house in Finland and never returned to St. Petersburg. Repin had never painted anything substantial on the subject of the 1917 revolution or the Soviet government. His last painting was a joyous canvas called The Hopak, based on a Ukrainian theme. In 1930, Ilya Repin died in his home in Finland.

Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom
“Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom,” 1876, oil on canvas

About This Painting Sadko was a poor Russian musician, creating magical sounds on the shores of a mighty lake with an old Russian harp called a “gusli.” The Sea Tsar, who ruled the great lake, was so pleased with Sadko’s music that he offered to help him by advising him that if he made a certain bet with a wealthy fisherman he would win a great fortune. Sadko made the bet and miraculously inherited the fisherman’s entire fleet of fishing boats. But Sadko forgot one very important thing – to thank the Sea Tsar for his kindness. Furious at his lack of gratitude, the Sea Tsar stopped Sadko and all his ships in middle of the sea like flies in honey. Sadko attempted to appease the Sea Tsar with gold but when the sailors realized that Sadko’s words were of no use, they tossed him overboard. The Sea Tsar immediately whisked Sadko into his realm where Sadko is forced to play the gusli for the Sea Tsar for all eternity. The Sea Tsar had a beautiful daughter who fell in love with Sadko, but no matter how beautiful she was nor how magical the underwater kingdom, all that Sadko can think about is his wife who walks the shores of the mighty lake every day, looking for her husband.  In the painting, Repin depicts Sadko on the right side of the canvas as being relatively unimpressed by the fantastical water sprites, who are fascinated by him. Instead, he holds his gaze at his lovely wife (top left side), who waits for him on the shore.

The Rembrandt of Russia

Ilya Repin is the most famous of all the Russian master painters. He painted portraits of people from all walks of life, from nobility to peasants. Repin came from very poor beginnings and had risen to the height of success, giving him the ability to be equally sympathetic to all people. Though he lived during a time of tremendous experimentation in the art world, his style remained closer to that of the old European masters, especially Rembrandt.

Portrait of Composer Alexander Glazunov
“Portrait of Composer Alexander Glazunov,” 1887, oil on canvas

Several of Repin’s teachers had a strong effect on his style of painting. He learned to draw and paint the human form from Ivan Kramskoi, however the two used color very differently. Kramskoi employed little color in his portraits where as Repin’s work is rich with saturated color. Both artists used very simple compositions. Kramskoi built up detailed textures in the hair, skin and clothing of his sitters. Though equally as well rendered as Kramskoi’s work, color became the dominate feature in Repin’s work. Pavel Chistiakov taught Repin how to take a psychological approach to his work. Even in his simple portraits, Repin poses his sitters in such a way as to tell a story about them. Repin was a very fast painter, he was able to finish a formal portrait in a matter of days. He often had students who would work for him to finish minor details.

Portrait of Sophia Dragomirova
“Portrait of Sophia Dragomirova,” oil on canvas

About These Paintings In all three paintings featured on this page, the color draws your eye into each one. In his portrait of composer Alexander Glazunov, the deep red invites the viewer into what could have been a boring painting of a man in a black suit. Note how the composer is looking down at us, as if to say “Hurry up already, I am busy!” In the portrait of Sophia Dragomirova, Repin uses color to tell a story of an exotic woman. Her gaze toward us is softer, as if she is offering us an invitation to sit with her. 

Ceremonial Session of the State Council of 1900
“Ceremonial Session of the State Council of 1900,” 1903, oil on canvas

About This Painting In 1901, Repin started to work on a large painting commissioned by the government, titled “Ceremonial Session of the State Council of 1900.” The multi-figured painting was finished in 1903 with the help of two of his students, Boris Kustodiev and Ivan Kulikov, who painted alongside him. Next to this large painting sits a number of studies that are wonderful, loose portrait sketches by Repin. Although Repin never embraced Impressionism, you can see the influence of that movement in his brushwork.

