Ilya Repin:  Gaining His Freedom

by Cathy Locke

Ilya Repin, self-portrait, 1878
Ilya Repin, self-portrait, 1878

With fifty rubles in his pocket (barely the equivalent of two dollars in the United States today), Ilya Repin arrived in St. Petersburg on November 1, 1863 at the age of nineteen. His first attempt to apply for admissions at the Imperial Academy failed and he was told to enroll in Ivan Kramskoy’s school called 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; 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 the class of 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 pursue any calling.

Jovanniana Sitting at the Window Sill
Pavel Chistiakov, "Jovanniana Sitting at the Window Sill," 1864, oil on canvas, Russian Museum.

Important Friendships

Repin had a number of important friends throughout his life.  Ivan Kramskoy, was probably Repin's most important friendship and consultant throughout his career. Kramskoy took Repin under his wing initially when he enrolled in Kramskoy’s school, recognizing his talent Repin was given extra instruction. Kramskoy impressed upon Repin the important moral role an artist must serve to improve society.  Social themes, including the condemnation of the ruling elite in Russian society and revolutionary struggle, dominated Repin's work from the late 1870s to the early 1880s. Repin would become famous for his depiction of these themes.  While at the Imperial Academy Repin studied with with Pavel Chistiakov, who was best known for his paintings with psychological saturation. Repin was strongly influenced by Chistiakov approach and began focusing on how to create a psychological impact with his own paintings. Vladimir Stasov was a influencial art critic and historian who took a great interest in Repin. Throughout Repin’s life Stasov had a heavy hand in advising and directing Repin’s work.

Barge Haulers on the Volga
Ilya Repin, “Barge Haulers on the Volga,” 1870-1873, oil on canvas. Collection of the Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich

Repin's First Masterpiece

Repin painted Barge Haulers on the Volga toward the end of his studies as a student at the Imperial Academy and before he left to study abroad. He began sketching the barge haulers in the summer of 1870. It was difficult for him to sketch them while they were working. The men refused to pose due to a local superstition where they believed their soul would be transferred to the devil if their image was captured on paper. In addition, Repin had a huge social barrier to overcome. Repin’s family background as military settlers, which was one notch above a peasant, created an awkward social situation for him toward these peasants. Repin’s family was very conscious of the fine line that separated them from a peasant. The Repin family considered it “below their dignity to even speak to a peasant.”* When Ilya Repin began going to the banks of the Volga to sketch these men, he had to make considerable effort to break through the social bearer between their classes.

Repin first showed the preliminary painting in March of 1871 when he submitted it to an annual competition held by the Society for the Support of Artists. During that show he won first place in the social genre category. He also earned the professional title of Artist First Class and he was given an annual stipend of 927 rubles for the following six years. Repin continued to work on the painting for two more years until he was satisfied. At last in March of 1873 the canvas was chosen by the Imperial Academy as an official representation of Russian realist painting for the Vienna International Exhibition. Its important to note that ten years eariler, in March of 1863, Ivan Kramskoy lead a group of fourteen students that became known as the Wanderers* to succeed from the Academy. These students were protesting that the subject matter they were forced to paint had nothing to do with Russian life or history. This painting marked a full 360 degree change in the subject matter approved by the Imperial Academy. This single painting marks the monumental shift in the school of Russian realism.

Repin painted the barge haulers exactly as they appeared, without enhancing their appearance or romanticizing them in anyway. This lack of romanticism, painting Russia just as she appeared, grew out of the theories of the Wanderers. In the Barge Haulers on the Volga the group of men are comprised mostly of older men all looking at the ground or straight ahead. The only one among them, the young boy, is looking off at the distance shore. Repin is making a comment about these men and their lives. For the old men there is no future, the future of Russia belongs to its youth.

This painting was purchased by the Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich and hung in his dining room.

*Note: This group is often called The Wanderers or The Itinerants in English. In Russian they were called Peredvizhniki.

About The Composition

There are two intersecting triangles used to create the composition in Repin’s Barge Haulers on the Volga. The base triangle, represented in yellow in the diagram above, starts at the boat in the far distance and contains not only the main boat but also the grouping of men. In this way the men and the boat they are hauling become unified as one grouping. The head of the young boy pokes above the base triangle and is unified by two objects in the foreground directly below him. In this way Repin has created a second triangle that overlaps the base triangle.


About the Values and Color

Note the importance value plays in this painting. The grouping of men are primarily the same value and make up the darkest part of the painting. The young boy in the center of the grouping is very light in value and he is sandwiched between the darkest values, creating the greatest contrast within the painting. 

The color palette of this painting is primarily made up of colors that have yellow in them, making it a yellow analogous palette. The young boy is painted in the warmest color within the yellow analogous range, which is red-orange. Repin has also used the most saturated color on the young boy, the rest of the men are painted in cooler desaturated colors. 

