Илья Ефимович Репин (Ilya Yefimovich Repin, 1844-1930) was a leading Russian painter and sculptor of the Peredvizhniki artistic school. An important part of his work is dedicated to his native country, Ukraine. His realistic works often expressed great psychological depth and exposed the tensions within the existing social order.
Ilya Repin was born in Ukraine on August 5, 1844. His father was an army officer and the family lived rather poorly. He learnt the art of painting with a master of Icon painting before leaving for St. Petersburg.
One day of 1870, while enjoying a walk on the shores of the Neva River, Ilya Repin saw a dozen of exhausted men, dragging a barge against the current. The distressing fate of these haulers shook his sensibility. Being himself from the common people and knowing the meaning of labor and poverty, он решил написать о них картину (Repin felt the need to represent them on a canvas).
For many months Repin made many trips on the Volga River, Репин смотрел, как бурлаки тянули бечеву, сидел с ними у костра (observed the haulers while they dragged their barges from the shores, sat with the men around campfires). He made dozens of drawings, trying to catch the characteristics of all these men, their strength, their efforts, their exhaustion.
And in 1873, Repin unveil his painting “Бурлаки на Волге” (The Volga Boatmen). The realism of the painting made a strong impression on the visitors. It took a lot of courage to the artist to portray truthfully and accurately the lives of the oppressed and unjustly wronged in the pre-revolutionary Russia.
On the canvas, you can see dumpy, hairy and unkempt men in rags were hauling a barge with great difficulty. Everything in their person expressed the misery and hardships they've been through, and it was nearly impossible to give them an age. They had been hired for this hard labour so as not to die of hunger.
Life in Imperial Russia was hard for the people. And Repin always admired those who struggled against the oppressors, stood by their side and described their life in his paintings. His representation of “ест пропагандиста” (The arrest of the propagandist), with the contempt faces of the policemen or “Под конвоем” (The escort) depicting the long, infinitely long, dull, bumpy road to Siberia under a grey and cold sky, on which the convicted is driven to serve his sentence.
But despite their many burdens, people did not lose courage and cheerfulness. And this bravery and cheerful attitude, Repin also depicted in his paintings. His painting “Запорожцы пишут письмо турецкому султану” (Cossaks writing a letter to the Sultan) is very different, extremely alive, and yet Repin hasn't omitted a single detail for his characters.