One thing you will note about the men in this painting is that they are very advanced in age. All of Nicholas II’s advisors were old men who were clearly outsmarted by the younger military minds of Japan in the Russo-Japanese War that took place one year after this was painted. This was the first major military victory, in the modern era, of an Asian power over a European nation.    Details from this painting:





About the Author
Cathy Locke is an award-winning fine art painter, professor, and published writer, specializing in Russian art of the 19th and 20th centuries. She organizes annual art excursions to Russia every summer and is the editor of

Russian Art Tours –

Cathy Locke’s artwork –


Thank you for a really interesting post and all the beautiful paintings! I love the portrait of Nicholas II!

A very interesting and stimulating read. Thank you.

Which Russian history and Art history books would you recommend Miss Locke ?

I would like to know where the paintings are on display.

Shawn these are paintings we see on my Summer Art Lover's Tour that I do the first week in July every summer.

Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow
“Krestny Khod (Religious Procession) in Kursk Gubernia,”
“Ivan the Terrible and his Son Ivan on November 16, 1581,”

Russian Museum in St. Petersburg
All the other paintings in my blog are at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg

For more information about my tour:

Interesting comment. A trivial correction - you can't be an "Orthodox Russian catholic." Either you're Russian Orthodox or (Roman) Catholic. Nothing in between (except for the Ukrainian Uniates.) So the mother must have been Russian Orthodox.

Under the Tsarist decree, Jews were routinely conscripted for 25 years of service. It was more or less a life sentence. Of course the 25-year term of Repin's father is only indirect evidence of his Jewish origins. As I pointed out in an earlier post, though, I was struck, in "The Response of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to the Turkish Sultan" of the presence of a Star of David in the foreground. I cannot believe that this was simply coincidence. Such details, in the Russian context, are almost never coincidence. My guess is that this decoration may have been a "souvenir" of the Cossacks' murder and pillage of the Jews in western Ukraine and Poland a short time before the date of this event, and that it got incorporated by this circuitous path into their symbols - somewhat as the scalps of Europeans were common victory symbols among Native Americans in the 19th century.

We both agree that Repin put the Star of David in painting on purpose. I also agree that the Star was most likely a souvenir.

"The Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mahmoud IV" was completed in 1891. The six-pointed star was the Coat of Arms for a branch of the Cossacks and was known as the “Kharkiv Coat of Arms of 1883.” The city of Kharkiv is 45 miles southeast of Chuguev, where Repin was from. From 1876 to 1882 Repin moved back to Chuguev to paint. He most certainly would have been aware of the Kharkiv Coat of Arms of 1883. Interesting to note - his study of the Zaporozhe Cossacks done in 1880 does not have the Star of David in it.

Dear Crowbar Pry - I have gone over my notes again and reviewed Elizabeth Kridl Valkenier's book on Ilya Repin. I can find nothing in print that refers to Repin's ancestry coming from German Jews as I had been told by a docent at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. I have gone ahead and corrected my text to reflect what I have found published about him - that his mother was a deeply religious Russian Orthodox catholic.

However, I did find something interesting when I was reading the Jewish Virtual Library online. In 1825 Tsar Nicholas I ordered all Jewish youth into service of the military starting at age 12. It goes on to say - Many of the youngsters were kidnapped by "snatchers" in order to get them to spend their formative years in the Russian military... ( Repin's father Efim Vasilevich (1804-1894) would have been 21 in 1825. There is a possibility that Efim was from a Jewish family and was forced into military service. Valkenier states that Efim retired around 1852 after 27 years of service, which would confirm that he joined the military in 1825. Of all the time periods "1825" is an interesting year to have joined the military.

Perhaps someone out there in the world can shed some light on this topic.

Cathy - One of my favorite paintings of all time is Repin's "Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks." I just noticed that one the Cossacks, the one closest to the viewer, has a bag hanging off him decorated with a golden six-pointed star. That is quite an odd symbol for warriors who were otherwise known for their massacres of Jews. Then I looked at your website and discovered that Repin was Jewish. Who knew? What do you make of this? Or was the six-pointed star somehow randomly a Cossack design, much as the swastika was a Navajo symbol?

