Ilya Repin was a renowned Russian-Ukrainian realism painter who lived from 1844 until 1930. He had a long and successful career and is credited with bringing attention to Russian art and culture. Ivan the Terrible and his Son was one of his most famous and controversial paintings.
Although he was not typically a painter of historical scenes, by his late thirties Repin chose to depict a famous event from the life of Ivan the Terrible, a formidable Russian Tsar from the 16th century. The purpose of the artwork was to bring to life the horror of violence, and hopefully to warn others away from such brutish behaviour. The nation of Russia, in all its different guises, has many bloody events in its history and some nationalists have disapproved of this portrait as being anti-Russian.
In reality, it is more about being anti-violence, and the dangers of an uncontrolled rage, which many historians believe Ivan the Terrible suffered from as his behaviour started to become more and more erratic as he grew older. Some of the more conservative eyes were simply unprepared for this level of realism, with Ivan's eyes bulging as the consequences of his actions sink in. It is essentially from the History Painting genre, but with elements of realism combined with extreme emotions more akin to the Romanticist era which brought us the likes of Gericault and Delacroix.
All these years later, this painting still excites and provokes, just as Repin had intended. It retains a prominent role within Russian art history and also draws our attention to one of the country's most famous rulers. The visual arts have long held the ability to bring to life stories from the past in a way which makes them more accessible to new generations. Ivan the Terrible and his Son encompasses all of the artist's best qualities, from his attention to detail, to the extreme emotions which appear in some of his better works. It is perhaps surprising that he did not return to the History Painting genre too often after this piece, when considering its brilliance. It may have been that, as outlined by the quote below, producing such emotional art took too much out of the artist and left him exhausted.
"...I painted in tears, I was tortured, I tormented myself... I was disappointed with this painting, I hid it. And she made the same impression on my friends. But something pushed me towards her, and again I was working on it...."
Within this article we examine the life of Ivan the Terrible, as well as looking at how he ended up conflicting with his son in such a violent manner. We will then examine the artwork itself, and how Repin set about completing such a masterpiece, from early sketches to the final, sprawling piece which measures over two and a half metres in width. Information is also provided on where to go to see the original in all its glory, as well as some content on just how controversial a painting is has proved over the past century or so. Larger images of the painting are included at the bottom of the article, allowing you to appreciate particular details such as the incredible facial expressions given to the enraged Tsar. Finally, a video is included below which provides an animated version of much of the content included here.
Ivan the Terrible was the Grand Prince of Moscow and ruler of Russia from 1547-1584. While he was intelligent, diplomatic and popular among the common population of Russia, he was known for having a dark side. He is notorious for having a temper as he would fall into rages that became more frequent in his old age. During one of his episodes, he killed his son and the heir to the throne, Ivan Ivanovich. This key moment in Russia history would inspire the later artwork by Ilya Repin which would eventually become perhaps his most famous. It is believed that Ivan the Terrible's mental health would slowly deteriorate over time, and by the time of his death he was becoming something of a liability to his people. Hi period of rule is considered part of the country's transition into an empire but the change would come at a great cost, both during his own lifetime and also in future generations. Repin's memorable portrait has helped him to acquire considerable fame on a global scale, thanks to the powerful expressions given by the artist to Ivan shortly after the passing of his son.
Why was he nicknamed The Terrible?
Ivan IV Vasilyevich was given a number of different nicknames during his lifetime, including the likes of Ivan the Formidable and Ivan the Fearsome. The boldness of his labels were in part due to his autocratic style, which laid the path for an alternative style of leadership within Russia that lasted unchallenged for many centuries. He would seek his political will regardless of the cost, and his aggressive nature increased as he aged. Titles such as The Terrible were mainly, therefore, in reference to his treatment of his own people who would suffer greatily as a result of his political decisions. That said, there have also been many accounts in which others have claimed his personality to have been much more kind, and that in fact he was merely the victim of inaccurate reporting. Many in Russia today also see great qualities in a strong leader, perhaps more so than in the west where most opinions have been derived. His memorable label as The Terrible has also led to a number of fictional stories and plays being written about his life, further strengthening the narrative which has built up over time. He has now become just as well known internationally as Joseph Stalin, Alexander Nevsky and Peter the Great.
