- 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 boats 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.
This post first appeared in November of 2019. Each time I view this painting, I am moved by the unwritten stories, the tragedies that led these people to the life of a burlak, and the hardship shown so clearly here.
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.
The work is a condemnation of profit from inhumane labor. 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. 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”.
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. The subjects include a former soldier, a former priest, and a painter. 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. 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.”
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).