Ilya Repin

Over at Book Drum I’m busy working on my entry to the second annual Book Drum Tournament, compiling a profile of War and Peace. I’ve found I’ve been using a lot of paintings by Ilya Yefimovich Repin to illustrate things. He was painting after the time W&P is set, but not long after it was written, so I think I can be forgiven for this.

The more I look at his work, the less I can understand why he is not far better known in the West. He was lauded by the Soviets so by the rules of ‘my enemy’s friend is my enemy’ the West would be inclined to ignore him, but I think that’s a terrible shame.

The Barge Haulers; click to enlarge

His most famous work, arguably, is The Barge Haulers, a painting that had a tremendous impact when it was first shown in Russia. It shows the inhuman conditions in which Volga barge haulers worked, heaving great heavy-loaded barges, treated as nothing more than pack animals. But Repin’s work offers more than just the documentation of social inequalities. His subjects are never just ‘types’, to be pitied or despised according to their role in life. They all come over as real people, with thought and character. In The Barge Haulers attention is often drawn to the young man in red who is struggling against his straps, but I like looking at the man to his left, who is staring out of the painting at the viewer. His look is challenging, but not aggressively so: he seems to be watching with almost anthropological, detached interest, quietly awaiting our reactions.

His paintings of Russia’s writers and composers are all extremely arresting: Tolstoy in all his freshly-laundered, carefully-managed peasant simplicity; ruddy, rumpled Mussorgsky; an intense but comfy-looking Glinka composing Ruslan and Ludmilla. His paintings illustrating the fatal duel from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin are also among my favourites. I remember at least one Repin, a Tolstoy portrait, at the From Russia exhibition at the Royal Academy a couple of years ago, but it would be brilliant to have a whole exhibition of his stuff over here.

Tolstoy ploughing
The Duel
The death of Lensky

I’ll stop myself there before I add another half-a-dozen pictures and make this page impossibly slow to load. The Ilya Repin site I have linked to above, and indeed do so again here, purports to have his complete works, but doesn’t. It’s still a good site though.


6 thoughts on “Ilya Repin

  1. The Duel could illustrate Eugene Onegin. But that’s the point: this is really illustration rather than art. It’s good, but in a Norman Rockwell way. It doesn’t challenge, although it’s very well-crafted


    1. The Duel is of that scene in Onegin – hence the watermill in the background. I find his stuff lingers in your mind more than you’d expect if it was mere ‘illustration’, and The Barge Haulers certainly did offer up a challenge when it first appeared. I’d definitely like to see more of his paintings In Real Life, at any rate.


  2. Thank you for this really interesting post – I had never heard of Repin until I went to Moscow a few years ago, and I was really impressed (I think it is definitely art, not illustration, and has its own challenges). He should certainly be better known in the West and I am glad you are helping him along!


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