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Painted between 1880 and 1898, Ilya Repin's audacious Realist canvas The Zaporozhye Cossacks writing a letter to the Turkish Sultan, 1890-91 is an imagined reproduction of a historical tableau in which a profane and defiant letter is sent by the proud Cossacks to the invading Turkish forces, particularly Sultan Mehmed IV. Celebrating the strength and humour of these cartoonish individuals Repin reflects the thoughts and themes of everyday conversation, capturing the defiant atmosphere of his nineteenth century audience battling through life under the brutal Tsar. Having planned this dramatic narrative in paint during his journeys through his country as a young man, Repin based the various personalities to be found within the frame on characters he had found in the almost-mythic Russian countryside. A triumph of epic Realist painting, by the time Repin began The Zaporozhye Cossacks writing a letter to the Turkish Sultan, 1890-91 he was a leading member of the Peredvizhniki movement (the Wanderers or Itinerants in English), who were fervently rejecting sentimentality of the Russian Academic school of painting. With the hope of making painting more accessible to the exploited peasant classes, the Peredvizhniki sewed the seeds of a radical artistic cooperative movement that would take shape in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917.
Based on a historical, perhaps legendary, communication sent in 1676, Repin imagines the scene around the dictation of a letter sent by the Cossacks of the Zaporozhian Host to the Ottoman Sultan in response to a brief note demanding their submission to Turkish rule. Replying with caustic and undiplomatic aplomb these residents of the Dnieper composed a response littered with profanity and hilarious insults. Repin's aim was to capture the spirit of these men; each attempting to improve on each other’s vulgarities. The effect is one of fraternity, community, and cohesion against a mocked enemy.