Ilya Repin’s Russian Soul in Paris

Posters for the Ilya Repin exhibition at the Petit Palais, Paris, refer to him as a ‘painter of the Russian soul’ and there is certainly ample evidence of his capacity to both record and construct a particular sense of ‘Russian’ identity and culture. In this rich survey of his career, with many paintings travelling to Paris for the first time, we find almost all of the great set-piece works, from the ‘Barge Haulers of the Volga’ to the ‘Religious Procession in Kursk Province’ and the ‘Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to the Sultan’ to name but a few. The exhibition is only slightly smaller in size than its 2019 iteration in Moscow’s New Tretyakov Gallery and St Petersburg’s State Russian Museum. The vast ‘Ceremonial Meeting of the State Council on 7th May 1901’ hasn’t made the trip, although some of the preparatory sketches for the group portrait have done so. Currently drawing in large crowds of Parisian visitors as it enters its closing weeks, this is truly a landmark display of the work of a painter much better known in Russia than he is elsewhere.

Ilya Repine. Exhibition Poster

Alongside these justly celebrated Russian images, however, this exhibition reminds us that Repin was a frequent visitor to the French capital, and seeing his art in the home of Impressionism locates this Russian soul within a more cosmopolitan nineteenth century culture. That the young painter who had produced the ‘Barge Haulers of the Volga’ in 1873 should, two years later, have completed a large tableau of Parisian café customers reminds us that Repin saw travel as a way of finding not only new subjects, but new ways of representing them. On arrival in Paris he was initially sceptical as to the merits of the new style of painting, critical of the ‘tricks’ of the Impressionists even if he appreciated their ideas of pictorial content and narrative, but he was always alert to the subject matter that the city gave him. Although technically prohibited from doing so by the terms of his travel stipend from the Imperial Academy of Arts, he nonetheless exhibited ‘A Parisian Café’ at the 1875 Salon before embarking on a summer tour of Normandy, where working en plein air gave his painting a much more Impressionistic and sketch-like appearance. The content of a painting like ‘The Turf Bench’ (1876) may be Russian in its setting and figures, but in style it owes as much to Eduard Manet’s 1863 ‘Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe’ as it does to Repin’s early work.

Ilya Repin, ‘The Turf Bench’ (1876, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg)

Living in Montmartre between 1873-6, Repin slotted into an already-established Russian community in Paris, where the Cathedrale Sainte Alexander Nevsky had recently been consecrated and where artists, writers, and political émigrés met in each other’s homes, in cafés and the officers of newspapers, or in the ‘Bibliothèque Russe’ that Ivan Turgenev founded in 1875. Turgenev himself, painted by Repin in 1874 as a commission from Pavel Tretyakov (although neither patron nor sitter were happy with the product) was in many ways the archetypal Russian abroad, avoiding returning ‘home’ to evade the Tsarist regime’s scrutiny, and living in self-imposed exile in a dacha outside the city. Although the young Repin could hardly have foreseen it, his own life would take a similar course in the years after 1917.

On his return to Russia, as if to prove a point after his travels, Repin embarked upon a renewed engagement with the country’s history in his more public-facing work, focusing on key moments and figures from the nation’s past. At the same time, though, the legacy of his French years gave a pronounced Impressionistic aspect to many of his paintings of friends and family, not least ‘Dragonfly’, his 1884 portrait of his daughter Vera at age 12, or his portrait of his son, Yuri, aged five and sitting on the very carpet that would serve as a prop for the immense and far more troubling ‘Ivan the Terrible’ of 1885. While the latter painting continues to undergo restoration after its most recent attack, it features in the exhibition via a video installation within a room foregrounding Repin’s treatment of Russian historical subject matter. The fact that he could remain true to his interest in the stylistic innovations of Paris and accurately represent the historical and cultural world of Russia is a measure of Repin’s capacity to hold many positions at once. He waited until 1878 to formally join the Wanderers group in their call for a specifically ‘Russian’ art, but having done so he worked on the immense panorama of the ‘Religious Procession in Kursk Province’ (1883) to signal afresh his dedication to representing the spiritual, social, and cultural life of his homeland.

Ilya Repin, ‘Religious Procession in Kursk Province’ (1883, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

This ability to work in accordance with different tastes, and sometime different ideological positions, was Repin’s strong point. He could paint revolutionaries in one image and in another turn the authoritarian Tsar Alexander III into a model of benevolent rule. It is often hard to tell from his art how he himself viewed the immense social upheavals of Russia’s late-nineteenth century. The returning political prisoner in ‘They Did Not Expect Him’ (1888) looks more like a ghost than a symbol of resistance to autocracy, and while we may see the red-shirted figure in 1883’s ‘A Secret Meeting’ as a revolutionary it is important to recall that it was first exhibited as the more benign ‘By Lamplight’, only being retitled ‘Meeting of the Nihilists’ in 1924, by which time the Tsarist regime was consigned to history and the most adaptable revolutionaries were installed in the Kremlin. As a policy, Repin’s ability to paint what his public wanted to see kept him in the forefront of Russian artists as other styles came and went. A room of his portraits here shows his skill at depicting the celebrities of late-19th century Russian life, and his images of Leo Tolstoy, painted over the course of the two men’s thirty-year friendship, are masterpieces of artistic realism and psychological insight. The small canvas depicting Tolstoy with a pair of horses engaged in ploughing the fields on his estate is barely 40x30cm in size but feels as though it ought to be vast in terms of what it says about the ‘muzhik count’ and his lifestyle.

