Art and Society: Second Half of the 19th Century
As the 19th century progressed, instead of admiring distant European countries, Russian artists took renewed interest in Russia’s unique character. As they moved away from Westernizing forces, Realism permeated Russian culture, as artists became interested in representing subjects from everyday life and from Russian history.
With the rise in national spirit, genre painting, which focused on scenes from everyday life, gained strength. What had been considered an inferior branch of the arts, now established itself as a valuable part of the Russian artistic heritage generating a new interest in peasant life, culture, and traditional costumes. Other painters examined the middle class. Their works provide early examples of social criticism, a trend that would increase in the second half of the century.
In 1861 Alexander II emancipated 22.5 million serfs from private ownership. Amid this new “liberal” atmosphere, artists of the period felt the need to go beyond art’s aesthetic functions and to play a role in the moral and social education of the population at large. No longer was art supposed to be for the wealthy alone; now it should be available to all. Inherent in the new ideology was an assumption that art should function as an instrument of social criticism. Russia and its people became the new focus of attention.
Starting in the mid-18th century, the Russian school of painting and sculpture had been controlled by the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. Amid the relatively liberal atmosphere of Alexander II’s “Great Reforms,” there was growing discontent among some artists with the academy’s traditionally conservative attitudes. In 1863, 14 artists decided that they would resign from the academy in order to pursue independently their artistic visions. They wanted to have the right to choose their own subjects without having to conform to the outdated and artificial categories imposed by the academy. This group became known as the Wanderers.
The Wanderers believed that painting should tap into reality and depict real life situations. People should be shown not as types, but as individuals. Attention should focus not so much on their external appearance, but their inner life.
The Wanderers were progressive not only in the subjects they chose, but also in the way they reached their audience. Earlier, significant art exhibitions had been limited to Moscow and St. Petersburg, but the Wanderers founded the “Society for Traveling Art Exhibitions” and decided to take exhibitions to various cities and towns in order to introduce the latest artistic developments to a much wider audience. Their first exhibition made a successful tour of 48 Russian towns. This new movement not only shifted the subject and style of paintings but also how and where they were exhibited.
About this work
Ilya Repin, who would later become a leader of the group known as the Wanderers, was born in Chuguev, in the Ukraine. His father was a soldier and Ilya’s childhood was marked by poverty and hardship. His first lessons in drawing and painting came as he worked for an icon painter in his hometown. When he had saved enough money, he set off for St. Petersburg with the goal of entering the Academy of Arts. Within a year the young artist had developed his skills sufficiently to be accepted.
Barge Haulers on the Volga was the first painting completed by Repin after leaving the Academy. The idea for the painting came to him as he was walking along the riverbank and noticed a gang of barge haulers toiling as they passed a group of young people out on a picnic. To explore this theme further he took a boat trip down the Volga River. Although in his early sketches the haulers resemble exploited animals, as he studied their way of life, he began to see them as real people with individual personalities rather than merely caricatures in service of an idea. He also experimented with how to place them on the canvas to achieve movement and monumentality.
Like many members of the Russian intelligentsia of the day, Repin valued the physical labor of the common man as a worthy subject. His cast of characters reflects his determination to create a picture of universal, not just local, significance. All 11 are reflections of Russia itself; and no two are alike. They are men of various ages, physiques, and ethnic backgrounds, all part of the Russian Empire’s diverse mix of peoples. The depiction of the toil of peasants remained a popular and influential subject through the Soviet years, with special focus on realistic, socially concerned images of Russian life.
Repin is also known for his portraits. His subjects include peasants in his hometown, family members, and contemporary intellectuals. This exhibition features several Repin portraits including ones of his daughter Nadya, the art collector P. M. Tretyakov, founder of the Tretyakov Gallery, and the writer Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin, who authored many short stories with populist themes.
- Why might this subject have captivated Repin’s attention? Do you think it is a worthy subject to devote three years of work to? If yes, why? If not, what would be a worthy subject? Explain.
- The job these men are performing would have been instantly recognizable to 19th-century Russians. Describe what they are doing. Are there jobs in contemporary society that you think are comparable? What are they? What do you think is the “message” of this painting?
- How has Repin constructed this painting for maximum affect? Consider:
- Format—the shape and size of the canvas
- Composition and balance—the arrangements of forms on the canvas
- Pose and gesture
- Point of view
Describe how each of these design elements is taken into account to intensify the impact of the work.
- During the course of the 19th century what was deemed an appropriate subject for a painting changed from portraits of the ruling class to those of working people sometimes engaged in difficult physical tasks. Images of hard-working people came to be seen as noble and worthy. How do you think hard physical work is viewed by society today? Explain your answer and cite examples.
- In the spring of 1861 Tsar Alexander II published a long awaited decree: “The right of bondage over the peasants … is forever abolished.” On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which stated that “all persons held as slaves … are, and henceforward shall be, free.” These two events both ended terrible chapters in history and set in motion new sets of issues to be confronted. Through research, compare and contrast serfdom within Russia and slavery in the United States, including the origins, effects, and impact of their eventual dissolution.
- Repin is deliberate in including men of different physical attributes and ethnic backgrounds in this painting. Because Russia is so enormous in size, it includes people from wide geographic regions and many ethnic origins. Keep a sketch pad and pencil with you for at least a week and make your own record of the various people you encounter.
As plans for this painting progressed, Repin’s attitude and approach also changed from seeing his subjects as symbols of human misery to perceiving their individuality. Have you ever been involved in a project that changed as you probed the subject more deeply? Explain how your thinking changed from the beginning of the project to its completion.