Repin is using a yellow analogous split complement palette. A split complement are the two colors, which are on either side of the main complement. In this case the complement to yellow is violet, making the split complement red-violet and blue-violet. Split complements usually comprise about 10 to 15% of the total color used. In this case Repin as reserved the red-violet for the bands the men are using to haul the boat and the blue-violet is seen in the sky.



Study Abroad (1873-1876)

Repin spent three years studying abroad after graduating from the Academy on an academic fellowship. His graduation painting from the Academy, Barge Haulers of the Volga, had made him famous overnight and everyone was ready to meet him. Repin was excited to leave an oppressive Russia and embrace a new life in Europe. Initially he spent a small amount of time in Naples, Italy, but ended up spending the most of time in Paris. The first exhibition of Impressionist painting was held shortly after Repin’s arrival in Paris. Initally Repin embraced this new style of art.

Portrait of Vera Shevtsova
Ilya Repin, "Portrait of Vera Shevtsova," 1869, oil on canvas, Russian Museum.

Repin had married his landlord's daughter, Vera, in 1872. By September of 1873 their small apartment had became the center for Russian painters living in Paris. During this time he was able to take on private students such as the young Valentin Serov who was living in Paris with his mother. This was a time when Repin was exposed to many different European painters, he admired the work of Courbet, Neuville and Girard. He was able to meet the famous artists of his day, which included Gérome and Carolus-Duran. And, he loved the “unbridled freedom” of Manet and Monet.

As part of the requirements for his fellowship stipend with the Academy Repin had to produce two major paintings a year. During this time he produced such masterpieces as Sadko and the Underwater KingdomParis Café and A Negro Woman. Both Kramskoy and Stasov thought these works were a sure sign that Repin’s career was over. Added by Repin’s lack of success in the Parisian Salon reports made their way back to St. Petersburg that Repin’s career might be over.

Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom
Ilya Repin, “Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom,” 1873-1876, oil on canvas, Russian Museum.

Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom

Repin began Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom when he arrived in Paris in 1873. The painting was based on a medieval tale about a Novgorod merchant. Repin chose a moment in the story when the naive Sadko is tempted by all the underwater riches. Sadko looks past these treasures to a peasant girl who is walking on the shore. This painting is packed with symbolism that was personal to Repin’s life at that time. He was depicting the riches of life abroad that he had just become exposed to, while all along missing the shores of his native Russia.

Sadko was Repin’s first official assignment upon graduation from the Academy and he definitely felt the pressure. Repin began this painting by doing more than fifteen preparatory studies. Since his academic stipend was too small for him to hire the models and costumes that he needed, Repin negotiated the sale of this painting before it was painted. Alexander III did agree to buy the painting for 3,000 rubles, but Repin didn’t receive the majority of the money until he returned to Russia. From there his troubles with this painting started mounting. He was a painter who was use to painting things that were in front of him, this painting required Repin to invent an imaginary scene. Repin had to contact the director of the art department of the St. Petersburg library for illustrations of details on the Sadko fable. He attended Paris operas and theaters to get ideas for staging. In the end he was “terribly disappointed” and wanted to destroy the painting. It was the last painting Repin ever did based on a Russian folk tale.   When this painting was first shown in Russia it was panned by the critics and called “The Aquarium.” On a brighter note, Repin was awarded by the Academy the title of Academician of Historical Painting.

It is interesting to note that Russian painter Victor Vasnetsov was the model for Sadko in this painting. Vasnetsov was living in Paris at this time, also on a fellowship from the Academy. Though Repin never painted another Russian folk tales, this painting influenced the direction Vasnetsov took with his work, which ended up making him famous.

Left - Value Diagram; Right - Directional Diagram
Left - Value Diagram; Right - Directional Diagram

About The Composition

Repin clearly divided his painting into foreground, middle ground and background by using values. You can see how this painting is staged much like a theatrical production with all of the main characters in the front.  Repin uses directional devices to lead the eye around the painting. The first figure in the foreground has his elbow pointing directly at Sadko. From there you will notice a strong diagonal line between the glaze of Sadko and the peasant on the shore. As well all of the underwater creatures are looking at Sadko.

Ilya Repin, sketch of boat haulers, 1870

About The Color

“Sadko” is painted  in a blue analogous palette with a split complement of red-orange and yellow-orange. The majority of this painting is comprised of yellow-green and blue-green colors.  The accents are painted using the split complements. Keeping the color relatively simple helped Repin make the story more dramatic.


Student Work and Studies

Ilya Repin, sketch of boat haulers, 1870
Ilya Repin, sketch of boat haulers, 1870


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
Cathy Locke’s artwork –