Ilya Repin was born in Ukraine in 1844. He was the great Russian realist painter of the 19th century, a master of historical painting and genre painting, an outstanding portrait painter, a man of deep psychological insights. Repin had a remarkable ability to transform the everyday into the epic, and to see the universal, historic and philosophical in a given scene. Another of the artist’s gifts was his ability to show his protagonists with a profound level of individuality.
Ilya Repin’s paintings are some of the finest examples of the realist style, but there was also room in this master’s creative output for a vivid artistic imagination, one that enabled him to create beautiful cross-sections of historical epochs.
Ilya Repin dedicated a fairly large number of his works to the people. The master was known as the encyclopedist of a reformed Russia. The painting that became his most iconic work was Barge Haulers on the Volga, in which Repin elevated a mundane subject to a socio-philosophical plane.
In total, Repin left more than five hundred works of art for posterity (including his drawings, sketches and rough drafts). Practically all his important works are housed in the major museums of the world, including the Tretyakov Gallery, the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg, and the Metropolitan Museum in the USA.
Barge Haulers on the Volga (1872-1873) is Repin’s most famous work. In this painting, he not only gave us a realistic portrayal of the hardships faced by the common man, but also posed a philosophical question about Russia’s possible destinies.
Note the tugboat in the background: it is a symbol of progress, the kind of progress that is far removed from the men dragging the barge ashore. The painting caused a sensation in Russia and the wider world, drawing comparisons with Dante’s inferno. It is one of those few instances, in art, when a genre scene became something truly monumental.
Sadko (1876) is a wonderfully evocative work that transports the viewer to the magical world of fairytales.
Tsarevna Sophia in the Novodevichy Monastery (1879) is a historical portrait that conveys the complex inner character of Peter the Great’s sister.
A Portrait of the Composer M. P. Mussorgsky (1881). The painting shows the composer in hospital in the final days of his life, after a bout of delirium tremens. This painting, which conveys Modest Mussorgsky’s character with all its contradictions, sealed Ilya Repin’s reputation as an outstanding portrait painter and psychologist.