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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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A prolific and diverse painter, Ilya Repin lived through the maelstrom of Russian politics and society in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries. This section details his life in an extensive biography.

His subject matter covered many areas, but is unified in presenting and preserving the changing world that he saw around him. He is remembered today as the first major Russian artist to gain fame Europe-wide who painted specifically Russian subject matter. Repin was born in Chuguyev in Ukraine and lived there for the first 19 years of his life. His father was a private in the Imperial Russian Army and his mother was a teacher.

He was enrolled at the school his mother taught at and then for a short while at a military academy. In 1856 (aged 12) he started to study under local icon painter Ivan Bukanov. His progress towards his later greatness was slow and steady - Repin worked seven years with Bukanov, earning enough money (and displaying enough talent) to get him to an art school in St Petersburg and then eventually into the Academy of Fine Arts.

The Peredvizhniki and the Birth of Russian Realism

At St Petersburg Repin met fellow artist Ivan Kramskoi and art critic Vladimir Stasov. Ivan Kramskoi was one of the 'revolt of fourteen' who rejected the very strict and conservative idea of art being taught to them. As a result they were expelled from the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg in 1863, instead setting up Peredvizhniki or The Itinerants. Their desire was to take Russian art out into the provinces so that people could be taught how to appreciate it.

Repin was a student of Kramskoi's, quickly gaining enough skill to be accepted by the Imperial Academy of Arts himself. The ideology of the group had a profound effect on Repin. As his art developed it perfectly encapsulated what they were trying to achieve. Works such as Barge Haulers on the Volga and They Did Not Expect Him exploring and reflecting the many facets of life in Russia in the time, just as the Peredvizhniki sought to do.

This movement was the genesis of the Russian Realism which Ilya Repin is so closely associated with. Through their work they wanted to democratise access to art and also what that art portrayed. Instead of work that copied what was being produced across Europe, these showed scenes from all sectors of life in Russia, particularly highlighting social inequality and injustice. Vladimir Stasov became an ardent supporter of the group. The stated aims of Peredvizhniki largely agreed with his own beliefs about Russian art. Stasov believed that Russian artists needed to realistically portray Russia in their work in order to build a national art that could have a meaningful and moral effect upon the country.

Barge Haulers On the Volga

In 1870 Repin travelled to the Volga River and was struck there by the contrast between the colourful day trippers to the river and the labourers or peasants exhausted by the demands of their employers. Originally Repin intended to paint a canvas that depicted this contrast. He sought actual barge haulers to pose for him, as a result getting to know more about his subjects. This led him to realise that the greater contrast was in the group of haulers themselves- among the group were a defrocked priest, a former soldier and a priest. There was no need to juxtapose them against anything else.

As a result he concentrated on depicting his subjects just as they were. The consequence is that hardness of their work is shown without sentimentality; neither glorified nor romanticised, just painted as it was. This was ground breaking at the time, allowing bourgeois Russians to be challenged to understand what their standard of living cost others and the debt that they owed the working classes. Upon reception in 1873 the painting was praised for its social realism. Repin considered it his first professional painting and it was and is deemed a landmark painting in the social realist movement.

Ilya Repin in Europe

Between 1872-1876 Repin travelled across Europe as part of a scholarship he won for his final piece at the Academy The Ressurrection of Jairus' Daughter. This included attending the 1873 World Exhibition in Vienna where Barge Haulers on the Volga was on show. The next year he travelled to Paris where others of his work were being exhibited. During this time he came into contact with impressionism, and was familiar with the new direction that European art was taking. He appreciated the technique of the impressionists - even mimicking it in 'Dragonfly'- but felt that it did not address the issues of social justice and moral purpose in art that were important to him.

In part this is due to the situation in Russia at the time. Although Tsar Alexander II was a more liberal, reforming Tsar it was only in 1861 that serfs were freed from the land. This was a turning point, bringing free labour to the cities, regenerating industry and triggering the growth and influence of the middle classes. It was a mixed blessing for the emancipated serfs though, who ended up paying large amounts of special taxes for what could amount to very small pieces of land. The suffering of the poor was an immediate issue for Repin and the Russian Realists. It was important to them to give a voice to those who had no influence of their own.

The Repin Family

In 1872 Repin married Vera Shevtsova. Together they had four children: Vera (1872), Nadhezhda (1974), Yury (1877) and Tatyana (1880). Many of Repin's pictures show images of his family- there are named portraits, and family members appear in other works such as 'They Did Not Expect Him' and 'Dragonfly.' Sadly the marriage floundered and Ilya and Vera divorced in 1882, although they remained on friendly terms.

Never Stand Still

From 1874 Repin was a part of the Peredvizhniki (The Itinerants), with his work appearing amongst those on show at their exhibitions. After his return from Europe he moved regularly, visiting or staying in Chugyev (his hometown), Moscow, the Ukraine, St Petersburg and the Crimea; he travelled around Western Europe with Vladimir Stasov and also visited Austria, Germany and Italy. This is not an exhaustive list- between 1873-1900 he journeyed extensively through Russia and the wider world.

What is significant is not that he changed his subject matter, more that travel sharpened his vision and view of himself as the artist. During this period he was a prolific portrait painter. His portraits are expressive, capturing the individual humanity of each sitter, but also capturing the essence of the age through them- the hopeful yet tragic richness that was pervasive.

Throughout this time his reputation and significance grew. He was well known and often praised for his clear and honest depiction of peasant life and people. Repin constantly wanted to improve his work so that it was richer and had more depth. As a result he was constantly searching out new techniques that would help develop his art. However his process remained painstaking. Works took years to produce: this involved meticulous production of preliminary sketches and often reworking completed paintings years later as they were not yet finished to his satisfaction.

Becoming the Establishment

In the 1890s Repin moved from being an artistic rebel to becoming a part of its ruling classes: he resigned from The Itinerants and took up a job creating a new statute for the Academy of Art. In 1894 this became a teaching job at an affiliate of the academy, the Higher Art School. He held this post off and on until 1907. He returned to The Itinerants in 1897, but it was itself now an establishment rather than a reaction. Throughout this period he continued to exhibit, including shows in St Petersburg and Moscow.

Repin and Natalia Nordman

In 1900 Repin met and fell in love with Natalia Nordman. He moved into her home 'Penates' at Kuokkala (in Finland) where he continued to live after her death in 1914. Here they had weekly gatherings with the Russian creative elite whom Repin documented in portraits. Continuing to seek a fairer Russia for all, Repin protested against the Tsarist repressions, a theme reflected in his art.

Later Life

After Nordman's death Repin stayed at Penates. He was handicapped by an atrophy in his right hand, instead learning to paint with his left hand. However he was unable to produce his previous quality of work and lived under financial constrain. The Russian Revolution of 1917 closed the border between Finland and Russia and meant that Repin's estate was now in Finland. Although he had been a supporter of the revolution, he rejected its outcomes. He was courted by the Russian government who wanted him to return, but he remained in Kuokkala until his death in 1930.