Many historians have concluded that Ivan's worst legacy was in how he burdened his people with high taxation in order to finance endless wars for the purposes of expanding territory. The debts accrued by these aggressive acts would hammer later generations and ultimately lead to the demise of his own dynasty, Rurik dynasty, which then led on to what became known as the Time of Troubles. During his own leadership, some of the key conflicts would include the likes of the Siege of Kazan (1552), the Russo-Turkish War (1568–1570), the Livonian War and also various Russo-Crimean Wars plus the conquest of Siberia. This considerable number of commitments over an extended period would also lead to a shortage of men for years to come afterwards. His own people would also start to become tired of these endless crusades that would ultimately lead to them being poorer within their own lives.
Who was his Son?
Tsarevich Ivan Ivanovich of Russia was the son of Ivan the Terrible and is perhaps most famous today for the image of his lifeless body, as seen in Repin's artwork from 1883 - 1885. Ivan the Younger is believed to have grown frustrated by the number of failed conflicts brought about by his father and began to speak out against The Terrible's actions as he grew into his mid to late twenties. They served in battle together in previous years and had a strong relationship but eventually his father's bouts of fury would lead to his own demise. Whilst historians have given conflicting accounts of his father's behaviour, most tend to confirm that it was he who murdered his son, probably on the 19th of November, 1581. As part of the reality of growing up in a powerful family in the 16th century, the young Ivan was regularly lined up for politically-advantageous marriages to various young women around Europe. In his father's pursuit for another generations of heirs, the young Ivan would marry three times, with the first two wives, Eudoxia Saburova and Praskovia Solova, being removed due to childlessness. His third wife, Yelena Sheremeteva, became pregnant but is believed to have miscarried at around the same time of her husband's death.
The Artist's Preparation
A good number of preparatory artworks have been discovered from Repin's career, some of which were for the production of his portrait of Ivan the Terrible and his son. Both simple pencil sketches and more detailed elements in oil were part of this process, representing different stages of the artwork's development. Repin sketched out the figures in pencil, for example, and the earliest stages, before then painting individual elements of the completed scene, one by one. One item uncovered focuses entirely on his son's boots, which lay towards the viewer in the final piece. There are likely to have been many more study drawings, as traditionally artists do take much care with their sketches, leading to many of them becoming damaged or lost. Repin would then have been ready to move on to the next stage, which was to be a full version of the later original, but with reduced levels of detail. This oil study remains in existence today and it compositionally identical to the final piece. From that point he would then have felt comfortable in moving on to the final artwork which had already been planned down to the very last detail.
Background to the Artwork
In 1581, Ivan the Terrible beat Yelena Sheremateva, the wife of his son Ivan, because he thought her clothes were immodest. This is believed to have cause a miscarriage. As a result, Ivan the son confronted his father and started an argument that resulted in Ivan the Terrible striking his son in the head with his pointed staff. This injury ended up being fatal and the heir, Ivan, passed away. This event was significant to the history of Russia as well because it left the nation without it's rightful heir. Instead, Ivan the Terrible's unfit and childless middle son, Feodor, took the throne. Feodor left no heirs, which led to the Time of Troubles from 1598 to 1613.
Description of the Painting
The painting Ivan the Terrible and his Son is Repin's portrayal of this event. It is quite a beautiful painting despite it's horrible origins. Even if one did not know the story behind the painting, there are clues to show what happened. The staff is seen in the foreground on the ground as the obvious weapon. It is clear the man in black, Ivan the Terrible, has killed the younger man in the pinkish robe. There has been a skirmish of sorts as the rug is askew and some furniture in the background has been knocked over. The painting's beauty can be found in the many details.
