"I love diversity and I can’t run away from myself” - The Painter Ilya Yefimovich Repin

5 August 1844, the painter Ilya Yefimovich Repin was born in Chuguyev in present-day Ukraine.
“Maybe they are right, but I love diversity and I can’t run away from myself” (Ilya Repin)

Ilya Repin: “Barge Haulers on the Volga” (1870 - 1873)

In 1863, a group of young painters decided to break away from the predominant style of painting as taught according to the rules set by the St Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts and imperial academic distinction between high and low art. Calling themselves the Peredvizhniki, the Wanderers, these young set forth to leave St Petersburg and Moscow, went to the countryside and painted their Russia in her picturesque beauty and naming and shaming conditions, often with the same brushstroke. It was the birth of Russian realism. And Repin certainly was the movement’s most illustrious artist, even though his range was far greater than the faithful reproduction of Mother Russia’s reality. The “Barge Haulers on the Volga” is arguably his best-known painting, but Repin incorporated Impressionistic influences as masterfully as he painted portraits, of the high and mighty as well as artists, other painters, authors and composers, patrons of the arts and his own family.

Ilya Repin: 17 October 1905 (1906 - 1911)

Even if immediate success eluded him during his first exhibitions in Paris, the last decade of the 19th century brought and overwhelming recognition of his works beyond Russia. Repin had often been compared to his friend Tolstoy in terms of influence and being a figurehead of Russian art. In fact, both artistic titans share a superior expressive power, verisimilitude, veracity and predilection for detail, but his polyphony of sujets, his depth and the sheer multi-layered magnitude of his of his work brings him much closer to Dostoevsky, one of the very few 19th century Russian authors of renown, Repin did not portray, even though they had met in St Petersburg’s salons on several occasions. During his long life, Repin saw several changes come to his native land up to the great October Revolution and adopted a positive stance towards the latter event, even though the estate he had bought in 1896 was on Finnish territory after the war and he repeatedly declined invitations to live in St Petersburg that was now called Leningrad. But despite a strong religious trait in his works, along with several portraits of the Tsar and his ministers as well as Kerensky, Repin became the paragon for the movement known as Soviet socialist realism – without anybody being able to catch up with the master.

Ilya Repin: "Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks" (1891)

Depicted below is Ilya Repin’s “Evening Party” from 1881, now at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, a scene that brings Dmitri Karamazov’s parties in honour of Grushenka at Mokroe to mind, e.g.: “They were awaiting Mitya with impatience in the shop. They had vivid recollections of how he had bought, three or four weeks ago, wine and goods of all sorts to the value of several hundred roubles, paid for in cash (they would never have let him have anything on credit, of course). They remembered that then, as now, he had had a bundle of hundred-rouble notes in his hand, and had scattered them at random, without bargaining, without reflecting, or caring to reflect what use so much wine and provisions would be to him. The story was told all over the town that, driving off then with Grushenka to Mokroe, he had “spent three thousand in one night and the following day, and had come back from the spree without a penny.” He had picked up a whole troop of gypsies (encamped in our neighborhood at the time), who for two days got money without stint out of him while he was drunk, and drank expensive wine without stint. People used to tell, laughing at Mitya, how he had given champagne to grimy-handed peasants, and feasted the village women and girls on sweets and Strasburg pies. Though to laugh at Mitya to his face was rather a risky proceeding, there was much laughter behind his back, especially in the tavern, at his own ingenuous public avowal that all he had got out of Grushenka by this “escapade” was “permission to kiss her foot, and that was the utmost she had allowed him.”

Ilya Repin: "Evening Party" (1883)

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A wonderful monographic show of Repin’s works can be found on: