History of a Painting: 'Barge Haulers at Volga' by Ilya Repin

Barge Haulers on the Volga by Ilya Repin (1872-1873)
'Barge Haulers on the Volga' by Ilya Repin (1872-1873) | © WikiCommons
Olga Glioza

Barge Haulers at Volga by Ilya Repin is one of the most controversial, yet iconic paintings in Russian art history. Depicting the hard labour that barge haulers suffered, the painting is highly emotional, showing all the different characteristics and personalities of the people that were made to do such work, as well as expressing a social critic towards the phenomenon. We wanted to learn more about this incredible artwork, so we took a closer look.

Loved by over 40s

Repin’s Barge Haulers at Volga is one of his early paintings; the artist was still studying at the Fine Art Academy after he completed it. At that time, Repin mostly worked on religious paintings based on Biblical passages, so his sudden shift to realism was unexpected.

In the 1860s, as a part of his plain air preparatory work for a painting about Iov, Repin took a short trip to Ust-Izhora, a small town near St Petersburg. Soon the artist noticed a group of barge haulers at work. The contrast of poor, hard-working people breaking their backs against the flourishing and rich upper class made a strong impact on Repin. Right away he created the first watercolor draft of the painting. The composition of this first draft was too vague and didn’t express well all the emotions that Repin wanted to show, so the artist took a trip to the Volga river to learn more about the lives of barge haulers. There he continued working on each character and the composition of the future masterpiece.

Barge Haulers on the Volga by Ilya Repin (1872-1873)

Repin stayed in the town of Samara, located on the Volga river, for the whole summer, getting acquainted with the everyday life of barge haulers, speaking with them and getting to know them. One person Repin became familiar with was barge hauler Kanin, who used to be a monk, but left the monastery. Kanin is one of the central figures in the painting.

The composition of the painting was created in such a way that the viewer feels like the group of barge haulers is moving towards the frame of the painting, as if they are trying to step outside of the canvas. Each barge hauler has a different expression based on the real life impressions Repin gathered during the months he spent on the Volga. On the far right of the painting we see a ship, which is Repin’s symbol of progress that would eventually replace barge haulers with machines. The painting in its entirety was a critique on the social issues of the nineteenth century.

The painting was first shown to the public in 1873 in St Petersburg at an exhibition that would eventually go to Vienna for the World Exhibition event. The reaction of the public was controversial: academic painters reacted negatively, criticizing the painting. Other artists, writers and poets praised the work, among them Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoevsky. At the World Exhibition in Vienna the reactions remained controversial, although the painting was bought by duke Vladimir Alexandrovich. Currently Barge Haulers on the Volga is on display at the Russian Museum in St Petersburg.

culture trip left arrow
 culture trip brand logo

Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip

meet our Local Insider


women sitting on iceberg


2 years.


It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.


I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!

culture trip logo letter c
group posing for picture on iceberg
group posing for picture on iceberg

Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.

map of volcanic iceland trip destination points
culture trip brand logo
culture trip right arrow
landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.