Ilya Repin, ‘Leo Tolstoy Ploughing’ (1887, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

Like Tolstoy, though, Repin found himself beset by personal, spiritual, and artistic problems as the century drew to a close. Although still widely respected, he accepted a post at the Imperial Academy only to find himself embroiled in academic controversy, while familial issues arising from the breakdown of his marriage left him unsettled in his private life. His daughter Vera, who sat in the bright sunlight as a twelve-year old for 1884’s ‘Dragonfly’ returns in ‘Autumn Bouquet’ (1892) as a young woman, the flowers in her hands already fading. There is an air of maturity in the painting, but also an awareness of loss, both imminent and real.

Portraits of the imperial family and their courtiers from this time also reflect the insecurities and doubts of early-twentieth century Russia as it stumbled through failed reforms towards the cataclysm of the First World War and the turmoil of 1917. While in Paris in 1883 Repin had painted the crowds gathered at the Communards’ Memorial in Pere Lachaise Cemetery to remember the Commune of 1871 and honour those who fell in its defence. For many of those who were to become Russia’s revolutionary generation the Parisian example was a powerful reference point. In 1909 the young Ilya Ehrenburg would see Lenin at just such a commemorative event, as the revolutionary traditions of the two countries were interwoven in the minds of those who hoped that St Petersburg would soon witness a revolution of its own. Repin’s own image of the crowds celebrating the constitutional reforms proposed on ‘17th October 1905’, begun two years later, could easily be a depiction of the Parisians of 1789, 1848, or 1871 as they surge through the streets. All of the Revolutionary groups are represented in the crowd: a worker, a student, a member of the intelligentsia, a young woman, a military cadet. As if in anticipation of troubles to come, though, some of the faces seem almost frightening in their ecstasy, as though the forces finally unleashed even by this flimsy concession on the regime’s part might become impossible to control.

And so it proved, although by the time the Russia that he had painted was fully consigned to history Repin was watching events from a distance, having bought a dacha in Finland (then a Russian duchy) in 1899 and moved outright in 1903. With his partner, Natalia Nordman, he found a new happiness there, as captured in the striking ‘What Freedom’ of 1903, in which a couple dance in the breaking waves of the sea.

Ilya Repin, ‘What Freedom’ (1903, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg)

From this distance, and by now a man in his seventies, Repin watched as the Russia he had known descended into civil war and Communist rule. The final paintings in the exhibition capture either a sense of spiritual desolation on his part or a refusal to concede that anything has changed. A particularly poignant example is the ‘Dance of the Zaporozhian Cossacks’, which Repin was working on almost to the last, and which echoes the earlier, and more famous image of the Cossacks scornfully writing to the Turkish Sultan to dismiss his demand that they join his army. A long-standing image of Russian defiance in the face of external threats, the 1891 image is here reprised in a scene of music and celebration, as though some essential part of the Russian soul may have survived the trauma of 1917 after all. Having been cut off by both war and revolution from his assets and many of his unsold works, left behind in Russia, Repin found himself both materially poorer after 1917 and disconnected from whatever it was that Russia was becoming.

Inside the Soviet Union, the rise of a more realist school of painters in the 1920s, with his former pupil Isaak Brodsky leading their ranks, and the regime’s growing dissatisfaction with the avant-garde led to Repin being earnestly courted by Soviet artists as the figurehead of their own ‘proletarian painting’. For his part, Repin declined invitations to return, or even to briefly visit, the Soviet Union, dying at his Finnish home in 1930. He feared in his final years that Stalin’s regime was keeping under surveillance, and that for all of its outward favour towards him he enjoyed no more of its trust than did many other artists being persecuted within the new state. The Russian soul was obliged to be a Soviet one, and the terms and conditions were demanding.

Indeed, if one wishes to find the ‘Russian Soul’ in this exhibition then Repin’s self-portraits, placed throughout the rooms as records of his own development, offer a powerful case study. In an 1887 work he shows his Impressionist leanings, very much the confident painter and contented family man. An 1894 image is more thoughtful and introspective, as though some of the assurance of the earlier years was slipping away amidst personal and professional disputes. A double portrait alongside Natalia from their Finnish home suggests a new tranquillity and mutual happiness. A final self-portrait, though, of Repin aged 76, a decade before his death, shows a frail and anxious old man, lacking the confidence of his earlier years and lacking too, perhaps, confidence in the direction that his homeland is taking. Like Turgenev five decades earlier, Repin was a Russian soul destined to die abroad (Finland having broken away from Russia amidst the chaos of 1917 and remaining independent after the Civil War) leaving behind a rich legacy of works capturing the life of a homeland that became somewhere else. Within the galleries of Moscow and St Petersburg Repin’s ‘Russian’ credentials will never be in doubt. In Paris, however, other facets of his life and art emerge. Although he may not have found success there in the 1870s it is pleasing to see that in this major exhibition Repin finally drew appreciative crowds of Parisians to enjoy the full range of his art.


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