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Ilya Yefimovich Repin
(1844-1930)

Ilya Yefimovich Repin (1844-1930), was a Russian painter, born in Chuguyev (Ukraine) and grew up with a Cossack heritage. He is considered the outstanding realist of his generation. Although he was a good drafter and a skilled colorist, he was known mainly for his subject matter: His deeply moving scenes of common people were an indictment of the tsarist regime. 

USSR 1969. Ilya Yefimovich Repin, self-portrait.

As a boy he was trained as an icon painter. At the age of 19 he entered the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts. 

His arrival to the capital coincided with an important event in artistic life of the 60s, the so-called "Riot of the Fourteen", when 14 young artists left the Academy having refused to use mythological subjects for their diploma works. 

  • USSR 1969. Ilya Y. Repin, self-portrait. 
  • USSR 1957. 200th anniversary of the Academy of Arts. Inserted are portraits of the Russian painters Brullow, Repin and Zurikov. 
They stood on the point that art should be close to real life. Later Repin would be closely connected with some of them, the members of the Society of Peredvizhniky. 

His painting "Volga Boatmen" -- also known as "Barge Haulers" -- (1873, Russian State Museum, Saint Petersburg), showing bargemen harnessed together like beasts of burden, was his first considerable work painted after graduation, and it immediately made him famous. 

  • Russia 1997. "The Volga Boatmen".  (Russian State Museums, St. Petersburg). This painting was previously issued by Russia in 1956. 

Russia 1997. Ilya Y. Repin: "The Volga Boatmen".

For his diploma work Raising of Jairus' Daughter (1871) Repin was awarded The Major Gold Medal and received a scholarship for studies abroad. He went on to paint large historical subjects, as well as thoughtful portraits of the great Russian composers and writers, and his work became the model for mid-20th-century Soviet socialist realism. He was one of the most noted members of the 19th Century Society for Travelling Artists, also known as "The Wanderers." 

In 1873, Repin went abroad. For some months he had been traveling in Italy and then settled and worked in Paris up to 1876. It was in Paris that he witnessed the first exhibition of the Impressionists, but, judging by the works created then and by his letters home, he didn't become the ardent follower of this new Paris school of painting, though he didn't share the opinion of some of his country-men who saw a dangerous departure from “the truth of life” in Impressionism. 

After returning to Russia Repin settled in Moscow. He was a frequent visitor in Abramtsevo – the country estate of Savva Mamontov, one of the most famous Russian patrons of art. It was a very fruitful period in his creative activity. During 10-12 years Repin created the majority of his famous paintings. In 1877, he started to paint religious processions: Krestny Khod (Religious Procession) in Kursk Gubernia (1880-1883). The composition was based on the dramatic effect of different attitude of the participants of the procession to the wonder-working icon carried at the head of the procession. 

Ilya Y. Repin: "The Easter Procession in Kursk".

A series of paintings devoted to the revolution theme deserves special attention. The artist was no doubt interested in creating the character of a fighter for social justice. The range of social, spiritual and psychological problems, which attracted Repin, is revealed in his works: The Arrest of the Propagandist (1878), Unexpected Return (1884) and Refusal from the Confession (1879-1885). 

USSR 1967. Ilya Repin: "The Arrest of the Propagandist". USSR 1969. Ilya Repin: "Unexpected Return". USSR 1969. Ilya Repin: "Refusal from the Confession".

Repin is the author of many portraits, which are an essential part of his artistic heritage. Repin never painted faces, he painted real people, managing to show his models in their natural state, to reveal their way of communicating with the world: Portrait of the Composer Modest Musorgsky (1881), Portrait of the Surgeon Nikolay Pirogov (1881), Portrait of the Author Alexey Pisemsky (1880), Portrait of the Poet Afanasy Fet (1882), Portrait of the Art Critic Vladimir Stasov (1883), and Portrait of Leo Tolstoy (1887) and many others are distinguished by the power of the visual characteristic and the economy and sharpness of execution. 

Ilya Y. Repin: Portrait of Leo Tolstoy.

USSR 1957. Ilya Repin: "Portrait of the Art Historian and Critic V.V. Stasov".

USSR 1965. Ilya Repin: "Portrait of V.A. Serov".

