The most acclaimed artist of XIX century Russia and one of the main painters to popularize the art of his country in European culture was Ilya Yefímovich Repin. He was born in August of 1844 in the city of Chuguyev, in the governorate of the Russian Empire named Kharkov. In modern times, his hometown is in Ukraine and is named Chuhuiv. Repin came from a military family, and he began attending military school around the age of ten. His father, Yefim Vasilyevich Repin, served in the Imperial Russian Army and because of his position as a private, Repin attended a military Cantonist school, where the education was guided towards future military service.
He began studying painting under Ivan Bunakov in 1856. Repin learned to restore old religious paintings as well as working with commissioned portraits of noblemen and women. Throughout the 1860s, he met other individuals from the art world, like the critic Vladimir Stasov and the painter Ivan Kramskoi. Repin also met his future wife Vera Shevtsova, whom he married in 1872. The couple separated after ten years of marriage but continued in a friendly relationship. By 1864, Repin was studying at the prestigious Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg. In 1874, the Russian artist was showing his paintings at galleries, as well as the Paris Salon, the most important location in Europe to exhibit art, and he continued for more two years. During this period in Paris, there was an important avant-guard art movement rising called Impressionism. It is known that Repin became aware of the new direction these painters were taking and he admired some aspects of their technique, like their portrayal of light and their use of color. But because of his personal approach on his subject matter, Repin criticized how their work didn’t follow a more significant social or moral purpose.
By the 1880s, Repin came in contact and with the leading Russian artists of the time, like the Academic painter Vasily Polenov, the Symbolist Mikhail Vrubel, and Valentin Serov, who followed the Impressionist movement. Along with other great artists, they would gather at the Abramtsevo Colony in Northern Moscow, at the property of Savva Mamontov, a famous art patron, entrepreneur, and merchant. Repin was most known by this time for his honest portrayals of peasant life as well as portraits of prominent and wealthy sitters, capturing the essence of the people he depicted in his art. Among these works include the portrait Composer Modest Mussorgsky and the novelist Aleksey Pisemsky. He also delved in the world of writing, publishing a series of articles called Letters on Art in 1892. Two years later, the artist started working at the Academy of Arts, giving lessons at the Higher Art School, continuing intermittently until 1907.
The Realist painter met Natalia Nordman during the year 1900, a Russian author. They decided to live together in Finland, where she had a house, and he would remain for the rest of his life. Repin received honorable praise by the beginning of the century, being awarded the highest order of merit of France in 1901, the Legion of Honour. In 1911, the painter had a solo show in the Rome World Exhibition, which was organized to celebrate the anniversary of Italy’s unification. His last major exhibit was in 1923, where he had a solo show in Prague. Repin passed away on September 1930 and became known as one of the greatest Soviet painters of all time. In his honor, Kuokkala, his hometown, was renamed in 1948 to Repino.