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26 September 2018

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Distorted Portrait of an Artist

Author: Tamara Eidelman
Translation: Nora Seligman Favorov

July/Aug 2014
Page 19   ( 4 pages)

Summary: Ilya Repin was one of Russia's most famous, prolific and talented artists. So why was he dismissed by some in the Soviet era?


One of the most striking things about Ilya Repin is how much he managed to accomplish over his long life. He was born in 1844 in the Eastern Ukrainian town of Chuguyev, where his family lived in a military settlement. By the time he died in the Finnish town of Kuokkala, in 1930 – in a different country and an entirely different era – he was a world-renowned artist.

It is a bit of a cliché that great artists do not live long, but Repin defied the stereotype, living a life that was not only long but amazingly energetic. Everything he did – paint, discuss art, swim in the cold waters of Finland, listen to music – he did with an energetic spirit that endured for 86 years.

Repin was extremely prolific. It would probably be hard to find another artist who left behind as many paintings. His close friend Korney Chukovsky wrote a eulogy in his honor that ended with the following summary:

Repin glorified Russian music through his portraits of Glinka, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Glazunov, Lyadov, and Rimsky-Korsakov and Russian literature with portraits of Gogol, Turgenev, Lev Tolstoy, Pisemsky, Garshin, Fet, Stasov, Gorky, Leonid Andreyev, Korolenko, and many others. Russian painting was represented in Repin’s work by an entire gallery of portraits: Surikov, Shishkin, Kramskoy, Vasnetsov, Kuindzhi, Chistyakov, Myasoyedov, Ge, Serov, Ostroukhov, and many others. He glorified Russian science with his portraits of Sechenov, Mendeleyev, Pavlov, Tarkhanov, and Bekhterev, and Russian surgery with portraits of N.I. Pirogov and Ye.V. Pavlov (the latter of whom is depicted in a surgical ward performing an operation) – in a word, he captured the best that Russia had to offer for posterity.

This list is far from complete. People were eager to be painted by Repin, and he produced dozens upon dozens of portraits. He liked to address historical themes and also his own time, including in the grandiose Ceremonial Meeting of the State Council and They Did Not Expect Him, a painting about a young man’s return from forced labor, as well as many portraits of prominent Russian dignitaries. Of course, not every painting in an oeuvre of this size will be brilliant, but Repin did produce many masterpieces, especially among the portraits.

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