Repin’s first widely recognized work after graduation from art school, Barge Haulers on the Volga was immediately praised by critics. Although its social message was crystal clear in its portrayal of the inhumane working conditions faced by the barge haulers, the work was bought by the Emperor’s second son, Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, and exhibited all throughout Europe as an example of Russian realist painting. The work was wildly popular, and it has been parodied throughout Russia, and used as the basis for political cartoons. It was also the inspiration for the popular Russian song “The Song of the Volga Boatmen.”More ...
Barge Haulers on the Volga or Burlaki (Russian: Burlaki na Volge, Бурлаки на Волге) is an 1870–73 oil-on-canvas painting by the realist artist Ilya Repin. It depicts 11 men physically dragging a barge on the banks of the Volga River. They are at the point of collapse from exhaustion, oppressed by heavy, hot weather.
The work is a condemnation of profit from inhumane labor. Although they are presented as stoical and accepting, the men are defeated; only one stands out: in the center of both the row and canvas, a brightly colored youth fights against his leather binds and takes on a heroic pose.
Repin conceived the painting during his travels through Russia as a young man and depicts actual characters he encountered. It drew international praise for its realistic portrayal of the hardships of working men, and launched his career. Soon after its completion, the painting was purchased by Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich and exhibited widely throughout Europe as a landmark of Russian realist painting. Barge Haulers on the Volga has been described as "perhaps the most famous painting of the Peredvizhniki movement [for]....its unflinching portrayal of backbreaking labor".
Repin was accepted into the Imperial Academy of Art in St. Petersburg in 1863. The academy at the time was known for its deep conservatism and leaning towards academic art, a fact that bred a sense of revolt and desire for change in many of its students.
Barge Haulers was inspired by scenes witnessed by Repin while holidaying on the Volga in 1870. He made a number of preparatory studies, mostly in oil, while staying in Shiriaev Buerak, near Stavropol (Stavropol-na-Volge). The sketches include landscapes, and views of the Volga and barge haulers.
The characters are based on actual people Repin came to know while preparing for the work. He had had difficulty finding subjects to pose for him, even for a fee, because of a folklorish belief that a subject's soul would leave his possession once his image was put down on paper. The subjects include a former soldier, a former priest, and a painter. Although he depicted eleven men, women also performed the work and there were normally many more people in a barge-hauling gang; Repin selected these figures as representative of a broad swathe of the working classes of Russian society. That some had once held relatively high social positions dismayed the young artist, who had initially planned to produce a far more superficial work contrasting exuberant day-trippers (which he himself had been) with the careworn burlaks. Repin found a particular empathy with Kanin, the defrocked priest, who is portrayed as the lead hauler and looks outwards towards the viewer. The artist wrote,
Barge Haulers on the Volga shows a row of eleven male burlaks dragging a barge on the Volga River that must be pulled upstream against the current. The men are dressed in rags and bound with leather harnesses. They are rendered as mostly stoical, although in obvious physical discomfort, with their bodies bowed in toil. The scene is rendered in a white, silvery light which has been described as "almost Venetian". In earlier studies, it was dominated by blue tones.
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