The collection of the sitter until 1918
Sold by her daughter, Vera Ilichna Repin
The Collection of Countess Natalya Petrovna Golovina, Paris, before 1948
Riga, 18th and 19th century Russian Paintings from Private Collections, 1933
I.E.Repin, Khudozhestvennoe nasledstvo, 1948, Moscow-Leningrad, vol I, p.224-225, illustrated
Vera Shevtsova (1855-1918) first met her future husband when she was only nine years old. Within only a few months she had inspired some of Repin's most charming watercolour and pencil portraits, and within a few years she would sit for some of the greatest portraits of his career. Among Repin's truly 'outstanding' works write Grabar and Zilberstein, one can count 'the portrait of the artist's wife painted in Moscow in 1878, in which she sits in an armchair, a book on her knee'; of all the portraits of his wife, this '1878 portrait is his most brilliant' (I.Grabar and I. Zilberstein, Artistic heritage, Repin Academy of Science of the USSR, Moscow-Leningrad, 1948, Vol.1, p.226). It is not unreasonable to suppose that this view was shared by Vera herself, who held onto this particular portrait all through her life. It hung in her flat in Karpovka until she died, at which point it was sold by her daughter, Vera. It reappeared in an exhibition in Riga in 1933 and was recorded in 1948 as belonging to Countess Natalia P. Golovina, whom Repin had painted in 1896 (fig.2).
Repin's return to Moscow in September 1877 is generally acknowledged to mark the beginning of his greatest period of creativity. The following year he made the critical decision in February the following year to cut his links with the Academy and join the Peredvizhniki, and immediately his talent began to grow 'not by the day, but by the hour'. (Stasov, quoted idem, Vol.II, p.268). Since it is above all his portraiture that has earned Repin international fame as one of the greatest Western European practitioners of this genre, the re-emergence of an intimate family portrait from this period is a major event for all collectors and scholars of his work.
On Russian soil, Repin was released from the constrictions of painting to the expectations of foreign and native critics. This was particularly true when it came to portraits of his immediate family which rank among his best largely because of their necessarily informal nature. As David Jackson points out, with no patron or public to consider, he could allow himself a greater degree of freedom and room to experiment with technical considerations. 'A sense of gentle, intimate, harmonious family life pervades Repin's portraits of his wife and children, and whilst this might not be an accurate reflection of the family household, they bespeak a depth of genuine, unforced emotional warmth which, clearly, the artist felt more able to express through the reflective process of his work' (D.Jackson, The Russian Vision: The Art of Ilya Repin, 2006, p.204). Vera's effortlessly straightforward and apparently artless pose here is highly unusual for the period, but typical of Repin's frank and psychologically incisive technique, and builds on his earlier 1869 portrait of her (fig.3). Described by Grabar as an attempt 'to depart from a banal interpretation of the portrait composition' by conveying the girl 'in a veritable manner, sitting naturally on a couchette slightly ungainly, with the awkwardness of a teenager and no suggestion of posing. Such a portrait concept was previously unknown in Russian painting' (quoted in Ilya Repin, Palace Editions, p.105).
Repin was vocal in his distaste for superficial art, in particular the easy style of the French artist Bonnat, and his correspondence is littered conversely with admiring references to Velasquez and Rembrandt, to whom he was often compared during his lifetime according to Benois. 'In Velasquez he found important qualities which were applied in particular to portraiture: a lack of idealisation, dignity of subject matter..', while from Rembrandt he borrowed 'an effective use of chiaroscuro, used in a natural, direct, and intimate manner, again without flattery, and a predilection for thoughtful introspective renditions' (idem, p.220). Lessons derived from both these masters are apparent in the present portrait. Velasquez' influence in particular is felt in its sharp tonal contrasts and luxuriant treatment of textured material. Though the subject could not be more different, the dark red ground, the sheen of Vera's dress and the beautifully muted and gleaming pink tones of the chair in the light and shade, recall elements of Velasquez' Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650). The light picks out small details which make the composition - her glinting ring and jewel-like beading on the chair – recalling the glimmering details of perhaps his greatest portrait from his Paris period, A Negro Woman (1876). Although he mostly painted men, it is curious that his female portraits are in fact often among his best, 'both in their sense of intimacy and for their aesthetic and decorative qualities' (idem, p.201).
