Friday, November 30, 2018

Repin Paints Tolstoy at his Writing Table

Ilya Repin painted this portrait of Leo Tolstoy in the act of writing.


It's the unadorned space of a working farmer. There's a spade at the right, a wood-cutting saw and a scythe hanging on the back wall. The light streams in from the window. Instead of a fancy writing desk and chair, it's just a stool and a table. 

The message of the portrait is that Tolstoy (despite his aristocratic background) is really a hard-working writer who lived simply and close to the soil. 

Evidently, Repin did not find this composition readymade. He had to create it.


An earlier study, probably from life, lacks the door at the left and the window at the right. A big chest of drawers attracts a lot of attention on the far right.


This is the essence of composition. It's not just about where to place elements to make a pleasing arrangement. It's more about what to include and what to leave out; it's about how to attract the viewer's attention and thereby to engage their mind, in order to communicate the message you want to convey.
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Book: Ilya Repin
Previous Posts on Repin

6 comments:

Jim Douglas said...

Great post. It's fascinating to compare the differences between the Repin's studies and his final painting:

Repin's pencil study (the bottom one) reminds me of sketches by Robert Fawcett and Joseph Clement Coll. The perspective is more dramatic, and there is a virtuosic handling of and focus on specific details (i.e. Tolstoy's furrowed brow, his leaning posture, the angle of his foot, how he holds his writing instrument.)

The final painting reminds me of Albrecht Durer's Saint Jerome in His Study. The wider view suppresses small details and speaks more about Tolstoy in his space and broad themes about work, solitude, and the true definition of nobility.

Robert Michael Walsh said...

Wasn't Tolstoy left-handed?

Mel Gibsokarton said...

"You, Ilya Efimovitch, can not draw!" -Mikhail Vrubel to Repin at Abramtsevo.

James Gurney said...

Mel, that's an intriguing quote. Can you give context? Why would Vrubel say that to Repin?

Robert, a quick Google search turned up a lot of photos of Tolstoy writing with his right hand.

Jim, I agree that the final composition introduces ideas surrounding the writer and his work that the first drawing doesn't. Is it transcendence, mortality, the inner vs. the outer world? It's hard for me to verbalize them, but I feel they're there.

Mel Gibsokarton said...

James, this quote is taken from the book "Константин Коровин Вспоминает" "Konstantin Korovin reminisces" by Korovin himself, in which he in form of memoirs and personal anecdotes writes down his life, his friends and stories. He used to be close friends with Serov and Vrubel, they even used to share a workshop for a while. Serov, Vrubel, Levitan, Repin, Savrasov, even Chekhov and Shalyapin - they're all there. I'll try to translate a brief paragraph in which the quote takes place.

"Soon the artists of Moscow have seen the works of Vrubel and have grown sullen. Vrubel worked a lot: for Kushnerev's edition he has created illustrations to Lermontov's "Demon".
And that's what has angered everyone.
For some reason these wonderful pictures, these illustrations were strongly disliked - I don't understand it. But Savva Ivanovich has already been adoring the talent of Vrubel and was watching him work with great interest, when he was painting Demon in his workshop<...>
Some summer day at Abramtsevo, in Savva Ivanovich's manor where Repin and Polenov were guests, on evening, at the tea table, Repin has been drawing with a pencil in his album a wife of Savva Invanovich, Elisaveta (Elisabeth) Grigorievna.
Vrubel, having glanced at the drawing, unexpectedly said this to Repin:
-You, Ilya Efimovich, can not draw.
-Yes? Well, it may as well be... - replied Repin
Savva Ivanovich has called me and Serov on the porch and said, sorely:
-This is devil knows what! Hold him back a bit already!
I, laughing, said:
-This is impossible.
-It's not right, - noticed Serov, - Repin can draw.
He also felt sour for Repin."

James Gurney said...

Thanks for that interesting info, Mel. It's easy for us to forget the rivalries and feelings among artists from all those days past.