24.07 (05.08).1844, Chuguyev, Kharkov Province (now a district centre in the Ukraine) – 29.09.1930, Kuokkala, Finland (now Repino, St Petersburg)
Painter, graphic artist, teacher

Ilya Repin’s father was a Russian military settler who broke in and sold horses. From his earliest childhood the boy had a heightened emotional sensitivity, and his talent for drawing appeared very soon. He studied initially in an icon studio and painted icons and decorated churches as an apprentice.

He travelled to St Petersburg in 1863 and entered the drawing school of the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, where he studied under Rudolf Zhukovsky and Ivan Kramskoy. At the start of 1864 he was accepted as an external student by the Academy of Art, and became a full student in the autumn of 1865. His first significant work, Barge Haulers on the Volga, was already attracting widespread attention and it won first prize from the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts. He graduated from the Academy with the Major Gold Medal and received the right to travel abroad with a stipend. He left Russia in 1873, visiting Rome, Naples and Pompeii. He stopped in Paris, where he lived and worked for three years. At the time Paris was experiencing the revolution of Impressionism, but Repin was not ready to accept these developments. He saw an exhibition of Manet, but it was only slowly, and with great difficulty, that he learnt to appreciate the new style of painting.

He returned to Russia in 1876. He was awarded the title of Academician for his painting Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom. He was a member of the Peredvizhniki (the Wanderers or Itinerants) from 1878 (with a gap between 1891 and 1897). From then on he showed his new paintings at the exhibitions of the Peredvizhniki, and each of them became a public and artistic event. A very wide-ranging artist, Repin worked in the most varied genres. He created a portrait gallery of his contemporaries, from simple peasants to the highest state officials and members of the royal family, from a rural archdeacon to leading figures in culture and science, including Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolay Pirogov and Vladimir Stasov. He painted pictures whose subjects were torn from the very heart of the life of the people – Barge Haulers on the Volga and Religious Procession in Kursk Province – and pictures about the growth of revolutionary activities: Arrest of a Propagandist. They Did Not Expect Him and Refusal of Confession. Repin was both the master of magnificent historical canvases such as Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to the Turkish Sultan and Ivan the Terrible and his Son, 16 November 1581, and of intimate family portraits and an official panoramic portrait of a formal session of the State Council. Repin was exceptionally sensitive both to past and to contemporary history. It is therefore not surprising that his main hero was Leo Tolstoy, to whom he devoted a large series of drawings and paintings. We can be quite confident in saying that Repin was the only artist who managed to create a unique encyclopaedia of contemporary Russian life. From 1903 until the end of his life Repin lived in Penaty, his estate on the Gulf of Finland. After Finland broke away in 1918 he was outside Russia’s frontiers, and he declined persistent invitations to move to the USSR. He bequeathed Penaty to the Academy of Art for a museum. He wrote a book of memoirs entitled Dalyokoye blizkoye (Far and Near). V.G.

Repin