Repin had not returned to Italy since his first visit in 1873 and he longed to go there again: 'My heart aches at the memory,' he wrote in a letter to Vladimir Stasov (I.Repin and V.Stasov, Correspondence, vol.2, Moscow-Leningrad, 1949, p.186). Their trip together lasted over half a year. They arrived in Naples in early December following sojourns in Venice and Rome. Repin had initially planned to stay no longer than a month, but they remained there until spring, travelling throughout the region and visiting Sicily and Capri. Repin was enraptured: 'this is truly a place of unimaginable wonder and beauty; often it is hard to believe this is real. But you're wrong to think that I will come away from here with new work. I didn't come for that. I mean to relax and look around, no ulterior motive at all'.
Despite his stated intentions that he would not paint or draw during this trip, the artist remained true to himself and in fact filled several sketchbooks with charming studies and portraits. He painted several self-portraits in Naples (fig.3), as well as a masterful portrait of his son holding a Baedeker guide in his hands against the Bay of Naples (fig. 4).
In February 1894 Repin had planned to visit Palermo, but Yury fell ill and the trip was cancelled. It was at this time that Repin painted the offered portrait 'of a young Neapolitan woman, who was giving Repin Italian lessons' (I.ZIl'bershtein, 'Neizvestnye portrety kisti Repina' in Novoe o Repine, Leningrad, 1949, p.238). As Yury recalled in a letter to his son Gai, 'Once or twice a week, a petite lady came to give us Italian lessons. I was a dedicated student. This lady had a daughter, and your grandfather painted her in profile, swiftly as usual. If I'm not mistaken, twenty years later this lady acquired your grandfather's painting Duel at an exhibition in Italy' (unpublished letter dated 6-8 October, 1952). She is depicted in the very same room from which Repin had painted his son's portrait earlier that year: 'a spacious, light-filled room on the top floor of a two-storey house on the embankment with a balcony; the glass door looked right onto the Bay of Naples' (idem).
Whether the sitter is the Italian tutor, or as Yuri suggests, her daughter, it is a wonderfully serene and intimate work which showcases Ilya Repin's unique style of sincere and unidealised portraiture. Our sitter is depicted reading undisturbed at her desk, her face and the fabric of her starched white dress illuminated by the strong sunlight streaming in from the upper right of the canvas. Displaying great self-assurance, Repin has pared down the composition to the minimum so as to fully engage the viewer with his subject. He has set his model against a neutral background of terracotta brown so often encountered in portraits of this period (fig.2), and the papers on the table top, like the details on the sitter's sleeves, are suggested with a few confident strokes of thickly applied paint.
We are grateful to Lyudmila Andrushchenko, Senior Researcher of the Repin Museum, Penates, for supplying this note.
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