There is a lot of detail in the carpet and the shoes the young Ivan is wearing. The emotion in Ivan the Terrible's face is also very apparent. He has look of horror and a heartbreaking realization of what he has done. His emotion is juxtaposed with the lack of expression on the face of his son who has been killed. The painting can bring out mixed feelings because you feel sad for Ivan the Terrible but also realize he is the murderer. It is quite an astonishing piece of art and only one of the many amazing works of art in Repin's portfolio.
What is the meaning of this painting?
Repin was skilled at depicting real people in real situations and preferred to paint for moral and social purposes. While he did not normally paint historical pieces or ones with violence and bloodshed, Ivan the Terrible and his Son (1885) is a major exception. It is believed that Repin painted this piece as a rejection to violence and bloodshed. He was apparently inspired by the assassination of Alexander II as it caused him to reflect on other tragic events in Russia's history. The painting was shown in 1885 at the 12th Itinerant's Society Exhibition in St. Petersburg, of which he was a member for many years. Its brutal honesty has made the artwork somewhat controversial and more conservative minds have found it to be distasteful, perhaps not realising that it was intended as a warning against violence, rather than attemting to promote the level of brutality. Indeed, the artwork has become so controversial that it has been attacked multiple times, including as recently as 2018.
"...It was natural to look for a way out for the sore tragedy in history ... Feelings were overloaded with the horrors of our time..."
This powerful piece has been received in many different ways. Many just appreciate the raw emotions found within it, without looking for any greater meaning from the artist. Repin himself did not go into much detail about the work and his reasons for it, leaving plenty of room for discussion by others. The composition is carefully crafted, leading our eyes towards Tsar's bulging eyes, whilst his son suffers the consequences of his rage. Repin produced a follow-up version some years later which featured an additional female figure, as well as a much brighter palette. This allows us to learn a little more about his thinking, and also how his attitudes changed after the earlier painting was completed. The majority of historians view this piece as a rejection of violence, which littered Russian history and concerned Repin. It is a reminder to us all so as to control our urges and our very worst personality traits, which Ivan the Terrible clearly could not manage himself. We do know that the artist poured his heart and soul into the production of this artwork, and the toil of that would perhaps explain why he rarely was quite so expressive again in future. Most criticism of the painting has been less about its technical qualities, and more about the image that it presents of Russia as a nation, with some of the more extreme nationalists having attempted to see it removed from display on a number of occasions.
Who else has painted Ivan the Terrible?
Ivan the Terrible has been depicted many times by various artists throughout history, mainly by Russian and Ukrainian painters. Many illustrated publications have also included illustrations of this famous figure. It is likely that Repin's version is the most famous, but many others are also well worthy of note. Ivan the Terrible Showing His Treasures to Jerome Horsey by Alexander Litovchenko (1875), for example, features an extraordinary level of detail, whilst The Oprichniki by Nikolai Nevrev delivers a much more aggressive atmosphere. There was also Portrait of Ivan IV by Viktor Vasnetsov which displays ornate detail across the Tsar's clothing and that piece also resides today at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Besides these highlights, there are also likely to be many more examples available from local Russian artists from the past few centuries which have not been brought to the attention of western art enthusiasts yet. Comparing these various pieces helps historians to understand how different generations have viewed the Tsar's legacy at different points over the past few centuries. It would also be wrong to assume that western and Russian people would view this strong leader in the same way.
When did Repin complete the painting and where has it been exhibited?
The artist worked on this painting between the years of 1883 to 1885. He completed many stages of preparation in order to avoid having to make too many alterations once the main oil piece had been commenced. He is likely to have sketched out individual elements of the scene before adding them into the large canvas, and would have paid particular attention to the main focal point, which was the double portrait in the centre of the artwork. The rolls of carpet, unsettled by a recent struggle, would also not have been easy to achieve without sketchwork. To the best of our knowledge, the artwork has been at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow for its entire lifespan, with the institution set up just a few decades earlier. It has since grown to become one of the most important art venues in the country, and was initially formed from Pavel Tretyakov's own personal collection. It is likely to have been loaned out for major exhibitions from time to time, but we do not have detailed information on that.