A delight in the accoutrements of female sitters can be seen to varying extents in his other depictions of Vera, principally his wonderful 1882 work At Rest, Portrait of Vera Repin (fig.1), in which Vera's crisp white cuffs are once again a model of painting reflected light, and his 1876 Paris portrait (fig.4). The latter work, though modest, is one of the loveliest from this period. It is thought to be the portrait he famously described as 'à la Manet' and provides an interesting reference for the present work which is underpinned by a similar sense of unschooled charm and sincerity. As Manet famously wrote, 'the artist does not say today "Come and see faultless works", but, "come and see sincere works" (E.Manet, introduction to the catalogue of his 1867 exhibition). Manet claimed the simple merit of having 'merely tried to be himself and not someone else'. It is impossible to gauge the influence of French art on Repin's later oeuvre, but it is perhaps Manet's insistence on integrity Repin profited from most of all; fashionable and facile French art appalled him, and from the outset of his sojourn in Paris he was homesick. Subsequent scholarship has thoroughly revised the blinkered assessment of domestic critics that Repin's talent had faded abroad, but it is certainly true that back on Russian soil he worked with a renewed sense of vigour and inspiration which thrilled the public. At the Peredvizhniki exhibition of 1878, in which he exhibited his famous Archdeacon (1877), Grabar recalls that it was Repin's work that the public sought out most of all, and Stasov's review of the exhibition glows with relief and excitement that Repin had at last regained his stride:
'Repin has returned to his motherland after a few years overseas...Now he is back in an atmosphere congenial to his talent. It is as though, after a period of stagnation and sleep, he has woken up with ten times his strength'. (V.V.Stasov, Sobranie sochinenii. V.1, p.567-577)
Repin's sense of renewal in the late 1870s is evident not only from his highly original portraits, but also from eyewitness accounts. "Do you know how Repin paints these days?", Kramskoy reported to Stasov in awe. "It is as though he is suddenly filled with a great passion... he grabs his palette and brushes and sets to the canvas, as though he were literally in some kind of frenzy. There isn't one of us now who doesn't imitate him!" (quoted in I.Grabar and.I Zilberstein, I.E.Repin, Khudozhestvennoe nasledstvo, 1948, Moscow-Leningrad, vol I, p.200)
His creative stimulation in the late 1870s was in part derived from strengthened links with the Abramtsevo circle, which was rapidly becoming the centre of Russian cultural life under the influence of the famous art patron Savva Mamontov. Repin's career was also progressing rapidly. In 1878 alone he received important commissions from Pavel Tretyakov, including a portrait of Tretyakov's mother, and painted the portraits of numerous cultural luminaries including Chistyakov, Aksakov, Mamontov, Pisemsky and Levitsky.
Today Repin is considered no less a giant of Russian culture than he was during his lifetime. Chekhov ranked him alongside Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy, as the greatest talents of their day. With this in mind, the intimate nature of the present work provides an invaluable insight into the less public side of Repin's life to counterbalance the list of his sitters from the upper echelons of the country's cultural hierarchy. As with any artist who is primarily known for their portraits, a special place is reserved in their oeuvre for their self-portraits and portraits of their wives, which necessarily have a complexity and depth of feeling that commissioned portraits rarely match.
The daughter of an academician of architecture, Vera Shevtsova fell in love with Repin while she was still a student at the Marlinsky Institute. She was only 16 years old when they were married in 1872, and Repin ten years her senior. Though no match for him intellectually, she was apparently a sympathetic and appealing character, simple and childlike in her needs. By all accounts Repin was a not an easy man to live with - irascible and temperamental, but she bore his numerous infidelities, much like Sophia Tolstoy, and meekly accepted his idiosyncrasies, such his fetish for sleeping on the balcony or below open windows during the winter, which often left them frozen under a blanket of snow in the mornings. Their relationship became stormy, and nine years after the present work was painted the couple separated; they reunited in 1894 but the marriage finally fell apart in 1900. The present masterpiece dates from a less troubled period of their lives and remains the only known, published portrait of Vera Repin to exist outside museum collections.
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