Sunday, August 12, 2012

Repin Paints Mussorgsky

In early March, 1881, Ilya Repin painted a portrait of his friend, the composer Modest Mussorgsky. 

Mussorgsky was 42 years old. He had already written his immortal compositions, such as Night on Bald Mountain and Pictures at an Exhibition. But now his creative work was over.

He had been drinking heavily and was subject to fits of madness. Hanging out all day in a tavern with other composers and writers, he eventually he lost his government job. He told his friends "there was nothing left but begging."

He found a comfortable room in a military hospital. Despite several seizures, he seemed to be rallying.

That was where Repin found him. The portrait took four sessions. There was a soft light from the tall hospital windows, but the room was cramped, and the artist was forced to balance the painting on a small table. Repin captured his tousled hair, his red nose, and his bleary eyes. But even in the deep decline, the eyes are full of fire.

There was one more sitting scheduled two weeks later. When Repin came to the hospital one last time at the appointed hour, Mussorgsky was not among the living. Despite strict orders, an attendant had obtained for him a bottle of forbidden cognac.

The patron Tretyakov bought the painting sight unseen. Repin didn't want the the money, and donated it to help pay for a memorial to his friend.

The portrait is a masterwork of simplicity, vigor, compassion, and honesty. Repin's fellow portrait painter Kramskoy pulled up a chair and stared at the painting for hours, awestruck with its power. He described it as a combination of Rembrandt and Velazquez.

Modest Mussorgsky on Wikipedia
Ilya Repin on Wikipedia
Night on Bald Mountain (with Disney Animation) on YouTube
Book: The Russian Vision: The Art of Ilya Repin


Karla said...

I have to agree with Kramskoy, this painting is caprivating -both in it's execution and it's honesty

Anonymous said...

I don't know why this version is not in print anymore:
Ilya Repin [Hardcover]
Grigori Sternine

but when i got it it was only 19.95 and had great reproductions!

Teresa Rodriguez said...

Reading this blog is like being back in art school...without the crushing tuition bills. This painting is gorgeous. I, too, could spend hours looking at it.

Janet Oliver said...

I agree with what Teresa said! I would add that it's also without exams! Yay - no pop quizzes!

Keith Parker said...

It's a beautiful painting. The story is quite interesting as well.

nystudios said...

There is a Repin in the Met of a writer, Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin; a Russian author of short stories, that killed himself 2 days after Repin painted him as well.

Despite early literary success, he had periodical bouts of mental illness. At the age of 33, Garshin committed suicide by jumping from the fifth floor of his apartment building and died five days later at a Red Cross hospital.

Drew said...

It's easily one of my favorite Repin's, and that's quite a hard thing to do - I love pretty much every portrait of his that I come across.

John said...

With 'Color and Light' a close companion, I must also remember not to forget to tune in to this blog... I agree, the simplicity but power of this portrait is wonderful... thanks, Jim

Anonymous said...

@nystudios - yeah that Repin (at the met) is amazing. one of my favorite paintings in the Met.

James Gurney said...

@nystudios: Thanks. I didn't know that story about that painting. But I'm familiar with the painting! It stopped me in my tracks after two hours of looking at the surface of other paintings. The eyes in that portrait grabbed me as if to chastise me and say: "Painting is not just about technique. It's also about humanity."

James Gurney said...

Teresa and Janet. Sorry, the quiz is tomorrow and you all owe me five bucks!

Katana Leigh said...

those eyes- such character and realism that seamlessly blends into the gestures of the fabric. This makes artists screetch like teenage girls, its so well done

Judy P. said...

This portrait is so powerful, in a different way than other famed portraits are. So many others have a dark drama, and stern majesty. But this one has a lovely lightness to it, almost a feminine quality. Besides the virtuosity of Repin, why is that? Can you break it down technically for schlepps like me trying to learn? I guess it's high-key, lovely colors, a softness of brushwork. It's amazing how concrete details all add up to give an elusive quality in total.