In the work of Ivan Shishkin there is an arresting naturalism not at all like the earlier "invented landscapes" of the Academy. It is evident in his work that here is a man who loves nature as it is. In his painting, "Backwoods", 1872, the artist presents us with a view of a woodland interior complete with an almost overabundance of detail. A fox can be seen in the lower corner of the picture, but small and indistinct in the wealth of its surroundings. The painting is composed of but one predominant tone and little or no value contrast - precisely as the scene would have appeared. Honesty and realism are the picture's carrying force.
These woodland scenes are Shishkin's most powerful and interesting works, all remarkably complex in their detail and patterning of light. It is an example of his devotion and skill that he is not only able to portray the scenes with such realism, but also resolve them into a successful design.
With Shishkin, as well as his European counterparts of the period, the outdoor study gained increasing significance in the production of the finished piece and in some cases was considered a finished piece in itself. Ivan Kramskoy, wrote in 1872: "Shishkin simply amazes us by his ability, doing two or three studies a day, and such complex ones, too... Out there face to face with nature, he is in his element, he is bold and clever and unhesitant; out there he knows everything... he is by himself a school... a milestone in the evolution of the Russian landscape."
Half a continent away the man who was to be the central figure in the movement toward outdoor painting, Claude Monet, was creating his own unique impressions of nature in the countryside of his native France. Devoted as they were to their on-site landscape work, these two kindred spirits, Monet and Shishkin, nevertheless achieved results that were stylistically at opposite ends of the spectrum. Monet's guiding aesthetic was to paint blobs and dashes of color which then fused visually into an impression of the scene. Shishkin, on the other hand, seemed to revel in the endless variety of nature. Shishkin once said, "One must seek nature in all its simplicity... the drawing must follow it in every caprice of form." This love for nature's intricacies is also quite evident in the numerous ink drawings, lithographs and etchings that he made during his lifetime, which are marvels in themselves.
"One must seek nature in all its simplicity...the drawing must follow it in every caprice of form."
By 1878 Shishkin's work was at its full maturity. In "Amidst the Spreading Vale" and "Rye", Shishkin is able to blend a striking truth to nature with a deeper emotional impact. It is truth through the eyes of a poet, one who had spent countless hours recording nature in study after study.
Shishkin regarded his studies well enough to organize a large exhibition in 1891 with Ilya Repin. Scores of these studies were hung at the Academy of Arts along with nearly 300 paintings by Repin. After the exhibition, Shishkin,Repin and other members of the Itinerants (Repin, Surikov, Vasnetsov,Shishkin, Perov, Levitan, Serov and others) were offered teaching positions at the Academy.
Repin also enjoyed a career as a portrait painter. At the same time John Singer Sargent was immersed in his celebrated career as a portraitist of the fashionable elite, Repin was painting Russian officials, artists, writers and members of high society. Repin even did a portrait of the Italian actress Eleanora Duse who also sat for Sargent two years later. But Sargent's handsome, elegant portraits are not at all like the penetrating depictions of Repin's. Sargent's pictures are gorgeous surfaces and glittering highlights, Repin's are more searching and intimate.
Repin did an entire series of portraits of the Russian author Leo Tolstoy. Though regarded as a literary giant by the Russian people, Repin shows Tolstoy as a humble peasant walking in the woods and as a workman mowing down grass in the fields. He shows Tolstoy as a simple man very much a part of the natural world. Repin's portrait of the composer Modest Mussorgsky, done in a military hospital shortly before the composer's death, is a frank depiction of his condition. Here Repin's honesty is again accompanied by a great sensitivity.
These outstanding artists bring forth on canvas all the currents of 19th Century Russian feeling
Some of Repin's most powerful work deals with the social dilemmas that were part of Russian life. Many of these same themes were also being explored by the great Russian authors of the period such as Tolstoy, Dostoievsky and others. In canvases such as "Spurning Confession" and "Arrest of a Propagandist", Repin demonstrates his skill as a dramatist by his careful arrangement of the scene. Another of these works entitled "They Did Not Expect" Him depicts the return of an exile to his family. The tension of the scene is manifest in the different reactions of family members to the homecoming.
In 1901, Repin received an official commission to paint the Russian dignitaries of state in formal session. In this monumental task, he was aided by two of his pupils who assisted in painting the many head studies of these officials in preparation for the large canvas. Some 80 figures are represented in the final work, which Repin painted left-handed due to strain on his right hand. The immense canvas hangs along with several of the studies at the Russian Museum in Petersburg.
In the works of Ivan Shishkin we see all the power, grandeur and vastness of the Russian land without idealization, but with a tireless diligence for truthful rendering. In the work of Repin, who for most of his career was the central figure in Russian painting, his religious, narrative and historical canvases show the Russian people from the comedic to the sublime and to the tragic. These outstanding artists bring forth on canvas all the currents of 19th Century Russian feeling.