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.
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.
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.