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."
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