Ilya Repin: Painting the soul of Russia | Petit Palais

It’s a fleeting moment in time, captured in oil paints some time in 1876. Ilya Repin, fresh out of art school and on a sponsored stay in Paris, spotted a moody young man, leaning on a wall in a back street of Montmartre. The painting ended up in a public collection in Saratov, labelled, simply, этюд (‘Study’). And now it’s back to its city of origin, in a vast retrospective of its painter, in the Petit Palais.

The show is awesome in scope - Repin was active as a young man, when he painted the study, attained fame and patronage as the century wore on, painted Tolstoy (a close friend), several Tsars and Kerensky through revolutions and war, before ending his days in exile in Finland, dying in 1930 embittered and poverty-stricken, unable to afford large canvases and painting on lino instead. All these periods are well represented, with the Paris curators plundering deep the stacks of Repins in the Tretiakov collection in Moscow.

Ilya Repin - ‘Study’

The huge narrative paintings Repin’s probably most famous for are present and correct: his religious procession at Kursk, his haunting portrayal of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, as a nervous boy in the throne room, his sweat-blackened haulers on the Volga. Also on show are the artist’s deeply sensitive portraits, from his cute kids to his famous friends - one standout a mad-eyed Mussorgsky, days from death. The humanity of these works through the show’s rather stereotypical title - the notes mention the “mysterious depths of the Russian soul” from the first room - into unfortunate relief.

But anyway, it’s that enigmatic young man that swims into my mind now, safely back in London. Repin hadn’t had much of a career at all when he painted the scene - far from the Ukrainian village he grew up in. Far from fame and rich collector friends. Far from revolution, war and exile. The style’s obviously indebted to the Impressionists just coming to prominence at that time. But there’s an extra twist of mystery.

The subject’s face is obliterated (it’s only a small study, after all), his withholding yet confident mood connoted only through his slouchy posture, those hunched shoulders, the suggestion of balled fists. The mood contrasted with the very grand surroundings; the huge rooms of the misleadingly-named Petit Palais, the thick crowds of curious Parisian pensioners here for the show. And the stories and celebrities on wall after wall, room after room, all around.

Repin’s justifiable self regard comes through in many other of his portraits, a big proportion of the canvas taken up by the messy scrawl of his Cyrillic signature. This study is unsigned, undated. A moment in time lost for us, to be viewed just once, assuming you’re not going to be in or near Saratov in future. Or not quite lost, because I haven’t forgotten it. And, by writing about it, lodging that lost moment, immortalised in oil paint, a little further into memory…

Ilya Repin: Painting the soul of Russia is at the Petit Palais (Paris). 05 October 2021 - 23 January 2022