Last month, I was in Chemnitz to see an exhibition of Russian Realist paintings at the art museum there. There were a few of the better known works of Isaak Levitan and almost a dozen Repins, including his well-known masterpiece, the Volga barge-haulers.
The painting caused a stir at its first showing in the 1870s. It was condemned for failing to depict the beauty of the accepted themes of the time (e.g. classical mythology, great historical events) but many praised it for its truthful depiction of the suffering of the poor. The message, if there was one, was of secondary interest to me. What I wanted to know was what makes the picture so striking and how Repin painted it.
The composition is masterly. The main subject is slightly left of centre receding into the mid-ground and leaving room for the eye to move to the background on the right, giving depth to the painting. The barge-haulers are depicted in dark tones against a very bright sky and sandy ground. The men are so dark, they look like they have been baking in the sun for weeks and have been rolled in soot for good measure. This tonal contrast adds to the picture’s strength. There is also a sharp change in tone within the group – the boy clearly stands out as the fresh-faced, and relatively clean, greenhorn. What also stand out are the vivid, almost complementary colours of the blues of the summer sky and the warm yellows of the sand. There is variety in the main lines within the painting: the verticals of the mast of the barge and the figures as opposed to the horizontals of the river and the yard on the mast. The picture also has the virtue of uncluttered simplicity.
Thanks to a well researched and scholarly article in the catalogue of the exhibition, I discovered the origins of the paintings of many of the barge-haulers. Repin appears to have worked them up from pencil or oil sketches thus allowing him to give them all a natural individuality. From the sketches it is obvious Repin moved them about and gave them slightly different poses to the originals so that they might all fit in as a unified subject.
It did not come as a surpise to me to learn that the painting was several years in the making and came about after a number of preparatory and experimental sketches. The Volga barge-haulers is normally on view at the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.