Ilya Repin:  The Rembrandt of Russia

by Cathy Locke

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 is the editor of
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