Ilya Efimovich Repin was born in 1844 in the town of Chuhuiv, now part of eastern Ukraine. His parents were a family of military settlers. Military Settlements in thise days were places which allowed the combination of military service and agricultural employment. At the age of twelve, his art training took the form of an apprenticeship with the local icon painter, Ivan Bunakov and throughout his life religious representations remained of great importance to him. When he was 19 he entered the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts and studied portraiture. It was whilst at that artistic establishment that the Rebellion of the Fourteen took place in September 1863 The rebellion consisted of fourteen young artists who left the Academy in protest against its rigid neoclassical dicta and who refused to use mythological subjects for their diploma works.. The rebel artists insisted that art should be close to real life and they formed the Society of the Peredvizhniki to promote their own aesthetic ideals. In order to reach the widest audience possible, the society organized regular travelling exhibitions throughout the Russian Empire. Later, Repin would be become a close friend and associate with some of them and fifteen years on after returning from Europe he would join the group. But for the time Repin remained at the Academy and in 1871 won the prestigious Major Gold Medal award and received a scholarship to study abroad.
Repin went abroad in 1873 travelling around Italy before settling in Paris. It was whilst he was in Paris that he came in contact with the Impressionists and their works which had a lasting effect upon his use of light and colour and he witnessed their first exhibition in 1874. Although he never joined the group and was often critical of their style, which he considered too distant from reality, he was greatly influenced by some of the artists’ en plein air style of painting. In 1876 he left Paris and returned home to Russia, settling down in Moscow. During his period in Moscow he visited the country estate of Abramtsevo belonging to Savva Mamontov a wealthy Russina patron of the arts (See Valentin Serov – My Daily Art Display Feb 24th). Following the Bolshevik Revolution Repin went to Kuokkola, Finland to live in the estate he had built and which he called Penates. Repin produced his greatest works during the latter two decades of the nineteenth century although he continued painting well into the twentieth century. Repin died in 1930 in Kuokkla, at the age of 86. After the Winter War between Russia and Finland and the Continuation War between the two countries between 1939 and 1944, Kuokkala became Russian. In 1948, it was renamed Repino in honor of today’s artist Ilya Repin
My Daily Art Display featured painting today is entitled Religious Procession in Kursk Province and was completed by Repin in 1883. This massive oil on canvas painting measures 175 x 280cms. The setting for the painting is a time of drought and we see a large group of people crossing the parched earth. The leaders of the procession carry aloft a miracle-working icon to a church which lies nearby. What is interesting about the procession is that there is a great mix of people of various social standing in the community. Scan the painting, look at the various characters Repkin has depicted. He, by his portrayal of how the people are dressed, stresses the difference in their social status and highlights life’s inequalities. Some are in rags whilst others are bedecked in rich caftans. We focus our eyes on the young hunchback as he struggles along with his makeshift crutch totally focused on the icon, which is being held on the shoulders of the monks. To him, it may mean salvation. To him, life cannot get any worse and for him this procession will lead him to a better existence. Compare that with the posture of the cavalry officer atop of his horse who oozes a kind of sanctimonious piety, his attitude appears to be of one who only half believes in the power of the icon and who probably, unlike the hunchback, needs little that the icon can possibly offer anyway. This is a “them and us” scene, a “have and have not” scenario, which Repin liked to depict in his realist paintings. This was part of a slow build up to the revolution which would take another twenty years to arrive with its 1905 initial uprisings leading eventually to the ultimate revolution in 1917 which finally destroyed the Tsarist rule and the inequalities of life. For Repkin this procession we see before us in this painting maybe an allegory for the slow but unyielding forward advance of the working classes towards social change.
Repin was a Realist painter and focused much of his work on the social dilemmas of his country. He was aware of the inequalities of the Tsarist system and although that same system treated him well, he was aware that for a vast majority of his people, life was unfair. Ivan Kramskoi, the Russian artist and critic and leading light of the Society of the Peredvizhniki of which Repin was a member, said of his Repkin’s perception of life’s inequalities:
“…Repkin has a gift for showing the peasant as he is. I know many painters who show the moujik [Russian peasants], and they do it well but none can do so with as much talent as Repin…”
The painting hangs in the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and I would so like to stand in front of the painting and absorb the atmosphere that Repkin has conjured up in this magnificent work.