Technical Information about the artwork
Artist Repin would often make use of huge, sprawling canvases which were necessary for the incredible levels of detail that he often put into his major artworks. This piece was no different, and for many art galleries it would actually be too large to hang. The overall piece is over two metres in width, allowing it to fill one's entire view, sucking us into the scene as if we were there at the time. The double portrait was completed in oils, which was the most common medium across Europe at that time, having originally been developed from the Netherlands several centuries earlier. Even Italy by that point had mainly moved on from egg tempera, which had been more common previously. The artist would have been in his very late thirties by the time he commenced this piece, and was a highly accomplished artist at this point, whilst still being entirely fresh in ideas and inspiration. He would continue to work for many decades after the painting was finished, but rarely returned to the history painting genre. The original title given to this piece was Иван Грозный и сын его Иван 16 ноября 1581 года, which translates as Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on 16 November 1581.
Artist: Ilya Repin
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 199.5 cm × 254 cm (78.5 in × 100 in)
Location: Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Where can the Painting be found today?
Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on 16 November 1581 can be found at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, Russia, where is has resides for many years. The gallery itself has an impressive and varied collection, with followers of Repin being able to see many artworks from his career here. For those with wider tastes, you may also be interested in Vasily Surikov's The Morning of the Streltsy Execution, Ivan Shishkin and Konstantin Savitsky's Morning in a Pine Forest, Mikhail Nesterov's The Soul of the People as well as a very early piece by Andrei Rublev which came more than a century before even the rule of Ivan the Terrible. In terms of more recent artwork, their collection of modern art continues to grow and includes the iconic Black Square by Kazimir Malevich. Moscow itself hosts a fine selection of Russian art from across the ages, spread across several major art galleries and museums. Only the cultural city of St Petersburg can really compete within Russia against the activities found in its capital city. It is also fitting that the Tretyakov devotes so much space specifically to Repin, which underlines his perceived significance within its art history.
When was the painting attacked and vandalised?
The artwork has been steeped in controversy almost ever since it was first unveiled at the Moscow-based gallery. Some have accused it of being anti-Russian, perhaps even an invention of western propaganda. Thankfully, the curators and directors of the gallery continue to promote and display this important piece and most art followers appreciate its clear artistic qualities. Feelings have, sadly, boiled over at times, leading to two particularly memorable incidents in which the piece was vandalised by visitors, in 1913 and 2018.
In early 1913 a young man would slash at the painting with a knife, causing considerable damage. He rejected the idea of icons being used within art, and sadly his attack impacted key parts of the painting. Thankfully, Repin was in his late sixties at the time and therefore able to help out in its restoration. For the original artist to help out, this ensured that the painting retained its authenticity and a glass cover over the canvas was later added in order to protect against any potential in the future. Curators have always faced a difficult balance of allowing the general public to see these important elements of their cultural history, but without risking their own deterioration from violent attacks or the effects of the environment itself such as prolongued bright lighting.
On this occasion the attacker was fuelled rather more by drunkeness than any particular political leanings, although he later claimed the portrait to be unrealistic and deserving of his assault. A metal bar damaged the frame, glass cover and elements of the original painting, though the key areas were left untouched. The damage was not as serious as the assault a century earlier, and modern restoration techniques are also far more effective. The gentleman was sentenced to over two years in prison for this latest attack.
Large Image of Ilya Repin's Painting of Ivan the Terrible and his Son
This large and detailed piece cannot entirely be appreciated with small images, and so we have included some larger ones below, the first of which focuses on the key element of the painting. There you will find the extraordinary facial expressions of Ivan the Terrible as he comes to terms with the consequences of his actions. It is perhaps his bulging eyes that make this piece so memorable, as well as the clear connection to historical events that were highly significant within the progression of Russia during the 16th century. Other elements in the scene to look out for include the traditional decor of the time, as well as the disruption presumably caused by a fight which eventually led to the death of Ivan the Terrible's son. This artwork captured the essence of Repin, with all of his greatest qualities included within this piece. His attention to detail was remarkable, particularly when considering that this scene was an imagined view of an historical event. The Realism genre has delivered many famous Russian artists, although technically this relates to the History Painting genre.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.