I am sure Repin planned every square inch of that painting. That is the mark of a master. There is a wonderful story about this painting on Wikipedia =

The six-pointed star was the Coat of Arms for a branch of the Cossacks and was known as the "Kharkiv Coat of Arms of 1883." It represents a large city in the Ukraine. Since many of the Cossacks moved to the Ukrane after Peter the Great tried to annihilate them, I would assume this symbol has something to do with the Cossacks who settled in the Kharkiv region.

From what I know of Repin and the commentary he interlaces into his paintings I am going to add this assumption. This painting is all about defeating Mehmed IV, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire during the time of Peter the Great. Peter broke the backs and spirts of the Cossacks with some of the most brutal torture ever recorded in the history of mankind. The Cossacks bascially became his slaves. Kharkiv was strategically placed to be "the" defensive outpost and Peter pushed the Cossacks into this battle. Since this is the Coat of Arms for a specific location of Cossacks I would assume Repin is making a comment about fighting for their homeland. Fighting for their right to be in this region. In Repin's time Jews were not allowed to own land and they were often forced to move, much like the Cossacks during Peter's time. I feel fairly certain that Repin is making a comment about the lost lands of the Cossacks and their fight for their own homeland. Particulary since they did at one point during this long war go over to the side of the Ottoman Empire in order to gain ownership of the Ukraine. Which BTW failed.

Perhaps some one out there knows more to this story.

Thank you, that's very interesting indeed. I've read the fascinating Wikipedia article and know something about the history of Ukraine and the larger region. Yet the origin of that star is still intriguing. You are correct that the six-pointed star is a *part* of the Kharkiv Coat of Arms of 1883, but not of course the whole thing. And that was 200 years later. Yet it is also an interesting fact that the Khmelnytsky Uprising of 1648-1657, in which the Zaporozhtsy massacred many Jews in what is now western Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania because of their association with the Polish nobility, predated their struggle against the Ottoman Empire by some 20 years. It seems at least likely that the six-pointed star became one of their symbols during the Uprising as homage to the spoils of victory. Surely Repin was aware of the significance of the six-pointed star as the Star of David, and that he placed it squarely in the foreground of the painting was not merely by chance. I just never noticed it before though I have seen and enjoyed the painting often (actually it the wallpaper on my desktop computer), including what I believe is the original in the Tretyakovskiy Gallery. Thank you again for showing it on your page with the valuable explanation, much of which does not appear in Wikipedia.

Dear Ms Locke, what is the source of your statement about Ilia Repin coming from a Jewish Family? I hav not found any other source confirming this... I would appreciate your pointers and info on that...

Excuse my long delay. I have been in Russia leading my July Art Lover's Tour.

Regarding your comment - I have been told by docents of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg that Repin's family tracks back to German Jews. I am not sure if this is from his mother's or father's side. I also don't know if his immediate family were practicing Jews. I do know his family was very poor, basically one step above serfs. His father was a private in the Imperial Army. There is reference to Repin attending a Jewish kantonist, which is a school for the sons of the military.

In his painting "The Zaparozhye Cossacks" there is all kinds of Jewish symbolism. Its interesting to note that Repin was raised in the Ukraine in an area were the Zaparozhye Cossacks lived. It is documented that there were branches of the Cossacks that did allow Jews. (

In Maxim Shrayer's book - "An Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature: 1801-1953" he does confirm that Repin was Jewish = “Last Confession” (1879) inspired a painting by the great Russian artist Ilya Repin (1844-1930), who came from the family of a (Jewish) kantonist.

I will keep digging and post more later. Thanks for reading my blog.

In my opinion it is quite likely that Ilya Repin had at least a Jewish father. Ilya Repin's second name is Yefimovich/Efimovič which means not only "The son of Yefim/Efim" but also that Yefim/Efim was his father's name. And Yefim/Efim is a quite Jewish name that - in my opinion - is given only to Jewish men or boys.

Guter thank you so much for this. I have been waiting for someone with this type of knowledge to comment on this subject. I do suspect that Repin's father was Jewish. We do know his mother was Orthodox Christian.

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