Ilya Yefimovich Repin: The Volga Barge Haulers, 1873
Eventually the painter found a team of haulers who, for a fee, allowed him to sketch them. For several weeks he lived with these human beasts of burden. As he got to know them, he came to see their individual personalities. One had been an icon painter; another a soldier; and a third, named Kanin, was formerly a priest. Repin was struck by the sheer waste of talent in their bestial servitude. Strapped into their riggings, theri noble faces weathered, the haulers were for him “like Greek philosophers, sold as slaves to the barbarians”.Their bondage was a symbol of Russian people´s opressed creativity. Kanin, Repin thought, had “the character of Russia on his face”:
“There was something eastern and ancient about it … the face of a Scyth …And what eyes! What depth of vision! … Anf his brow, so large and wise … He seemed to me a colossal mystery, And for that reason I loved him. Kanin, with a rag around his head, his clothes in patches made by himself and then worn out, appeared none the less as a man of dignity: he was like a saint.”
In the final painting of the Volga Barge Hauler (1873) it is this human dignity that stands out above all. The image at the time was extraordinary and revolutionary. hitherto, even in the paintings of a democratic artist such as Alexei Venetsianov, the image of the peasant had been idealized or sentimentalized. But each of Repin´s boatmen had been drawn from life and each face told its own story of private suffering.