Elias Repin
Master Painter From Ukraine

Andrew Gregorovich

Zaporozhian Cossacks of Ukraine Writing a Letter
to the Turkish Sultan. Oil painting by Elias Repin,
1878-91. 6'8" x 11'9".

Elias (Illya) Repin was born in the Ukrainian town of Chuhuyev, Kharkiv region on August 4, 1844. His father Yukhim, was a military colonist who farmed but was liable at all times for military duty. At the time of Elias's birth, the family fortunes had dropped and as a result in his early years the future painter suffered from abject poverty.

As a young boy in north eastern Ukraine he earned money by painting portraits and icons. His ability was such that local Ukrainian churches welcomed his work. It w('1s during his youth in Ukraine that his gift for art was nurtured through an elementary art education.

At the age of 20 Repin managed to enter the St. Petersburg Academy of Art in the Russian capital. In the same year, 1864 he enrolled at the School of Drawing. Because of his desperate financial situation the young artist had to work at odd jobs in these early years to finance his art studies.

Repin's first important paintings, in accordance with the requirements of the Academy of Art, were based on classical themes. His progress in portrait painting was exceptional. By the time he was 25 his reputation as a portrait painter was established. He painted portraits, with a profound psychological character, of the most notable men of the Russian Empire of his day, totalling over 300 in all.

Among his portraits of Ukrainians, his Shevchenko is an interesting study. In his portrait of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko the artist gave him an admonishing look which penetrates through the viewer.

Repin Self-portrait 1878

His greatest oil painting may be Zaporozhian Cossacks Writing a Letter to the Turkish Sultan painted 1878-91 after extensive research and many travels through Ukraine and the Zaporozhian area. The painting has a heroic quality capturing the independent spirit of the Ukrainian Cossacks and people. It is also imbued with considerable humour showing the cheering Cossacks composing an insulting letter to the mighty Sultan of the Turkish Empire. The painting is in the St. Petersburg Art Gallery in Russia but there is a variant version in the Kharkiv Art Gallery in Ukraine.

Into the superb canvas of Zaporozhians, his greatest masterpiece, Repin poured 13 years of his life. He sought to achieve historical accuracy through meticulous research with historian Dmytro Yavornytsky.

Other works on Ukrainian themes are Hetman, Vechomytsi, Ukrainmian Cottage and Procession in the Government of Kiev, which, according to Encyclopedia Britannica is one of "his chief pictures." The same source says Repin's paintings are powerfully drawn with not a little imagination and with strong dramatic force and characterization. Encyclopedia Americana says "He also won fame as a portrait painter, sculptor and etcher,"

Unexpected, a painting which depicts the homecoming of an exile from Siberia, is interesting because the models used were the artist's own family. His own home served as the background, and very clearly on the living room wall there is a portrait of Taras Shevchenko. Apparently Repin honored his countryman.

Art critics have noticed a clear distinction and contrast between Repin's Ukrainian and Russian themes. The Ukrainian themes are positive and merry compared to his Russian paintings. For example compare the Russian Volga Boatmen and Ivan the Terrible Killing his Son with the Ukrainian Hopak or Zaporozhian Cossacks. Snowyd says "Ukraine in his paintings is all beauty, joy, happiness, a grand and even reckless struggle againt powerful enemies. Russia is wallowing in uglliness and cruelty."

Repin's genius created in the Zaporozhians an immortal image of the heroic era of Ukrainian Cossack history. He refused to live in Soviet Russia after the Revolution and lived in Finland instead. In his last years he painted such Ukrainian works as Hopak and Black Sea Freemen. He died in Kuokkale, Finland at the age of eighty-six leaving a rich and magnificent artistic legacy.

  • Andrew Gregorovich

    "I very much love . . . the Ukrainian
    vernacular language. It is so melodious,
    colourful and gentle to the ear"

    -- Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
    Russian Writer

    Zaporozhians. A variant version from the famous one. Kharkiv Art Gallery.

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    Document Information

    Document URL: http://www.infoukes.com/culture/paintings/repin/index.html

    Copyright © 1999 Andrew Gregorovich

    Reprinted from FORUM Ukrainian Review No. 100, Summer 1999
    Published by the Ukrainian Fraternal Association
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    Originally Composed: Monday February 28th 2000.
    Date last modified: Monday February 28th 2000.