Portrait of M.P. (Modest Petrovich) Musorgsky Ilya Repin Buy Art Prints Now
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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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Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky is a renowned composer of Russian origin whose famous works include the Khovanshchina that was completed by Rimsky-Korsakov in 1883, piano suite pictures of 1874 and Boris Godunov among other operas that are world acclaimed.

Ilya Repin, the painter of the portrait, is known for his great contribution in art by his wonderful portraits but this particular portrait of M.P Mussorgsky remains the only portrait that is known to be available throughout the life of the composer.


Repin came up with this masterpiece over a period of four days from the 14th to the 17th of March circa or the 2nd to the 5th of march in the new style in the hospital where the friends to the M.P had placed him during the time of the attack of deliriums tremens. The intention of the painting was to explicitly show the tragedy that had befallen the great talent, depicting a person that had been burned from a nervous condition and a case of alcoholism.

This was just 10 days before the famous opera composer passed away in the hospital. A statement from an eye-witness read, "...with every possible inconvenience; the painter did not even have an easel and he had to perch somehow near the desk at which Mussorgsky was sitting in a hospital armchair...". This is backed by the painting's depiction of a man that is terminally ill with a rare kind of illness.

The Background

The artist's use of an indeterminate background in the composition vividly depicts the illusion of open space, with the figure of M.P sitting against the open skies and clearly gazing far into the distance towards the background of the painting. At first glance, the art piece may seem empty, but a closer look reveals an illusion of clouds and the element of unreality of everything happening around the painting depicted by the sky blue tones. It is public knowledge that the painter, Ilya refused to accept payment for the masterpiece and chose to donate the same to Mussorgsky's monument.

Technique and Approach

Repin is known for persistently depicting the spirit of age and how it reflects in the lives of people with a deep sense of purpose. His paintings were mostly inspired by spiritual and social experiences and this painting was no different. Just like many other realists during his time, he made us of dramatic conflicts to bring out the agony and the terminality of M.Ps illness, a style that he drew from contemporary life. The portrait reflects a strong sense of purpose and clearly the opposite of the approach for Impressionists. He made use of slow but careful brushworks that ultimately led to the detailed finished painting of the composer. He was able to achieve an effective arrangement, grouping the different aspects of the painting to achieve a colouristic authority in the painting quite uniquely. This painting depicted a great psychological depth.

Influences and Inspirations

Repin's triumph in the Russian industry was widespread and was a source of influence and inspiration to great names in the art industry like Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Vladimir Stasov. Their paintings clearly derived inspiration from Repin’s technique by depicting the feeling of personal responsibility for the tough life that the people of Russia were going through. Ilya was not only a great inspiration to fellow artist but also derived a lot of influence from different other artists who played an instrumental role in shaping his techniques and style in painting. His association and keenness to learn from the likes of Gustave Courbet, Ivan Kramskoi, Alexander Pushkin and Vasily Perov. These gentlemen greatly influenced his artistic career.


Ilya Repin was the first ever painter with Russian origin that was able to achieve European fame utilising Russian painting styles and themes. He was a leader of a new artistic movement that included the critical realism in the Russian art. His work was a clear choice of nature of the element of academic formalism in art. Read more in our Repin biography.