Tag Archives: 19th century artists

#FineArtFriday: Barge Haulers on the Volga by Ilya Repin, 1870

Barge Haulers on the Volga by Ilya Repin  (1844–1930)

  • Date: 1870
  • Medium: oil on canvas
  • Dimensions: Height: 131.5 cm (51.7 ″); Width: 281 cm (110.6 ″)
  • Current location: Ж-4056 (Russian Museum)
  • Inscriptions: Signature and date: И. Репин / 1870-73

What I love about this painting:

A burlak was a person who hauled barges and other vessels upstream from the 17th to 20th centuries in the Russian Empire. Most burlaks were landless or poor peasants.

These men are shown working, painted with brutal truth. They are beyond exhausted. Their skin is darkened and weathered from years of work in the unremitting sun, except for the young man in the middle. One day he will be like the older men, hardened to the misery and enduring his lot in life.

Each face is filled with emotion, with a story of their own. Who knows what tragedies brought them to agree to this terrible existence, this seasonal slavery of physically towing boat upriver?

For the women and men who towed the barges, winter was even worse, because once the river froze over these burlaki were unemployed. Their life was a constant circle of starvation and hellish labor under the harshest conditions.

About this Painting (via Wikipedia)

Barge Haulers on the Volga or Burlaki (Russian: Burlaki na Volge, Бурлаки на Волге) is an 1870–73 oil-on-canvas painting by artist Ilya Repin. It depicts 11 men physically dragging a barge on the banks of the Volga River. They are at the point of collapse from exhaustion, oppressed by heavy, hot weather.[1][2]

The work is a condemnation of profit from inhumane labor.[3] Although they are presented as stoical and accepting, the men are defeated; only one stands out: in the center of both the row and canvas, a brightly colored youth fights against his leather binds and takes on a heroic pose.

Repin conceived the painting during his travels through Russia as a young man and depicts actual characters he encountered. It drew international praise for its realistic portrayal of the hardships of working men, and launched his career.[4] Soon after its completion, the painting was purchased by Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich and exhibited widely throughout Europe as a landmark of Russian realist painting. Barge Haulers on the Volga has been described as “perhaps the most famous painting of the Peredvizhniki movement [for]….its unflinching portrayal of backbreaking labor”.[5]

The characters are based on actual people Repin came to know while preparing for the work. He had had difficulty finding subjects to pose for him, even for a fee, because of a folklorish belief that a subject’s soul would leave his possession once his image was put down on paper.[8] The subjects include a former soldier, a former priest, and a painter.[9] Although he depicted eleven men, women also performed the work and there were normally many more people in a barge-hauling gang; Repin selected these figures as representative of a broad swathe of the working classes of Russian society. That some had once held relatively high social positions dismayed the young artist, who had initially planned to produce a far more superficial work contrasting exuberant day-trippers (which he himself had been) with the careworn burlaks. Repin found a particular empathy with Kanin, the defrocked priest, who is portrayed as the lead hauler and looks outwards towards the viewer.[10] The artist wrote,

“There was something eastern about it, the face of a Scyth…and what eyes! What depth of vision!…And his brow, so large and wise…He seemed to me a colossal mystery, and for that reason I loved him. Kanin, with a rag around his head, his head in patches made by himself and then worn out, appeared none the less as a man of dignity; he was like a saint.”[11]


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Barge Haulers on the Volga,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Barge_Haulers_on_the_Volga&oldid=918607811 (accessed November 1, 2019).

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#FineArtFriday: Portrait of Madame X by John Singer Sargent 1884


What I love about this Painting:

I love everything–the moody colors and textures–she needs no necklace, no jewels to prove she is someone unforgettable.

Madame X is mysterious; she is a promise unspoken.

She is dangerous the way uncharted seas are.

Her pose, the elegance of the black dress, the turn of her head—this portrait shouts “Here is a woman to be reckoned with.” Everyone who knew Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau said that in this Portrait of Madame X, American expatriate artist  John Singer Sargent captured something real, something true about the woman, something well beyond the unashamed sexuality of the portrait.

About this painting, via Wikipedia:

(John Singer Sargent’s) most controversial work, Portrait of Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) (1884) is now considered one of his best works, and was the artist’s personal favorite; he stated in 1915, “I suppose it is the best thing I have done.” When unveiled in Paris at the 1884 Salon, it aroused such a negative reaction that it likely prompted Sargent’s move to London. Sargent’s self-confidence had led him to attempt a risqué experiment in portraiture—but this time it unexpectedly backfired. The painting was not commissioned by her and he pursued her for the opportunity, quite unlike most of his portrait work where clients sought him out. Sargent wrote to a common acquaintance:

I have a great desire to paint her portrait and have reason to think she would allow it and is waiting for someone to propose this homage to her beauty. …you might tell her that I am a man of prodigious talent.

It took well over a year to complete the painting. The first version of the portrait of Madame Gautreau, with the famously plunging neckline, white-powdered skin, and arrogantly cocked head, featured an intentionally suggestive off-the-shoulder dress strap, on her right side only, which made the overall effect more daring and sensual. Sargent repainted the strap to its expected over-the-shoulder position to try to dampen the furor, but the damage had been done. French commissions dried up and he told his friend Edmund Gosse in 1885 that he contemplated giving up painting for music or business.

Writing of the reaction of visitors, Judith Gautier observed:

“Is it a woman? a chimera, the figure of a unicorn rearing as on a heraldic coat of arms or perhaps the work of some oriental decorative artist to whom the human form is forbidden and who, wishing to be reminded of woman, has drawn the delicious arabesque? No, it is none of these things, but rather the precise image of a modern woman scrupulously drawn by a painter who is a master of his art.”


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “John Singer Sargent,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=John_Singer_Sargent&oldid=904608954 (accessed July 25, 2019).

Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), by John Singer Sargent, 1884 PD|100

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), John Singer Sargent, 1884 (unfree frame crop).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Madame_X_(Madame_Pierre_Gautreau),_John_Singer_Sargent,_1884_(unfree_frame_crop).jpg&oldid=358225955 (accessed July 25, 2019).

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