What is happening in Repin's ‘Barge haulers on the Volga’ painting?

Ilya Repin
Some people whispered disapprovingly about the painting by the then young Ilya Repin: he got ideas from newspapers, staged a profanation of art and even wanted to send it to the World Exhibition in Vienna. And, in their opinion, the artist probably chose the plot from the category of plaintive ones, in order to sell the work at a higher price to some rich man. So, what exactly is depicted in the painting?

Where did the plot come from?

All the noise was because of the plot: ragged, exhausted barge haulers pulling a barge along the Volga bank. A brand new tugboat can be seen in the distant background - as a mockery of the incredible efforts these are making to pull the vessel along the river.

Barge haulers steered ships against the flow of the river. Their labor was used, for example, where it was impossible for draft animals to pass. Having gathered in an artel, the barge haulers would walk along the coastal strip and pull the ship by a cable. They were recruited at the rate of eight legs - a thousand ‘poods’. That is, four people pulled 16.38 tons!

How did it happen that Repin decided to turn to this plot? As a student at the Academy of Arts, he went on a steamer to sketch in Ust-Izhora. And there, he saw the ‘burlaks’. Against the backdrop of the resting public, they looked, to put it mildly, a little wild, looking gloomy. The young artist was struck by the contrast and immediately decided to paint a picture. On the advice of a friend, he went on a trip along the Volga, where he made sketches for the canvas, communicated with ‘burlaks’ and watched their work.

The buyer - the Grand Duke

Ilya Repin honestly admitted that, first of all, he was interested in external contrast. “I must confess frankly that I was not at all concerned with the question of life and social structure of the contracts between barge haulers and their owners; I asked them only to give some seriousness to their cause. What are all the novels and all the histories before this figure! My God, how marvelously his head is tied up with a rag, how his hair has curled up to his neck, and the main thing is the color of his face!” he recounted in his memoirs.

The effect exceeded all expectations: the artist was both criticized and praised for his realism. There was a buyer for the painting and what a buyer - none other than Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich himself bought it for 3,000 rubles and placed it in the billiard room of the Vladimir Palace. And he happily told guests about the characters in the painting, enjoying the effect produced.

Until 1918, ‘Barge haulers’ remained in the Grand Duke's mansion and then, it was transferred to the Russian Museum, where it is located to this day.

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