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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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Ilya Repin was a highly skilled draughtsman and his drawings would provide the basis to a number of his famous paintings, such was the complexity found in many of his larger pieces.

Much of what we have learnt about Repin's drawings is based on the discovery of a number of sketchbooks from his career. These not only provide individual artworks, but also help us to understand the processes that he used in moving towards the final completed paintings. Study sketches in preparation for paintings such as A Parisian Café, Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom and Slavic Composers have been uncovered for example. They also reveal changes that he made to the composition prior to commencing the oil painting. Experimentation and amendments were key to his early stages of planning. A single sketchbook came up for auction recenty and sold for an extraordinary, but not entirely unexpected, price of $350,000. It dates from 1872-1875.

The particular series was sold by Christie's in 2011 and was filled with a combination of pencil sketches plus some work with ink. Most are in single black strokes, but a few were in multiple colours. The content found within here was a variety of portraits of normal lives in France and Russia followed by a number of self-portraits. Repin would rarely produce entire compositions as per later paintings, but instead focus on individual elements, where he was undecided about parts of his final paintings and needed time to expand on his thoughts. Many of these were signed and the photograph used in this page was actually taken from the very same sketchbook. The book also features contact details for many of the models used by Repin during his time in Paris, plus several other notable connections.

The high auction estimate on this sketchbook, plus the eventual price realised, reflects the importance of Ilya Repin within European art history, plus also the rising demand for Russian and Ukrainian art. This is partly due to a number of particularly rich residents in this region who are attempting to claw back some of this region's best work from Western Europe. Some then loan them to local museums, whilst others leave them locked up in private collections, away from public view. For this reason, many auction buyers of Soviet art are announced purely as 'anonymous' in order to avoid unwanted attention from the media, the art public or even tax authorities.

Ilya Repin moved to St Petersburg as a young man where he entered into a painting school in order to start to develop his technical skills and also bring new ideas into his work. From there he moved onto join the Academy of Fine Arts in 1863 which further advanced his overall capabilities as an artist. Such institutions will tend to teach drawing as a fundamental skill for any artist, whichever medium he then chooses to work within, be it oils, watercolours, mixed media or even sculpture or architecture. The years spent here would have been essential is getting to the level as a draughtsman that are demonstrated in the drawings shown in this website.