Repin rarely painted historical paintings, but the most famous -- and one of the most popular in this genre -- is Ivan the Terrible and his son Ivan (1895), showing Ivan the Terrible after mortally wounding his son while in a rage. The expressive, intense composition and psychological insight in rendering the characters, the lunacy in Ivan's bloodshot eyes when holding his dying son bathed in blood, makes an unforgettable impression on the spectators. The painting belongs to the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The image shown here is a small fragment, showing only the central portion of the huge painting. 

The prominent Russian historian, Nikolay Kostomarov, observed a striking similarity between Ivan the Terrible and Nero, despite the differences of circumstances and environment. Like Nero, Ivan was corrupted in his childhood years. Both Nero under the guidance of Seneca, and young Ivan under the guidance of Silvester the Monk, accomplished many commendable things, but finally, when both got rid of their mentors, they proceeded to out-Herod Herod in depravity and sadism. 
 

Ilya Repin: "Ivan the Terrible and his son Ivan" (fragment).

In their cruelty, both favoured the bizarre, the mannered, the theatrical. Nero started out by killing his mother; Ivan did not kill his mother -- she died when he was still an infant -- but made up for it by killing his son towards the end of his life. Nero set Rome on fire, and then tortured innocent Christians, trying to make them confess to arson in his "court of justice"; Ivan razed Novgorod to the ground and killed many more Russian Christians than Nero had Roman ones. He, too, accused his victims of heinous crimes which he, the stern yet just arbiter, set out to investigate. 

Nero went to Greece to fool around with the arts and sciences, leaving Rome at the mercy of his underlings; Ivan fled to Alexandrovskaya Sloboda, where he played the monk while his oprichniki [elite guardsmen] plundered Rus. Both were greedy and self-interested. They devastated the provinces and harboured a particular hatred: Nero for heathen temples, Ivan for Christian monasteries. Nero boasted that he was the only Roman emperor who could reach the limits of arbitrariness; Ivan carried on about the enormity of his authority as a tsar.

  • Ilya Repin: "Ivan the Terrible and his son Ivan". 

Nero was a coward and did not have it in him to kill himself when the moment had come; Ivan did not have to save himself from what he did to so many others. Nero took pride in his talents as a poet, singer and artist; Ivan never missed an opportunity to air his gift as a rhetorician, theologian, historian -- in a  word, he loved to philosophise. Ironically, the Tsar of Muscovy was luckier in this respect than the Emperor of Rome. As far as we know, Nero's literary and artistic efforts were quickly forgotten. The tyrant of Moscow, on the other hand, is commended to this day for his "wit, humour, erudition, and logic" and recognised as "the foremost writer of his time". 

Another popular work of the genre is The Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mahmoud IV (1880-1891). The faithfully rendered spirit of the Zaporoguus freemen, who, according to the artist, had a particularly strong sense of “liberty, equality and fraternity” undoubtedly gives the picture its significance. 

The contemporaries saw it as a symbol of the Russian people throwing off their chains. 

  • USSR 1969. Ilya Repin: "Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mahmoud IV". This painting has previously been issued by Russia in 1956.

USSR 1969. Ilya Repin: "Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mahmoud IV".

Further Ilya Repin has painted the below portrait of the Ukrainian painter and national poet Taras Shevshenko (1814-1867). Ukraine and Belarus have issued two stamps commemorating Ilya Repin at his 150th birth anniversary. Particularly the Ukrainian issue is interesting, as it contains a sketch to the above painting of the Zaporozhian Cossacks' writing a letter to the Turkish sultan

Belarus 1994. Ilya Repin: "Belorusian", and House Museum of the painter in the village Zdravnevo, Vitebsk region. Ukraine 1994. Ilya Repin's 150th birth anniversary with self-portrait.

Although Repin's creative active continued into the 20th century, the last quarter of the 19th century was the best period in his work. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 he lived and worked until his death in 1930 at his estate Penates in present-day Finland. 

Repin's paintings have appeared on stamps from the Soviet Union, Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine,  Belarus, Czechoslovakia, and Madagascar, altogether 30+ stamps. Most of these show the "Volga Boatmen", and Repin's self-portrait (the Volga Boatmen not less than three times from the Soviet Union), so I have tried to select the largest variation possible on this page.  

Sources and links: 


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