Ilya Efimovich Repin was born in 1844 in the small Ukrainian town of Chuguev into the family of a military settler. As a boy he was trained as an icon painter. At the age of 19 he entered the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts. His arrival in the capital coincided with an important event in the artistic life of the 60s, the so-called ‘Rebellion of the Fourteen’, when 14 young artists left the Academy after refusing to use mythological subjects for their diploma works. They insisted that art should reflect real life, not classical scholarship, and formed the Society of the Peredvizhniki to promote their own aesthetic ideals. Later, Repin would become associated with the movement, and grow to be a close friend of some of the painters.
For his diploma work Raising of Jairus' Daughter (1871) Repin was awarded the Major Gold Medal and received a scholarship to study abroad. Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870-1873) was the first major work painted by Repin after graduation. It immediately won recognition.
In 1873, Repin went abroad. For some months, he travelled through Italy before settling and working in Paris until 1876. There, he witnessed the first exhibition of the Impressionists, but, judging by the works he painted during the period and by his letters home, he was not enthused for this new Parisian school of painting, though he didn't share the critical opinions of some of his countrymen who saw a dangerous departure from "the truth of life" in Impressionism.
After returning to Russia, Repin settled in Moscow. He was a frequent visitor to Abramtsevo, the country estate of Savva Mamontov, one of the most famous Russian art patrons of the late 19th Century. It was a very fruitful period in his creative career. Over the next 10-12 years Repin produced the majority of his famous paintings. In 1877, he begain painting cross processions (krestny khod), which became a frequent theme in his art: e.g., Krestny Khod (Cross Procession) in Kursk Gubernia (1880-1883). The composition took its strength from the dramatic effect of people of different social classes, uniting around the miracle-working icon carried at the head of the procession. There were two different versions of the picture. The second one, completed in 1883, became the more popular. In a single glance, the spectator discovers an abundance of social types and human characters in the crowd .
Repin explored other social themes as well, often approaching them from a very personal, human angle. For example, Unexpected Return (1884) depicts the father of a household returning from prison. Refusal of the Confession(1879-1885) shows a dying man refusing a deacon's offer of the last rites, which was significant, as many social revolutionaries in Russia at this time were opponents of the church, which they saw as bolstering the imperial government.
Repin is the author of many portraits, which are an essential part of his artistic legacy. Repin's portraiture stands apart; he had the gift of capturing not just the faces of his models, but also something of their character, showing them in their natural state and revealing their attitude towards the world. Portrait of the Composer Modest Musorgsky (1881), Portrait of the Surgeon Nikolay Pirogov (1881), Portrait of the Author Alexey Pisemsky (1880), Portrait of the Poet Afanasy Fet (1882), Portrait of the Art Critic Vladimir Stasov (1883), and Portrait of Leo Tolstoy (1887) and many others are distinguished by the power of the visual features and the economy and sharpness of execution.
Repin rarely painted historical paintings. His most popular work in this genre is Ivan the Terrible and his son Ivan (1895). The expressive, intense composition and psychological insight in rendering the characters produced a strong favorable impression on his contemporaries. Another popular work of the genre is The Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mahmoud IV (1880-1891). The faithfully rendered spirit of the Zaporozhian freemen, who, according to the artist's own commentary, had a particularly strong sense of “liberty, equality and fraternity” undoubtedly gives the picture its power. The patriotic theme appealed to Repin's contemporaries, though later critics argued that the painting had a subversive context: the Cossacks could just as easily have been writing their rude letter to the Russian Tsar as the Turkish Sultan..
The last quarter of the 19th century is the most notable period in Repin’s work, though he continued to work well into the 20th century (the artist died in 1930). He did not paint any outstanding works in the latter years of his life. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, he lived and worked at his estate Penates in Finland, where there is a Repin museum today.
Repin. by G. Stepnin. Russian Painters of the XIX century. Moscow. 1985.
Ilya Repin. by A. Fedotov-Davydov. Iskusstvo. Moscow. 1989.
Ilya Repin: Russia's Secret by H. W. Van OS. B.V. Waanders Uitgeverji, 2005.
Ilya Repin and the World of Russian Art by Elizabeth Kridl Valkenier. Columbia University Press, 1990.
The Art and Architecture of Russia (Pelican History Art) by George Heard Hamilton. Yale Univ Pr, 1992.
A Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Artists 1420-1970 by John Milner. Antique Collectors' Club, 1993.
Biography by Olga Mataev and Yuri Mataev. Historical notes by Olga Mataev.